AN INQUEST into the tragic mauling death of Whitton toddler Ruby-Lea Burke has heard there needs to be tougher criminal penalties for dog owners.
Ruby-Lea died in January 2009 when she was attacked by four large dogs while in the home of her babysitter, Lorraine O’Donnell, and her younger sister Lily was severely injured.
The inquest, which began yesterday, heard from Barrister John Wilson, who represented Ruby-Lea’s father Dawayne Burke, that dog owners needed to be held responsible in the same vein as negligent drivers.
“It’s very important to look at her (Ms O’Donnell’s) conduct ... and that the children were under her care,” Mr Wilson said.
“There was a failure on her part to protect Ruby and Lily. She was clearly aware of the need to protect the children from the dogs in question.
“If the cause had been a handgun instead there would be an outcry for criminal charges to be brought.”
Advocate assisting the deputy state coroner Sergeant Daniel Maddox said in his opening statement the inquest would hopefully result in recommendations to prevent such a tragedy from again occurring.
“The death of Ruby-Lea Burke, a three-year-old girl, is a tragedy to say the least,” Mr Maddox said. “The thrust of this inquest should come (to) making
recommendations in an attempt to prevent this type of death in this manner from happening again.”
Ms O’Donnell was among the four witnesses called yesterday and, while she did not speak of the events on the day of Ruby-Lea’s death, the court heard how the screen door leading to the backyard where five dogs were contained could not be locked.
“It could be closed but not locked ... but it could only be opened by the inside not the outside,” Ms O’Donnell said.
Ms O’Donnell told the court how she put the dogs, three of which were bullmastiffs-cross-Rhodesian ridgebacks, in the backyard before letting Ruby-Lea and her sister inside the house and how she warned Ruby-Lea about the dogs.
“I have never had them around children and because she said she wanted to pat the dogs I said don’t go near them,” Ms O’Donnell said.
Ms O’Donnell also testified she had never known the dogs to be aggressive towards people.
Deputy State Coroner Paul MacMahon also heard from Leeton Shire Council senior ranger Peter Skarlis, who was called to the house on the day of the attack, how the dogs were covered in blood and extremely aggressive, despite it having been at least four hours since the attack.
“I walked down the driveway to where it went into the backyard where there was a makeshift gate ... four large dogs charged towards us and they were all extremely agitated,” Mr Skarlis said. “They were in a frenzied behaviour and were trying to bite us as we approached.”
Mr Skarlis told the court how he had to tranquilise the three bull mastiff dogs twice as he attempted to get them in the van and they woke on the drive to the pound and began fighting, causing serious injury to themselves.
The court also heard from animal expert Dr Kersti Seksel that greater education about dogs, better management and behavioural examinations could help prevent such attacks. Mr McMahon will hand down his findings today.