The scourge of poisoned pets


I WAS just getting my dog out of the back of my van when a bakkie shot past and pulled up at the entrance to the veterinary hospital. Two women and a man tumbled out and dashed to the back, pulling out a dog wrapped in a blanket.

As the man hurried inside with the dog in his arms, I recognised the symptoms: legs jerking wildly, foam dripping from the mouth. One of the women caught my eye.

“Poison?” I mouthed.

“Yes. The bastards!” she flung over her shoulder as she ran to the door.

My heart turned over; I’ve been here before.

I have sat in the passenger seat of a twin cab, clutching the chicken stick as it careens wildly round corners, listening to the dog in the back thrashing in convulsions, her abdomen heaving, mouth foaming, unresponsive, her mind turning inward, disappearing into a deep void of pain and anguish and extremity.

I stood in a corner of the surgery and watched the frantic activity of hands on her body, desperately seeking a vein, trying to get medication into her, the French-accented voice of Eric from the Congo muttering like the rhythm of a train: “Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.”

And then it all stopped. Breaths that no one knew they were holding were expelled in a rush. Hands dropped, dangling helplessly. No one said a word; they’d all been here before, a hundred times, two hundred times, maybe many more. This is the commonest conclusion for dogs loved by disadvantaged people: the anti-climax as the dreadful fight ends in death.

For them, the race against time starts far back – very often the poisoned dog arrives in a wheelbarrow or on a crate in front of a bicycle, propelled by a gasping, sweating boy physically unable to move fast enough for the dog to have a chance of salvation. But even for the pet of a suburban family, the chances of survival are not great. If you find the animal in the early stages; if the vet is open or you’re near an emergency clinic; if the pet is fit and healthy, you have a chance.

Our little puppy has had orthopaedic surgery, so I’ve been in and out of the vet a fair bit, and this is the third poisoning I’ve seen rush through those doors. I’ve previously seen many more thanks to the time I spend with a welfare organisation working in neighbouring townships, where poisoning is an absolute curse.

Four to six kilometres from my door, I can easily buy the poisons that kill dogs in townships and suburbs round here; it’s being sold openly on the streets. It is used to poison rats, which plague the less well-served areas of our cities.

It takes township dogs unawares; they scavenge a piece of likely-looking food and usually die horrible agonising deaths for want of accessible help. It catches the children, sometimes; and it is used as one of the most horrendous suicide methods I’ve ever come across, by people in unbelievable despair, desperate to escape the traps of poverty, pain and depression.

Sometimes farmers poison predators, which are scavenged by vultures, who die too. And it is used by criminals to dispose of dogs that might stand between them and a flat-screen TV.

Many dangerous pesticides like aldicarb (the infamous Two-step or Temik) have long been banned for use in South Africa, but it’s only recently they’ve been banned for possession, says Dr Gerhard Verdoorn of the Griffon Poison Information Centre.

In other words, anyone found with one of the banned poisons on their person or among their possessions today can and should be charged with a crime. It’s a precursor to a crime; not just the poisoning of dogs, or the accidental deaths of children, but also burglaries. (In one recent week, Verdoorn offers as an example, 45 land cruisers were stolen following dog poisonings.)

Why is it that poisons can be readily obtained for a few rand at a hawker’s stall? Because, as is so often the case, we in South Africa have good law but poor to completely absent enforcement; good policy but minimal delivery.

As long as there’s garbage and poor sanitation attracting rats the size of cats, to threaten children and other vulnerable people, those with few other resources will turn to poison for help. If the smuggling, distribution and sale of these poisons goes unpoliced, both accidental and purposeful deaths will happen.

Yes, you can do something

But those of us who live in the suburbs can do something about this. Keep your dogs inside at night. Check your property for baited food when you let them out. Message Dr Verdoorn asking for the information he offers community policing forums on 082 446 8946.

If your animal is poisoned, go to your police station and lay a charge. If the officers on duty balk and refuse to open a case, demand to see the station commander.

If you still get no satisfaction, take names, ranks and personnel numbers and lay a charge with the Independent Police Investigation Directorate (IPID). Don’t throw up your hands at any stage – see it through!

We will not get the police service we deserve unless we make nuisances of ourselves demanding it; and this particular issue is a tree that better-resourced South Africans are well equipped to shake on behalf of all of us.

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