Aggressive animals, pets on the loose, loud barking – report it all says expert as pit bull fears rise

They truly are man’s best friend.

Loyal, protective, good for our mental health – dogs have been kept as pets for centuries because of just how wonderful they are.

But what happens when someone’s furry friend attacks you?

This happened to a 10-year-old in Gelvandale, Gqeberha, where two adopted pit bull terriers who had been the well-loved fur babies of the family turned on the little boy.

He died a grisly death.

“Storm Nuku (deceased) and two other children were in the house with the dogs,” police spokesperson Colonel Priscilla Naidu told News24 at the time.

“At this stage, it is unclear what had happened when the two dogs turned on the boy. He succumbed to his injuries at the scene.”

The police say upon arrival, they sadly had to shoot both dogs inside the house.

A five-year-old earlier this year, Melani Keke from Gugulethu, was also attacked by his neighbours’ two pit bulls when he entered their yard, running after a ball.

The boy was playing with his 10-year-old sister when their rugby ball landed in the yard next door.

When one of the dogs spotted the boy, the Daily Voice reports, they jumped on his neck, dragging him into the yard and tore into him.

In yet another terrifying incident involving aggressive pets, a 79-year-old man from Durban escaped a near-death experience when a passerby started throwing bricks at the three dogs attacking him, IOL reports.

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“People have the right to and deserve to be able to walk in public spaces freely,” says the National Council of Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Keshvi Nair.

“The real issue that should be addressed is the keeping of aggressive animals by people who have no idea how to look after an aggressive animal.”

If you fear finding yourself being caught up in such situations, says Keshvi, “the first step is reporting the people who keep aggressive animals. We should not wait for a human to be attacked to report the keeping of an aggressive animal”.

“We all have a role to play in fighting this issue.”

There are municipal bylaws which regulate how to keep aggressive animals safe.

“If you know of someone who is keeping an aggressive animal in a manner that places the community at risk, you need to report it to the local municipality or the metro police.

“The local municipality enforces the bylaws which regulate the keeping of pets,” Keshvi explains.

“This includes the keeping of aggressive animals, animals that escape their owners’ properties and excessive barking.”

In South Africa, it is legal for any person to own any breed of dog, including pit bulls, she adds.

“In other countries, however, certain dog breeds have been banned in the interest of the safety of both the animals and people.”

“The number of lawsuits in SA that involve dog attacks are not nearly as high as say the number of other personal injury actions, such as road accident injuries, medical negligence claims, or claims for damages for police brutality,” according to Fawzia Khan from The Law Desk of Fawzia Khan & Associates.

“However, the fact remains that attacks by dogs do occur and they can have devastating consequences.”

What can a victim claim?

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If you are attacked by a dog, you can claim damages from the owner of the dog for the injuries you sustained, provided you are able to meet certain legal requirements.

The damages could include:

  • Compensation for the medical costs of actual injury, as well as future medical costs
  • Psychological pain, suffering and nervous shock
  • Damage to your property
  • Any disability or disfigurement

“According to South African law, the owner of the dog will be held to be liable on the basis of what is termed ‘strict liability’. This means you don’t need to prove fault from the owner in order to claim damages,” Khan says.

“In terms of this legal principle, an owner of an animal will be regarded as negligent if they failed to take necessary precautions to protect others from an attack by the animal.”

As a dog owner

In September 2020, the Supreme Court of Appeal delivered judgment in a case where a victim had sued the owner of dogs for R2,4 million in damages after he was viciously attacked by three dogs and lost his left arm in the attack.

The victim, who was a gardener and refuse collector, said the attack occurred without any warning or reason on the street.

“According to the victim, he said he didn’t provoke the dogs in any way and that he was lawfully entitled to be on the street where the attack took place,” Khan says.

“At the time of the incident, the owners of the dogs were not at home. The owners of the dogs denied liability and argued that the dogs were locked inside the property and that an intruder must have tried to gain access through a locked gate, broken both padlocks fastening it, and either left the gate open or in a state where the dogs could open it.”

Defences for a dog owner

The Supreme Court of Appeal said owners of animals had three defences they could use:

  • That the injured party was in a place where they had no right to be
  • The animal was provoked either by the injured party or a third party
  • That custody and control of the animal has passed to a third party who negligently failed to prevent the animal from causing the harm.

“The dog owners argued that these defences should be extended to include any situation where the harm was caused by negligence on the part of any third party. However, the court rejected this argument,” Khan says.

“The court said that where harm is caused by a domesticated animal, it is appropriate that responsibility for that harm rests with the owner of the animal and not the injured party. The court dismissed the appeal by the dog owner and held the dog owners to be liable to compensate the victim for the damages sustained saying, ‘people are entitled to walk our streets without having to fear being attacked by dogs and, where such attacks occur, they should in most circumstances be able to look to the owner of the dog for recompense’.”

If someone is attacked by a domestic animal, do not call the SPCA – its job is to prevent cruelty to animals.

Instead, contact the police or your local municipality.