Later today in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Barnes family will find out if their beloved dog, Lennox, an American Bull Dog/Labrador mix, must be put to sleep. Half a day has been set aside for judges to hear the arguments following two years of dispute. Lennox was seized in May 2010 under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, not as a consequence of his bad behaviour, merely because of the way he looks. He has been condemned to die because of a ludicrous piece of legislation which puts the emphasis on a dog’s physical measurements, rendering him a banned “pit bull-type”.
The poor boy has spent two years in captivity awaiting a death sentence, held in a secret location in a concrete cell with sawdust for bedding, far from those that love him. That’s just wrong. I cannot think for too long about the despair I would feel were one of my dogs similarly incarcerated: worrying if he was too cold, stressed and afraid; wondering whether he was being fed and exercised enough; hoping that he had some toys or friendly company to stimulate his mind and could forgive me for supposedly abandoning him.
Lennox has been wrongfully seized and locked up inhumanely, in my view. He has been deprived of his freedom, isolated, has limited exercise and interaction outside his kennel, has been medicated with Amitriptyline, a strong anti-depressant. How his welfare needs can be met surrounded by his own faeces I fail to comprehend. The sawdust on which he sleeps has aggravated a skin complaint resulting in considerable loss of hair and sores, and he appears overweight in recent photographs. In my book, this is nothing short of cruelty – Defra’s, too.
Before this Lennox had always known a kind, responsible family unit, receiving love and routine. Mum was a former veterinary nurse who fostered dogs for various shelters. His best friends were a young girl who doted on him and two companions, a Boxer and a Yorkshire Terrier. He never left his property unless muzzled, stayed on a lead at all times – as per the Act’s stipulations – and his garden was suitably secure. Nobody ever had cause to complain about his behaviour. Lennox had been microchipped, neutered, DNA registered, was insured, even had a valid dog licence (issued for five years previous by the same people that now seek to destroy him). That didn’t stop three dog wardens arriving, unannounced, at the family home in May 2010 with a defective warrant (wrong name, wrong address) and dressmaker’s tape with which they measured Lennox and decided that he should be seized there and then.
The case against Lennox has been controversial to put it mildly. There have been myriad inconsistencies, as well as accusations of fake Facebook accounts, intimidation tactics and the small matter of perjury. All three wardens, it is claimed, lied under oath, one falsely claiming that she was frightened of Lennox and could not handle him, despite photographs showing her playing with him happily, even allowing him to lick her face.
Lennox is scheduled to be euthanised unless the verdict is overturned today, and he’s done absolutely nothing wrong. That breaks my heart, as someone who loves animals, but also as someone with a modicum of common sense and compassion which others are evidently lacking.
The judge, for one, in reaching his verdict has chosen to rely on people who are, it is argued convincingly, not qualified to correctly assess Lennox. In September 2011, two expert animal behaviourists presented their assessments of Lennox to the court; both had reached the conclusion that Lennox is of no danger to the public, yet the judge chose to disregard the opinions of a dog trainer and expert in canine aggression, instead opting to rely on the view of a former police dog handler.
Now, some time spent as a police dog handler does not make anyone an expert on a breed of dog that the police rarely work with, I wouldn’t have thought, yet he was permitted by the judge to act as one. If we’re all allowed to be bigoted and make sweeping generalisations about this, allow me to throw in some completely unrelated sensationalist newspaper headlines about police and their dogs at this point:
All things considered, though, I choose not to place much value in the word of someone who has stated on record that he thinks it acceptable to use violence as a means of controlling a dog, even if the judge seems eager to. I say that anyone demonstrating such outmoded levels of brutality dressed up as discipline deserves to get bitten or at least feel as though he might. How else is a dog supposed to defend itself?
I am so disappointed at the prejudice and discrimination of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). Ignorant people forget, if indeed they ever knew, that a dog’s character is predominantly a result of its socialisation, training and upbringing, not its breed characteristics – this is a proven fact. A dog’s breed is not a factor in determining whether or not it is dangerous; scientifically, there is no evidence of any relationship between aggression and breed. Although it is true that this “type” was bred originally to bait bulls and bears (banned in 1835), and because of a powerful physique, strong prey drive and high energy levels they were considered ideal candidates for the new craze of dog-fighting and thus bred to maximise aggression, Staffordshire Bull Terriers were considered ‘nanny dogs’, so trusted were they around children. Sergeant Stubby, a Bull Terrier, was mascot of the 102nd Infantry of the 26th “Yankee” Division and the most decorated dog of World War I, receiving many medals in recognition of his heroism.
Of course, you rarely find a positive story about any dog in the press, unless it’s a dancing one.
Bull Terriers have sadly developed a reputation because, through no fault of their own, they have become the weapon of choice for the lowlifes lurking on street corners, who have been trained to growl and strain at their leads in a demonstration of their aggression in order to serve as a macho status symbol for pathetic young men everywhere.
Lennox was a loving and loved family pet.
What infuriates me is that, if Belfast City Council and all the others are so concerned for the safety of the public, why not do more about the irresponsible owners who encourage their dogs’ aggressive behaviour and raise them to be anti-social instead of victimising the easy targets? The problem of dangerous dogs, along with the battery farming of pups and the inconsiderate breeding practices of pedigree dogs, is an entirely man-made problem. The real issue here ought to be how to prevent selfish, callous people from breeding, owning and abusing dogs, not how to remove a family pet and cause untold sadness to all involved.
BSL is as preposterous a notion as arresting people with shaved heads, unusual piercings and provocative tattoos because they might just start a fight outside a bar some time in the future.
However, at the height of a public outcry over a spate of dog attacks on children, the Tories, as they are so fond of doing, managed to marginalise a section of society upon whom the blame for the problem of “devil dogs” could be laid – with the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. A hastily produced piece of legislation (later enacted in Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Hong Kong, Portugal, Singapore and many states throughout the USA, among other places), the concept being simply that dogs of a particular breed or “type” are inherently dangerous and should be controlled, if not banned outright. The government’s original genocidal plot to eliminate all dogs fitting this loose description of a “type” was thankfully opposed. Instead, it was decided that these dogs must not be bred from or exchanged so that eventually the feared breeds would die out.
The Act reversed the burden of proof so the dog is presumed guilty until proven innocent, yet how can you argue against tape measurements? In the absence of a DNA test which confirms whether the dog is considered a pit bull-type, the dog is judged purely on its physical attributes. One litter mate may well be acceptable, another not, hence one will live and one will die. It has been ruled that the behaviour of a dog is relevant, but not conclusive, when establishing whether or not a dog meets the all-important criteria.
So instead of addressing the matter of why Kiel Simpson received a prison sentence of just eight weeks (of which, naturally, he served four) in 2007 for owning the dog that killed Ellie Lawrensen (his five-year-old niece, usually a family member’s dog is responsible for fatal attacks on children in their home – and private property is not covered by the Dangerous Dogs Act – after his sister had required hospital treatment following a previous unprovoked attack by the same dog in the same house), now more than twenty years on from the introduction of this illogical piece of legislation innocent parts-of-the-family such as Lennox are still potentially paying with their lives after what must be a most cruel and prolonged torture for the way they look, even though their behaviour does not normally correspond with the behaviour of a dog that happens to look a bit like them.
Another sobering thought: the Liberal Democrats, back when people actually liked them (2007, seems so long ago now), were proposing adding Rottweilers to the banned list. Which will be next? German Shepherds are responsible for most bites, apparently. Jack Russells are known ankle-biters. Poodles, especially the small ones with large bows on their heads, have always seemed a bit edgy to me…
As Joan K. Smith writes in the Huffington Post, poor Lennox is “a victim of misused policy and a few humans who would rather see him put to death than admit a mistake.” I do believe that there are lots of extremely petty jobsworths out there who would rather keep peddling a lie than ever admit they got it wrong, just as others will dutifully say whatever they’re required to say because there’s a big fat wad of notes in it for them with the promise of more to come. Sad, but true.
I hope we’ll speak of Lennox in years to come as another Dempsey, the Pit Bull Terrier who was also seized and held for three years before her release. She went on to live a long, happy life. I hope Lennox will be released soon, free to return to his family, and that his legacy will be the abolition of BSL which has only served to murder dogs on a mass scale, not reduce attacks or limit irresponsible ownership. In the years following the Dangerous Dogs Act, the rate of incidents involving dogs has not decreased: earlier this year, the Telegraph reported that dog attack hospital admissions rose for the fifth consecutive year, in fact.
Mahatma Ghandi can have the final word: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”