COLLINGWOOD — Matt Bell was in his garage last Friday afternoon, talking on the phone with a Whirlpool representative and gathering material for a home renovation. His home and garage are on his property in idyllic Nottawa, the village where he grew up and the piece of paradise he shares with his girlfriend.
At around 2 p.m., his work, and paradise, were interrupted by a loud gunshot and then the “blood curdling” scream of his girlfriend. He abandoned his call and sprinted out of the garage.
His girlfriend, Chelsea Smith, was already running toward him. “Riot was shot!” she yelled.
The words still feel unreal to re-tell, three days later.
Riot is the couple’s three-and-a-half-year-old brindle Dutch Shepherd, whose ears stood up on his head like satellites scanning for the voices of his human mom and dad. He’s one of their two dogs. The other is Norah, a seven-year-old Golden Retriever.
Riot’s big ears seemed small next to his big personality and affection.
“Our lives revolved around him,” said Bell. “Every morning, we would wake up, feed him, exercise. We threw his ball for him in the backyard every day.”
Riot helped Bell recover from an injury. The dog watched Bell work on their home, sitting alert in a corner of the driveway. He would drop his ball at Smith’s feet while she worked, and waited for her next break and their inevitable game of fetch.
“We don’t have a favourite, but if we did, it’s him,” says Bell.
Smith was in the backyard, a former horse pen, with Riot on Nov. 25 at around 2 p.m. It was a bright but cloudy day with off-and-on drizzle and a biting wind. Smith and Bell live on 12 acres in Nottawa, at the edge of Clearview Township and Collingwood.
In so many ways, it was a typical day. Smith often walked Riot and Norah through the small hay field behind their home. Riot’s breed is athletic and energetic, so frequent exercise was non-negotiable.
“He’s literally our shadow, we do everything with him,” says Smith. “He runs really nicely beside me. I run through the streets in Nottawa, down Batteaux Road. I hike with him all over the trails, Nottawasaga, Singhampton, Pretty River. Everyone knows him.”
Everyone knew him. Smith hasn’t reconciled to using past tense for her beloved pet. It’s only been three days.
There are still two circular dog beds in the heated garage where Smith has her home office. Norah lies in one. The other has an empty indent right in the centre. Riot’s ball is on the floor.
“I’ve had him since he was about eight weeks old,” she says.
She took him to trainers for specialized training in detection. His breed is commonly used by the police and military. But he was soft, playful, cuddly.
Bell and Smith got together when Riot was about six months old.
“I quickly grew to love the dog as if he was my own,” says Bell. “We had a pretty special bond.”
Riot would cock his head to the side when his mum or dad spoke. He’d wait for his favourite comments: Spin. Sit pretty. Where’s your ball?
He was their bud, their boy, their family.
On Nov. 24, Bell celebrated his 32nd birthday. There’s still a birthday card, cartoon dogs on the front of it, on their table. It’s addressed to 'grandson.'
On Nov. 25, Smith was working from home in the same garage where Bell was gathering materials, as she does a few days each week. For the last few minutes of her lunch break, she brought Riot outside for a quick tour of the backfield, hoping he would take the opportunity to do his doggy business. Norah stayed in the garage with Bell. Riot was on some medication to help move his bowels; it was prescribed that morning by their vet as a remedy for a bloated stomach. Bell and Smith thought he ate some of the pears from the tree in their front yard. It’s likely the cause for the bloating was much darker.
“I took him out back, he kind of circled around, looked back, circled around. He doesn’t go far and he stays on our property,” says Smith. “I kept walking and he veered off to the left on our property line where there’s a little bit of bush. I didn’t see him for a second and I just assumed maybe he’s taking a poop in private.”
It was a quirk of Riot’s: he was a shy pooper.
After some seconds, Smith called out for Riot. She put her fingers to her mouth for a loud, sharp whistle.
“I said: ‘Come on bud, mom’s gotta get back to work.’”
She heard a gunshot, close and to her left. Then a yelp and a cry.
“I knew it was my dog,” she says. “I screamed bloody murder and started running back to the shop at the front of our property because I was terrified and scared to do anything. I didn’t want to see my dog shot dead. I also didn’t know if this guy was going to shoot his gun again. I honestly didn’t know what to do other than to go back and get my boyfriend.”
Bell was already running toward her.
Smith’s recollection of the next several minutes is blurry. But they’re etched into Bell’s memory.
“I asked her: ‘Where is he, where was he shot?’ She said she didn’t know, she just heard the shot.”
Bell ran along the fence line that divides his former equestrian farm property from his neighbour Charlie Wyant’s property.
They’ve lived beside each other for eight years. Both are hunters. Bell remembers his neighbour travelling to Manitoba for hunting trips. He knows Wyant shoots deer on his property.
“I knew who shot him, or I knew who let the shot out.”
Bell hopped the fence and screamed: “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie!”
When Wyant appeared from the direction of his trailers, Bell swore: “What the f*** did you just do?!”
He remembers Wyant’s response: “I shot a coyote.”
“No, you shot my dog. Where is he?”
“No, I shot a coyote.”
“No, you shot my dog.”
Smith didn’t follow Bell over the fence. She didn’t want to risk seeing her dog dead.
“I heard the neighbour say he shot a coyote,” she says. She let out a wail that reached Wyant and Bell.
Wyant asked Bell what made the sound.
“That’s my girlfriend,” Bell tells Wyant. “She was walking her dog and you just shot it.”
Bell left Wyant and followed a trail of blood. Riot’s blood.
He found his dog on Wyant’s side of the fence. Riot was alive. The bullet had entered his chest and left a large exit wound in the dog’s side, tearing through the dog’s body underneath his vital organs. Based on his own hunting experience and knowledge of guns, Bell estimates it was a high-powered rifle, something like a 17 HMR or a 22 Hornet. Bullets from those rifles travel at 775 metres per second.
Riot was crawling toward Bell and Smith’s property and ducked back under the wire fence. Bell picked up his dog. Smith got her Nissan SUV and opened the automatic hatch at the back. Bell carried Riot and sat in the hatch with him as Smith drove the 500 metres to BellBrae Animal Hospital.
Ironically enough, the hospital was started by Bell’s father, Dr. Jim Bell, more than 40 years ago. The doctor met them there and brought in help from other local veterinarians.
It all happened so fast. Fewer than a dozen minutes had passed between the gunshot and the Nissan arriving at the veterinary clinic.
Smith sat in the car for hours while Riot was in the hospital. She received a message from Bell that they would have to go to Toronto to the 404 Veterinary Emergency Clinic. This time, Bell drove the SUV and Smith laid in the back with Riot. The badly wounded dog whined with each gasping breath.
“He was in so much pain the whole way,” says Smith.
Bell has worked in emergency services for 10 years, including six as a firefighter. He attends car crashes and other horrific medical emergencies. But he says the sight of his beloved dog shot through the chest, gasping for air, is the most haunting thing he has ever witnessed.
In the waiting room of the Toronto emergency clinic, Bell and Smith received updates. Some were hopeful, most of them asking for permission — and money — to take the next step. The couple, who are in their early-30s, put down deposits of about $16,000. The final bill from Toronto was more than $5,000.
“We would have paid $100,000,” said Bell.
“He couldn’t make it. They couldn’t stabilize him,” says Smith.
At 3:30 a.m., 13 hours after he was shot, Riot died.
Smith has barely left their home since. She takes their Golden Norah off the property. Norah is afraid of guns.
“I don’t feel safe on my own property,” she says. “It’s a crime scene, as far as I’m concerned … I feel uneasy and unsafe on my own little sanctuary … it was a sanctuary.”
Smith says she won’t feel safe again unless Wyant is no longer their neighbour, or until his guns are taken away. Wyant hasn’t followed up, says Bell.
When contacted by CollingwoodToday about the shooting, Wyant refused to comment. “That’s really not up to me to discuss with nobody other than the proper authorities,” he said, before ending the phone call.
Bell has called police and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to investigate. The ministry has confirmed they are investigating the shooting, but would not comment on an open investigation.
The 32-year-old firefighter, hunter and son of a veterinarian cannot comprehend the mistaken identity of their 60-pound, tiger-striped, deep-chested dog with the long, course-furred, yellow-eyed coyote. Coyote tails are fluffy, they fall low, between their legs. Riot’s tail curled up. Riot was wearing a blue slip collar.
In the eight years Bell and Wyant have been neighbours, Bell has always had dogs; they’ve always walked off-leash in the back field, and always with their people. He said Wyant had never complained about their dogs, or mentioned whether the dogs ever came onto his property.
“We thought our backyard was a safe oasis for our animals,” Bell says. “That’s kind of the reason why I bought it.”
Neither Bell nor Wyant have livestock on their properties. It appears Wyant had set out bait for coyotes and other animals near the fence line separating the two properties sometime around Nov. 25. The bait was out when Riot was shot, near where the dog suffered his fatal wound. Bell estimates the bait carcass was about five metres from the fence.
Ryan Brown, Bell’s distant cousin, visited Wyant on his property at about 11 a.m. on Nov. 25. He had a question about snow removal; both Wyant and Brown are in the business. It was the first and only time Brown visited Wyant on his property. They know each other as members of a tight-knit, small community. Acquaintances, not friends.
When Brown arrived, Wyant showed him his trailer — a converted tractor-trailer outfitted as a “man cave” with a woodstove and a window.
“He showed me from the trailer this deer carcass out in the middle of the field there, I looked right at it … and he had his gun out,” says Brown. “He said he had seen a coyote and was waiting for it to come back.”
Brown is not a hunter, but he says he clearly saw more than one gun. And in the field, a “big chunk of animal.” He saw the bait was close to the property line, but he couldn’t see how close.
Bell says there is no livestock on adjacent properties, and he’s seen coyotes come close to his house and into his backyard.
A wire fence separates the properties, along with some light brush, bare of foliage now for the winter.
From the spot where Smith was standing, she could see both her house, and the neighbour’s trailer. The bait stand was between her and the trailer. The gunshot was likely fired in her direction.
“I’ve never felt the need to go bait coyotes and shoot them,” he says. “They co-exist with my dogs, there’s no issues that way. There’s certainly no problems as far as co-existing. They’ve never shown any threat to me or my animals at all.”
He now thinks the bait may have been what caused Riot’s stomach bloating the day before. That perhaps Riot had ducked under the fence the day before as well, tempted by the stand of raw meat.
Bell and Smith hope that by sharing Riot’s story, people in the community understand they were robbed.
“We cared so much about him … our little boy. It just doesn’t make any sense that someone can act so senselessly,” says Bell.
“We’re lost,” says Smith.
“I just want to raise awareness about this situation and hope to prevent it. I’m not sure if gun laws need to be more strongly enforced,” says Bell.
Bell says he and Smith feel as if a family member has been murdered.
Perhaps it was negligence, or worse.
“You can’t just willy-nilly shoot something,” says Bell. “It’s the first thing they teach out in the hunter safety course, is you identify your target or you don’t shoot. And when you shoot, you see it through. You don’t just leave that animal to suffer. That’s what he’s done. He hasn’t followed up. He hasn’t called the clinic, or my dad, or any of my family members who he knows.”
Bell is angry at the injustice and inhumanity of his dog’s death. His heart is broken every morning without Riot tilting his head, awaiting the order to fetch his ball.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” he says. “Riot did nothing wrong … he didn’t deserve that.”
Smith mourns for the decade she could have had with her shadow.
Riot will be buried in their backyard. Bell plans to plant a tree on the grave, as he did with the golden retriever he lost earlier this year. The only difference is that dog died of old age.