Colombia’s animal rights laws leave human victims muzzled

A snarling dog shows aggression.
A snarling dog shows aggression.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hree months ago, my status as a dog person was irrevocably shaken when my neighbour’s large Akita attacked me as I walked through my residential compound.

The attack lasted seconds. The dog’s owner was nearby and quickly pulled the snarling animal away. A neighbour called my husband, who ran home from work and took me, dripping with blood, to the hospital.

The wounds on my forearms — some bone deep — were scrubbed with powdered soap and stitched up.

I spent a few days resting, waiting for the shock and pain to subside. I waited for uniformed workers from a mysterious government department to haul the animal away, but the days passed and the dog went nowhere — except for its daily walks.

My neighbours visited, pouring out their anger and frustration. Our conjunto is small and quiet, the 11 children who live here play outside freely, and there are a number of frail elderly residents. Everyone was worried, but no one quite knew what needed to be done.

A visit to the local police station directed me to the immediate response task agency, or Unidades de Reacción Inmediata (URI). My local office is in Paloquemao, 15 kilometres from home in Cedritos.

I discovered that if not there by 7 a.m., there’s little chance of being seen that day, unless you buy a place in the queue from the enterprising people who turn up at the crack of dawn.

The shabby office was full of worried-looking people, clutching papers and waiting resolutely for some kind of justice. The official who took my denouncement statement apologised for the four-hour wait and asked if I was enjoying my time in Colombia.

“Yes, but not your dogs,” I told him. He laughed politely at my feeble joke.

Next, I needed a medical statement from the state coroner, Medicina Legal, which would be examined, along with my official account, to decide whether I’d be eligible for a “reconciliation” or mediated meeting with the dog’s owner. The doctor who examined me told me new animal rights laws meant the dog would not be euthanised.

“Maybe if it bites someone else,” he said thoughtfully. “And if it’s more serious the next time.”

As he typed his report, two fingers pecking at the keyboard, he told me about his brother. Attacked by a dog at five years old, he grew into adulthood with a permanently stunted thigh.

“What happened to the dog?” I asked curiously.

The doctor paused, index fingers hovering above the keyboard.

“It was a different time, a different place. My father had a big gun.”

I heard a lot of stories like these from Colombians. A friend pulled out her phone to show me a picture of her cousin, a handsome man with a beard grown to disguise the permanent facial scars left by a childhood dog attack.

Another friend’s elderly mother was knocked to the ground by a German Shepherd, days after my incident. She still has bruises and marks three months later.

One or two people hinted at vigilante justice. One friend told me his grandfather had poisoned a police dog who had bitten his son and was terrorising the neighbourhood.

“You could do it,” he told me. “It would be so easy.”

By then, I was so frustrated at seeing my neighbor walking his dog each day, without a muzzle, in the nearby park where children played, I latched onto vengeful fantasies. My husband pointed out that the same animal rights laws protecting the dog would send me to jail if I was caught throwing lumps of poisoned meat around.

I felt relieved. I did want justice — and to protect others from a dangerous dog — but I didn’t want to commit perrocide. And I definitely didn’t want to go to jail. I’d work within the law, even if it seemed frustrating and unjust.

Shortly after a barrage of medical tests confirmed the damage to my arms and hand would thankfully not be permanent, I went to a reconciliation meeting at a dingy Fiscalia office in Suba to talk it out with my neighbor.

A jaded-looking mediator said she would help us reach a resolution. I told her I wanted my neighbor to take responsibility for his dog — keep it away from people, muzzle it on walks — and she shook her head.

“We’re here to discuss compensation.”

Money. The months of medical appointments and visits to government departments had boiled down to not to owner responsibility, but a lump sum.

The figure we eventually agreed to wasn’t large, but my neighbor looked annoyed. He sat with his arms crossed over his chest defensively, glaring straight ahead. Knowing that he, at that moment, felt a little of the anger and frustration I’d experienced the past three months was satisfying.

The process isn’t over. The next step is to try to register the dog as dangerous. My neighbor and his dog have moved out of the compound, and out of the city. In their new home, they have a clean slate. No one will take a second glance at one more large dog, walking in the park.

Colombia’s new laws protecting animals from human cruelty are vital to protect those who don’t have a voice. But the same laws ignore those — especially children and the elderly — who are left vulnerable to dangerous animals and their irresponsible owners.


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