A Tauranga Rottweiler that attacked a veterinarian has been freed, after a judge dismissed the charge against his owner.
Chopper has been in the Tauranga City Council dog pound since the attack in October 2021 and spent Tuesday night at home with his family.
Tauranga City Council charged Chopper’s owner, Helen Fraser, with owning a dog that caused serious injuries after he bit vet Liza Schneider during an appointment to have him neutered on October 14.
Fraser’s son Ryan Tarawhiti-Brown said the family were “relieved and their hearts’ are full” from having Chopper home.
Following a trial at Tauranga District Court on June 21, Judge David Cameron ruled the defence of total absence of fault was established and dismissed the charge against Fraser.
In court, both parties agreed the attack occurred outside Schneider’s practice, Holistic Vets, and on the injuries that resulted.
The attack left Schneider with a fractured ulna, four puncture wounds, and nerve and muscle damage. The injury required a three hour surgery and a plate and six screws and left Schneider unable to carry out surgeries for five months.
The dispute was whether Fraser was liable for the attack.
Helen Fraser and Chopper on his first night home after nine months at the pound. Photo Supplied.
Schneider gave evidence that staff asked Fraser to leave Chopper in the car for examination because of concerns Fraser had raised about him being wary of small dogs.
Fraser said the arrangement was to meet in the carpark, not leave her dog in the car. She said she told the vet nurse she arranged the appointment with that Chopper was anxious in new situations.
“I was never asked to leave the dog in the car. I just told that we were meeting in the carpark,” she told the court.
When Schneider went to meet Fraser in the carpark, Chopper was being held by Fraser’s 13-year-old son outside of the car. She continued to approach Chopper and spoke in a loud voice to be heard through her mask, the court heard.
When the vet was within 2m of Chopper he lunged twice and on the second time, bit her arm.
Fraser said when this happened, she put her hands in Chopper’s mouth to release Schneider’s arms.
The vet did not recall Fraser putting her hands in Chopper’s mouth.
In his decision, Judge Cameron said Schneider’s evidence differed from Fraser’s in certain respects.
“Dr Schneider undoubtedly suffered a traumatic event and it is to be expected that other less significant details immediately preceding the attack may not have been accurately recalled,” he said.
“On the other hand Ms Fraser, as a witness to the attack, had no reason to exaggerate those details.
“I prefer the evidence of Ms Fraser as to what occurred. In particular, I accept Ms Fraser’s evidence that Dr Schneider got between Ms Fraser and her son and the dog and was talking in a loud voice.”
Holistic Vets owner Liza Schneider. Photo: Bruce Barnard/SunLive.
When Schneider was questioned as to why she didn’t ask for Chopper to be put back in the car, she said she didn’t want them to put him back in the car because that would bring him closer the entrance of the veterinary clinic, which could have put other animals at risk.
She also said there was potential for Fraser’s son to be dragged by the dog while he was holding the lead that could have led to an attack on another dog.
Judge Cameron said the difficulty with that explanation was all the evidence pointed to Chopper showing no signs of aggression prior to his attack on Schneider.
“There is simply no basis for there having been a concern about an increased risk had she required Chopper to be returned to the vehicle,” said Cameron.
Schneider was also questioned by defence lawyer James Carter about the use of a muzzle to reduce the risk of an attack.
She said not all dogs were muzzle friendly and muzzles can cause some dogs to be “very anxious”.
Evidence was given from a witness about their Rottweiler, who had an appointment with Schneider at Holistic Vets in June or July 2021.
The dog was initially seen in the car and Schneider asked the witness to muzzle it. The witness said they had never owned or used a muzzle and borrowed one from the clinic for the appointment.
Judge Cameron said he found Schneider’s explanation for not speaking with Fraser about Chopper being muzzled “unconvincing”.
To conclude, Cameron said: “I consider that Dr Schneider was responsible for determining how the situation should be handled from the moment she walked out of the clinic and saw Chopper out of the car”.
“From that point, she was in a position to take appropriate steps to maintain and exercise control.
“She failed to take any steps to maintain and exercise control, despite having every opportunity to do so.
“Had she done so, the incident would have been avoided.
“I consider that Dr Schneider put herself in a position where she was vulnerable to attack by a dog who had not been assessed for safety purposes,” he said.
The New Zealand Veterinary Association has expressed its disappointment with the decision.
Chief executive Kevin Bryant said "We are disappointed with today’s ruling. Liza is a highly regarded member of the veterinary profession both in Tauranga and across the country.”
Natalie Picton travelled from Pukekohe to Tauranga to support Chopper at the court hearing. Photo: Supplied.
Since Chopper’s impoundment the community has rallied around Fraser and her family.
On the day of the trial, about 25 people gathered outside the court sporting t-shirts and signs emblazoned with the words free Chopper.
The Facebook page Chopper #saveChopper posted videos of Chopper’s arrival home which were met with thousands of likes and comments.
Tarawhiti-Brown says: “My family and I are grateful for everyone’s love and support over the past nine months”.
“We thought we were fighting a losing battle at the start, until the community backed us and kept our spirits high and positive until Chopper came home.”
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air