The shooting of a dog that delayed planes at Auckland Airport has divided opinion in New Zealand. (Reuters)

A young service dog was shot and killed by authorities after it ran from its handler at Auckland Airport in New Zealand and then evaded captors for more than three hours, according to Australian media reports.

The incident ignited widespread outrage and prompted questions about how the situation could have been handled differently, with some critics asserting that the 10-month-old dog should have been shot with a tranquilizer — not a bullet.

Grizz, a K-9 being trained by the New Zealand Aviation Security Service to sniff out explosives, became startled early Friday and escaped from a handler, grounding 16 flights and sending authorities on a long and desperate chase.

“They did everything they could, but unfortunately the dog had to be shot,” airport spokeswoman Lisa Mulitalo said, according to New Zealand’s Stuff website. “We’re really upset about it.”

Aviation Security Service spokesman Mike Richards said in a statement that Grizz was being placed in an Avsec Explosive Detector Dog unit wagon about 4:30 a.m. at Auckland Airport when something prompted him to run.

Richards said Grizz then dashed through a gate to the tarmac that had been opened to allow a vehicle to pass through.

Even though all available dog handlers were brought in to help, the pitch-black conditions in the early morning hours made the job difficult, he said.

Richards said in the statement that it took hours to find the animal. Once Grizz was located, he said, “he would not let anyone near him and kept sprinting across runways. We tried everything: food, toys, other dogs, but nothing would work.” Richards added that the space was “too vast and too open” for workers to construct a temporary barrier to try to trap the animal.

Ultimately, the airport’s emergency operation team “decided to have the dog destroyed,” Richards said in the statement.

On the airport’s Facebook page, people called the young dog’s death “cruel and pathetic,” “barbaric” and “inexcusable.”

“Humans delay flights all the time. Would you shoot them too?” one person wrote. “The situation COULD have been handled differently, but YOU CHOSE the easy way out. Frigging cowards! IT WAS A PUP!”

“I have an expert tip for you Auckland Airport,” another commenter added. “DON’T SHOOT YOUR OWN ANIMALS!”

“Think about a tranquilliser next time instead of lethal force,” another wrote. “Disgraceful news about this poor animal.”

When asked about the option to use a tranquilizer, an airport spokesman told BBC News: “I do not have the answer to that. But there were no tranquilizer guns at the airport, and the police do not have them, either.”

Save Animals From Exploitation, an animal rights organization in New Zealand, called the shooting “needless,” according to the New Zealand Herald.

“SAFE is appalled about the needless killing of this dog,” group spokesman Hans Kriek told the newspaper. “A tranquilizer gun should have been used after efforts to catch the dog failed. If such a gun was not available — which it should — then they could have borrowed one from Auckland Zoo or elsewhere.

“We hope that lessons will be learned from this and that better systems will be put in place to avoid such unnecessary killing in the future.”

Callum Irvine of the New Zealand Veterinary Association told Stuff that tranquilizers are not typically readily available.

“There just isn’t ready access to tranquilizer guns and darts in New Zealand,” Irvine told the website, “and even if authorities did manage to get their hands on one in time, there are so many other factors to take into consideration, like how close the animal is, the animal’s weight, age, and how much adrenaline was also running through the body.”

Irvine added that even though veterinarians have access to such sedatives, they do not carry tranquilizer darts or guns.

“The only place that you might see a tranquilizer gun used is in a wildlife park or in a zoo, and even then, very rarely — it’s a fairly crude form of delivery of sedation,” he told the website.

He added, “We don’t know the circumstances under which the dog was shot this morning — but the reality is that administering sedative to an animal on the loose can be very difficult.”

News.com.au reported that Grizz, a bearded collie and German shorthaired pointer mix, joined the aviation security team in May and was six months away from his graduation from the training program.

According to Stuff:

Avsec’s explosive detector dogs (EDD) have different jobs than the customs and MPI pups, tasked with sniffing out explosives rather than drugs or food.

Each EDD has a human partner, or handler, and they work together to ensure no dangerous materials are present in our airports or on aircraft. They’re based in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.

The job requirements for an EDD are to be happy, confident, sociable, non-aggressive and love playing with toys. Avsec doesn’t discriminate by breed.
Dog teams undergo 10 weeks of training before graduating from the Police Dog Training Centre as operational.

The dogs’ presence in airports can deter potential explosive-layers and they also conduct random searches around the airport, such as at check-in counters, screening points and gate lounges.

They also back up police and customs and corrections teams when there are bomb threats.

Mobile and quick, the dog teams are considered the most reliable and cost-effective way of detecting explosives.

Richards, of the Aviation Security Service, said the agency will “review of the incident to try and ascertain what spooked the dog and if this has any implications for ongoing training.”

SPCA Auckland chief executive Andrea Midgen told Stuff that Grizz’s death was “one of those unfortunate accidents.”

“They put a huge investment in those dogs to do the job they do, and they treat them as part of the family,” she said, adding, “It would have been the hardest decision they’ve had to make.”

This story has been updated.

Read more:

Ordinary people are exploring the secret lives of coyotes — through poop