It was around 2013 that the stocky little puppy first found its way into Tania Klemke's Watson household. The young pup, not much bigger than a loaf of bread, would play with Tania’s teenage children. They called him Simba.
He grew quickly. Soon it became apparent he would become a large dog. Within a year he had become a strong, muscular dog, tipping the scales at 50kg and standing 60cm tall when measured at the shoulder. He had developed an imposing physical presence, according to those who knew him, but Tania felt safe around Simba and the two developed a strong bond. Family members would later tell police he was placid and well-mannered around her. There was little way of knowing that her dog was hiding a deadly secret: a likely inability to cope with stress that could result in unpredicatable behaviour. He had also become very protective, especially when threatened.
Soon he started jumping fences and making a nuisance of himself. Several neighbours complained that they were scared for the safety of their children, as he could sometimes become vicious, although others said they felt comfortable in his presence. When they complained to Tania she told them that Simba had learned to open doors.
He seemed to the neighbours to be bored. Often they would hear him barking inside the house and never saw him getting walked. As he grew stronger he would at times break into the neighbour’s yard, on one occasion breaking the fence in the process, after which Tania started keeping him inside. But she felt she could control Simba – around her he was good, and he hadn’t been her first dog.
As a young girl growing up in the small rural NSW town of Henty, half-way between Wagga Wagga and Albury, Tania would spend much of her free time hanging out at the pool across the road from her parents’ house, socialising with the other girls from school but not greatly concerned about fitting in with the cool crowd.
“She would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it, but she didn’t really care what others thought of her. She was just a happy-go-lucky girl,” friend Tania Kane remembers.
As kids the two Tanias were inseperable, but their lives drifted apart when the Klemke family moved to Canberra. The two reconnected in the early 1990s and around 1996 Tania Kane came to Canberra with a girlfriend to visit. One of the first things she noticed was the family dog.
“I’m not sure what breed it was, but it was one of those fighting breeds; it didn’t seem like the sort of dog that I would have around. I said to her, ‘how can you have a dog like that around small kids?’”
But Tania assured her friend the dog was not a threat, and was safe. During her stay it was well behaved and sat when she told it to.
“I know from the sort of person she was – strong, protective – that if she thought that animal was a risk to her kids she would have gotten rid of it straight away.”
It was around this time that Tania Klemke separated from her partner, the father of her first two children. Life had not been easy on her up to that point; her parents had separated while she was a teenager and she had suffered health and relationship setbacks. But she was doing her best to manage as a single parent, having joined the public service in 1987 and managing to hold down that job.
By 2001, having separated again, this time from the father of her third child, things had started to fall apart. A group of colleagues began spreading rumors about her around the office, sending her stress levels sky-high.
“I am unable to form friendships or meaningful relationships, as I am unable to trust people. I still have difficulty sleeping,” Tania told her doctors. Feeling unable to continue, she quit her job.
A violent invasion
It was around 10.47pm on a Saturday night in March, 2017, when police allege two men burst into her Watson home wearing balaclavas and carrying weapons. One of the men fired a gun during the attempted burglary, and in the chaos that followed one of her sons was thrown through a glass window, cutting his head. Simba’s ear was also cut off with a machete during the attack, according to police reports.
Four men have been committed for trial in the ACT Supreme Court in relation to the attack, but no date has yet been set for their trial.
Five months later, police were again called to the house when an ex-boyfriend arrived uninvited. During a heated argument the man kicked a door, startling Simba, who latched onto his leg. Neighbours heard the commotion and arrived to find Simba attacking the man. Unable to tear the dog away, one of the neighbours reached for a baseball bat, bashing Simba in the head and using a piece of meat to distract him away from the man.
After that, Tania began warning friends to be careful coming to the house as she knew the dog was dangerous. But she described Simba as her best friend, saying the last person who had threatened her had ended up with 42 stitches in his leg.
On the afternoon of October 25, 2017, storms had begun to roll into Canberra and the wind had picked up from the north west.
At 7.58pm a friend of Tania’s sent her a text message and she wrote back saying she was at home with Simba.
Exactly what happened in the following hours is unclear, and some of those interviewed by police have questioned the man’s reasons for being at the house in the middle of the night. But shortly after 3am he found himself riding through Watson on his electric bicycle, headed towards the service station to pump up a sagging tyre.
The rain had started to get heavier and, concerned about the electrics in his bike, he rode past Tania’s house in Molesworth Street to see if she was still up and found the light on.
He knocked on the locked screen door and was greeted by Simba, barking and jumping up aggressively.
“It must be your light,” Tania said, indicating towards the head torch the man had on over his hoodie. She dragged the agitated dog away, shoving him into the laundry and shutting the door.
She returned and opened the screen door, locking it behind her as the man brought his bike inside. He wheeled it into the hallway. It was as far as he got.
As Tania unlatched the laundry door to see if Simba had calmed down, the dog exploded out of the room, charging and sinking his teeth into the man’s left thigh.
Knocked off balance by the force of the attack, he fell backwards, landing in a tangled heap with the bike on top of him and Simba trapped somewhere in between - a tangled, thrashing mess of dog, bike and man.
As he fought to shield himself with the bike, shoving it at the dog, Tania grabbed Simba and screamed, “lock yourself in the laundry!”.
She grabbed Simba and tried to wrestle the dog off, but Tania - just 6kg heavier than the dog she was trying to restrain – was fighting a losing battle.
Somehow sensing an opening, the man wriggled free and made a dash for the now empty laundry, ramming the door shut behind him for protection.
Simba was there in an instant, thrashing at the laundry door which had begun to bend under the force of the attack. Inside, the man grabbed the nearby washing machine and slid it against the door for protection. Light-headed from the adrenaline pumping through his body, he slumped down the wall onto the floor.
Simba continued clawing and chewing at the door, and from inside the laundry the man could hear Tania’s attempts to try and pull the dog back. “Get help,” were the last words he heard Tania call before things went briefly quiet.
Soon, Simba had returned to attacking the door, spreading pieces of timber through the hallway. For nearly an hour, according to police interviews, Simba tore and chewed at the laundry door, trying to get to the terrified man inside, ripping the handle off. Trapped inside without a mobile phone, he pressed his face to the small external window and screamed for help.
By 3.50am police had arrived, responding to multiple calls from worried neighbours who had reported the commotion.
As they arrived at the house, officers who heard the cries for help made their way towards the back, where the terrified man barricaded inside warned them through the laundry window that Simba and Tania were somewhere still inside.
The police officers went back to their car and returned with shields, making their way in through the back door into the kitchen, where they found Simba, waiting.
Noticing an unconscious figure on the left side of the living room they moved forward, triggering a charge from Simba. One of the officers pulled out a can of capsicum spray, unloading it into Simba’s face, to little effect.
Reaching for their conducted energy weapons, the officers fired one stun gun charge into the dog, again failing to blunt its attack. An officer fired a second cartridge into Simba’s side, finally subduing him long enough for the police and ambulance officers to move in.
Simba, woozy from the combination of pepper spray and two taser charges, dragged himself to the left side of the couch, where he hid a few meters away from where he had been standing guard over Tania.
Police moved towards the corner of the living room, setting up a barrier with their riot shields between the dog and the figure on the floor. The room was covered in blood.
The peace did not last long.
Soon, Simba began to recover, regaining his senses. He began snarling and lunging at the officers desperately trying to keep him under control. Having run out of options and with Simba showing no sign of relenting, one of the police officers reached for a Glock and fired six times. Finally, it was over. Simba was now dead. Ambulance officers tried in vain to revive Tania and stem the bleeding, but it was too late. Her injuries were too extensive and she was declared dead at the scene.
Search for answers
In the days that followed, media descended on the Watson home. Television crews set themselves up on Tania’s front lawn and interstate family and investigators arrived.
Questions began to turn to Simba’s previous attacks and why Domestic Animal Services, which took Simba away after he had bitten Tania’s ex-partner in August, had allowed her to take him back.
Government records would later show that Simba was well known to dog control officers who had attended the house on at least four occasions during 2017, including in August where they responded to reports of Simba roaming the streets and barking at children. Unable to find Simba, the officers left. They later admitted they hadn’t followed up due to a lack of resources.
City Services has defended the decision to allow Tania to take Simba home after the August attack, saying the dog had not been seized but had been removed with the help of its owner and taken to a vet to have injuries treated. While at the vet Simba was well behaved and officers who reviewed the case determined the dog was provoked and acted in defence of its owner.
"We simply cannot have situations where we have dangerous dogs, dogs that are known to have attacked people in the past, released into the community," ACT Opposition Leader Alistair Coe told the media in the days after the attack.
Then city services minister Meegan Fitzharris announced a round of proposed reforms, starting with a doubling of the number of animal rangers and greater restrictions on keeping dangerous dogs, including powers to destroy dogs in extreme circumstances.
New categories for managing dogs that cause a risk to the community were introduced and further changes to the territory’s dog laws were also proposed.
But one question remained unanswered: how could a fiercely loyal dog turn on his owner?
One of those called in to try and provide answers was Florida-based dog behaviour expert Jim Crosby, who examined Simba’s body and served as an expert assisting the coroner.
Crosby says there is no way to be sure what exactly triggered Simba’s attack on Tania, but it was likely a tragic combination of factors that culminated in the dog losing control.
“The fact that he tried to eat his way through that laundry room door to get at the stranger indicates to me the dog had a lot of defensive focus."
Crosby holds the distinction of having been face-to-face with more killer dogs than probably anyone alive, having assessed more than 50 dogs following fatal attacks.
“If a dog is so focused on doing something, like defending its owner, in some dogs that frustration can become so great it has to release that frustration on something or someone, and sometimes that happens to be the closest person.
"It literally loses track of who’s what. It’s not normal, but it’s behaviour I have seen in other cases.”
He also supports the decision to give back the dog after the attack in August.
“I agree with that because there were no incidents outside the property that would lead me to declare it dangerous. It was defending its owner against violence in its own home. If you get hurt committing a crime in the dog’s home, then I’d say you bought and paid for that.”
As to what triggered the attack that ultimately led to Tania’s death and what might be learned from it, Crosby is circumspect.
“In dogs there's something called trigger stacking. A dog may have a moderate or low-level response to any one particular thing, but if you build up the stress of multiple things that can result in a dog reacting quite strongly, even if none of the individual triggers would do it.
“Just like you and I, you wake up late, and then the hot water heater is broken, and then you go out to your car and it won't start so you have to call a cab, things stack up and by the time you get to work you snap uncharacteristically. I think it's the case that the dog got so ramped up, so focused, that this was an individual dog that didn't have the coping mechanisms for severe stress, maybe due to the violent assaults in the past.
“It could have been in this particular case a perfect storm of factors came together at that particular time. Had the gentleman not been wearing a headlamp, or had he not had a bicycle, or maybe even had it not been storming outside. Maybe if it had been 3 in the afternoon instead of the morning, who knows? Somewhere it went off the rails where Tania was trying to restrain the dog.”
Today, few hints of the tragedy remain. The public housing property has since been demolished, replaced with a neat new brick home with colourful bunting around the front yard, waiting to welcome its new tenants.
Crosby understands that his and the coroner’s findings may be difficult for some worried members of the Canberra community to accept.
“I've seen an awful lot, more than just about anyone else, but they are very unusual occurrences. In all the cases I've been involved in there have been an accumulation of factors and if anything had gone differently, it probably wouldn't have turned out that way.
“We just have to accept that your normal pet dog doesn't kill somebody.”