A pet sitter tortured their dog. Why they fear his six-month sentence puts other animals and people
VANCOUVER—Milagros and Jayson Henkel had just sat down for Christmas Eve dinner with their family in Peru when they got the call that their dog was fighting for his life at a veterinary clinic back home in Nanaimo, B.C.
The couple, who do not currently have children and considered 11-year-old Xaskaa “their baby,” had left the purebred Belgian Malinois in the care of a neighbour.
On May 5, a Nanaimo judge sentenced Kiefer Tyson Giroux to six months in jail after Giroux pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary pain and suffering to an animal between Dec. 21 and 24, 2019 at the Henkels’ Nanoose Bay property.
“We had gotten to know our neighbours and trusted them. Kiefer seemed like any other 20-something-year-old, who was maybe a bit quiet, but nothing in his demeanour struck as scary or alarming,” Jayson told the Star.
“The turkey was literally just out of the oven when the phone rang, and our whole world changed. We were both bawling our eyes out. My wife’s parents are not native English speakers, so my wife through tears was trying to explain what was happening,” Jayson said.
The couple is speaking out for the first time because they didn’t want previous public statements to affect court proceedings. Now, they are voicing their concern that the sentence is too short, making them fearful about their personal safety as well as the community’s safety.
After suffering abuse from a pet-sitter, Xaskaa, an 11-year-old Belgian Malinois, is shown relearning how to walk at the animal clinic in Nanaimo B.C. where he received emergency surgery and care.
The B.C. provincial court heard an agreed statement of facts that Giroux inflicted injuries to the dog in a “torturous assault” causing bruising to his abdomen, elbow, internal organs and genitals.
At the time, Milagros, who is a trained physician, asked over the phone if the vet on duty at the clinic suspected the injuries were a result of abuse. That was when the vet shaved Xaskaa’s fur and first noticed bruising along the abdomen and trauma to the rectum.
He then called the RCMP, and police conducted a rape kit test that evening. Giroux later admitted to digitally penetrating the animal in order to cause pain, but claimed it wasn’t for sexual gratification.
The Henkels’ front entrance security video camera had captured audio of Xaskaa crying inside the house, which was submitted as evidence in the case.
A neighbour, who heard the crying, testified that the dog was in distress on Dec. 23 and described the sounds as “horrible, really loud, not like a regular cry,” according to Crown prosecutor John Blackman.
But when the neighbour knocked on the door to check on the dog, Giroux told her the dog was only upset because he had gone outside to smoke, a statement that was contradicted in surveillance video. The neighbour relayed the interaction to the Henkels over a text message, but the Henkels told the Star they “initially believed him, and didn’t check the cameras.”
On Dec. 24, Giroux took the dog to his parents’ house, where he also lived, three doors down on the same street. Giroux’s mother saw the dog was having trouble breathing, and told her son to take the dog to a veterinary clinic.
According to the facts heard by the court, the veterinary doctor estimated the badly injured animal would have died if it was brought in 20 to 40 minutes later.
The Henkels said Dr. Chris Milligan had actually called them to say the clinic was having trouble stabilizing Xaskaa’s heart, and recommended transfer to a specialist in Metro Vancouver.
They spent all night on the phone with friends and a charter flight company to arrange the transfer, but ended up not needing to move Xaskaa because the clinic was able to stabilize the dog.
“We considered it a Christmas miracle and were so grateful to Dr. Milligan, but we couldn’t relax because we then had to deal with charges against this individual,” Milagros told the Star.
The BC SPCA, which is the entity that typically presses charges on animal cruelty cases in the province, pursued charges and Giroux was taken into police custody in mid-January of 2020 and shortly after released on bail.
According to court documents, there were initially three charges, including “bestiality” and “killing or injuring animal” in addition to causing “unnecessary pain/suffering to an animal.”
But the first two charges were later dropped and Giroux only pleaded guilty to the third charge.
When the Star asked the B.C. Prosecution Service about why the two charges were dropped, a spokesperson said in an email the decision “was made after a full and careful review of the facts of the offence, the relevant case law and the personal circumstances of the offender.”
The spokesperson clarified the judge’s decision also included a court-ordered ban on Giroux from “owning, having the custody or control of, or residing in the same premises as an animal or bird” for 25 years.
Regarding jail time, the spokesperson said courts are guided by a sentencing range based on previous sentencing decisions and the circumstances of the case, “even where the crime may have shocked the community because of its heinous nature.”
“The leniency here is a travesty to justice. It’s not as if he just kicked our dog. It was torture ... These few months (in prison) are going to be nothing. Mental health professionals aren’t going to be able to treat him properly in that period of time. We think the maximum sentence of five years would allow psychiatrists to work with this person and to treat him,” Milagros said.
While Giroux had been out on bail for over a year as the COVID-19 pandemic delayed court proceedings, Milagros said she was sometimes home alone with Xaskaa while her husband was working.
“I was so scared. I had to buy a panic button and let our neighbours know that if they hear it, they should call police,” she said.
“Right now, I don’t feel safe, and he is going to be back on our street, and we’re going to see him again, and it’s pretty scary,” she added.
Giroux could not be reached by the Star for comment.
Giroux, 26, is a former junior hockey goaltender with the Oceanside Generals in Parksville, B.C., and also played briefly with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs hockey team, according to Nanaimo News Now.
His defence lawyer, Christopher Churchill, declined to comment. He told the Star he stood by what he stated in the court record, such as that Giroux was undergoing counselling for mental health issues and had addressed his marijuana misuse.
Rebeka Breder, one of the first lawyers in Canada to specialize in animal law, said the case raises discussion about whether animal abusers pose a wider threat to society.
It is unclear whether the judge considered a possible link between Giroux’s violence against the dog and the risk of him perpetrating crimes against humans in the sentencing, Breder told the Star in an interview.
A psychiatrist had told the court that Giroux poses a moderate to high risk of family and intimate violence and a low to moderate risk for further harming animals or child physical abuse or neglect.
Studies have shown that people who sexually harm animals are more likely to inflict violence on people.
“This ‘violence link’ is so accepted now, that Bill C-3, an Act to Amend the Judges Act and the Criminal Code, will now make it mandatory for judges to receive training on the relationship between human abuse and animal abuse,” Breder noted.
“Given that we know there is a link between animal abuse and human abuse, this should be a factor in sentencing. To date, I am not aware of any sentencing decisions that (overtly) recognized this,” Breder said.
As for the dropped charges against Giroux, Breder guesses the prosecutor thought he would have a higher likelihood of success with pursuing one charge only, but Breder “would have liked to see a harsher jail sentence, and a lifetime ban on owning any animal.”
“I do hope that as society increasingly condemns animal abuse, judges will be more open to making harsher sentences. The law allows (a prison sentence of up to five years), so why not hand down the maximum?”
The fact that the Henkels feel unsatisfied with the sentencing and continue to worry about their safety also raises the point of whether there should be other avenues for animal owners to pursue alternative means of justice, Breder said.
“Is it open to owners to sue the criminal who did such a heinous act? The short answer is yes, but it will take a lot of creativity to use conventional civil action against a criminal to ‘pay’ for his illegal acts,” she said.
The court had ordered Giroux compensate them for more than $10,000 in veterinary fees.
The Henkels told the Star they want to tell their story to raise public awareness about animal abuse, and potential risk of abusers posing a threat to wider society.
Jayson says Xaskaa has made a “remarkable” recovery after having needed to relearn how to walk. Now at the age of 13, he continues to be affectionate and friendly with strangers.
By Joanna Chiu Vancouver Bureau
Thu., May 13, 2021