Just days after a therapy dog was shot in Canada after being mistaken for a wolf, a loving family dog in Readington Township, New Jersey, has suffered a similar fate.
Tonka, a 1-year-old Alaskan Shepherd, was fatally shot in the heart by a hunter who thought the large dog was a coyote.
“It’s something I could never imagine happening,” Elizabeth Mongno, Tonka’s owner, told PEOPLE while recalling the tragic accident.
Mongno says she was walking Tonka around the large backyard of her home, which she shares with her husband, 9-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, on Wednesday when the day suddenly took a devastating turn. The pair was just about to head back inside, when the dog spotted several deer nearby and ran after them.
“I went running right behind him and was calling his name,” Mongno said, adding that her shouts attracted the attention of several nearby neighbors including three children who were playing outside the house next door.
Shortly after the chase started, Mongno heard a bang followed by a yelp sound and “knew something was wrong.” Around this time, Mongno’s husband arrived home from work and helped her search for Tonka. After 15 minutes of looking, they found their beloved pet lying in a pool of his own blood, dead from a crossbow shot to the heart, but there was no sign of the shooter.
It wasn’t until later that day, after Mongno called the police to report Tonka’s death, that authorities learned who was responsible.
A spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection told PEOPLE that the licensed hunter, a 40-year-old male from Kenilworth, New Jersey, responsible for Tonka’s death said he mistook the dog for a coyote chasing after deer. It is legal for a hunter to take a coyote while hunting other animals, and bow season for deer began on Sept. 9.
As a result of Tonka’s death the DEP confirmed that the hunter will face charges for careless discharge, damage to property and a deer tagging violation on Nov. 2 at the Readington Township Municipal Court. The hunter could face a seven-year loss of his hunting license and up to $3,000 in fines, plus restitution.
Mongno has difficulty believing that Tonka, a roughly 95-lb., large-headed dog with distinct white markings could be mistaken for a brown-colored coyote that usually weighs between 34 to 40 lbs.
“If you can’t tell the difference between a giant dog with two collars and a coyote, you shouldn’t be hunting with a crossbow,” she said.
The local school teacher doesn’t have an issue with hunting, her husband is a hunter, but she is against those who wield weapons irresponsibly, especially in an area where children often play.
“It never occurred to me that hunting was going on in my backyard,” Mongno said.
Following the shooting, Mongno found out that a local property owner had given permission to the hunter to hunt on the land abutting Mongno’s home and the homes of several of her neighbors. Even with laws in place to keep hunters 150 feet from all residences, Mongno said she would’ve acted differently if she knew hunting was going on so close to her home.
“I really don’t want this to ever happen again and I know it could’ve been much worse,” she said, noting that 12 children live in her neighborhood, three of whom were outside in the same area as Tonka when he was shot.
She hopes the suffering her family has had to endure encourages those who have permitted hunting on their land to share that choice with their neighbors and that it will lead others to seek out the hunting laws in their own areas. Most importantly, Mongno wishes that no one has to go through the heartache her family has felt over the past few days.
“My husband says ‘He shot our dog in the heart, but he broke all of ours,’ ” Mongno said. Her 9-year-old son has been hit the hardest by the loss. The family considered Tonka “his dog,” and went out of their way to include the Alaskan Shepherd in all of their memories, forgoing vacations that required plane travel so Tonka could join in on the fun.
The silver lining to come out of this heartwrenching death is the community support.
Mongno says since Tonka was a recognized face around town, countless locals have reached out to express their condolences, with Tonka’s former vet even offering a lifetime of free services for their next pet. A hunting group has also reached out to the family with an offer to raise money for their next dog.
But Mongo knows her family still needs time to heal before they welcome another animal into their home.
“My son is so broken, he wouldn’t go back to school. Today was the first day he felt okay enough to go back,” Mongno said “He doesn’t understand why the hunter won’t apologize.”