“They picked Akanni up one morning
Beat him soft like clay
And stuffed him down the belly
Of a waiting jeep…
…They came one night
Booted the whole house awake
And dragged Danladi out,
Then off to a lengthy absence…”
The above extracts are taken from ‘Not my Business’, a poem written about the abuse suffered by African people at the hands of the army or secret police. Although the violence and injustice conveyed by author Niyi Osundare seems a world away from our equality-rich society, nobody could possibly deny the similarities between the narrative and the recent reports of the 22 innocent Pit Bulls dragged from their homes by Merseyside Police – killed for no reason other than a lack of pet insurance and paperwork errors.
Exempted dogs (those that are confirmed to be of illegal type but deemed safe to return to their owners) by law have to be neutered, microchipped, tattooed, kept on a lead and muzzled in public and insured with third party pet insurance. If owners fail to meet any of these conditions, their dogs will be seized. Chloe, a six year old Pit Bull type on the Index of Exempted dogs, was taken from her 66 year old owner during a morning raid in a style usually reserved for dealing with dangerous criminals rather than family pets, with the metaphorical ‘waiting jeep’ taking the form of seven police vans. Although it is not yet clear whether her owner did indeed have Chloe insured via DogsTrust membership as she had claimed, it seems that Merseyside Police acted without compassion, making little distinction between the family and those involved in illegal activity. In any other case, an innocent middle aged lady would never be grouped with criminals, yet her dog’s physical appearance led to exactly that. All exempted dogs have to be proved to be of ‘sound temperament’ before being released to their owners, meaning that neither Chloe nor the other 21 Pit Bull types were dangerous dogs.
Despite exempted Pit Bulls presenting no more of a threat to members of the public than any legal breed, failure to comply with the exemption conditions is likely to mean death for the dog. Controversy surrounding the destruction of friendly and exempted Pit Bulls is nothing new; during the early years of the Dangerous Dogs Act the case of Dempsey, another family pet, made headlines when her muzzle was taken off in public in order to stop her from choking on her own vomit. Despite the removal of the muzzle being a temporary measure as an attempt to save her life, Dempsey was ordered to be destroyed. It took three years to save Dempsey, during which time she, like so many other ‘Section 1’ dogs currently affected by the Dangerous Dogs Act, was kept in secure police kennels. It was a legal loophole that eventually saved Dempsey; her muzzle had been removed by a family friend who failed to inform her owner of the court hearing, and as a result of her owner’s lack of awareness, Dempsey was spared – proving that sometimes ignorance really is bliss. (Further information on Dempsey can be found here).
But unlike Dempsey, the Pit Bulls seized in Liverpool, dubbed the ‘Merseyside 22’ by campaigners, were not given the chance to be saved. This is not the first time that Merseyside Police have taken direct and arguably unjustifiable action towards the destruction of Pit Bulls. In 2007 the force came under scrutiny from the dog world, including organisations such as the Kennel Club, when it initiated a week-long ‘amnesty’ – allowing owners to hand over illegal breeds without themselves being prosecuted. The Kennel Club pointed out that criminals with potentially dangerous dogs were unlikely to partake in the amnesty, while responsible owners would be more likely to comply with the law in order to avoid imprisonment, and their well-behaved dogs would be put to sleep as a result.
The amnesty ended with the seizure of 86 illegal ‘types’. The then Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside, Helen King, was quoted in a BBC report,
“We understand that it has been a very difficult decision for many people to part with their animals. We are grateful to all of you for putting the safety of your children and the people of Merseyside ahead of the affection for your dog.”
Just as the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 itself was a knee-jerk reaction to the dog attacks heavily reported in the media, it seems that the amnesty was Merseyside Police’s response to the widespread media attention surrounding the tragic death of Ellie Lawrenson, a five year old girl killed by her uncle’s dog – a Pit Bull type with a history of aggressive behaviour towards both other dogs and people. The dog clearly was a danger yet was not dealt with until the aftermath of the fatality; the owner’s negligence was to blame for his niece’s death. The subsequent seizure of 86 Pit Bull types, including those which had not shown any signs of aggression, did not alter the outcome – just as breed specific legislation does not prevent future dog attacks.
In an article regarding Jade, another of the 22 Pit Bulls destroyed towards the end of last month, Chief Inspector Chris Gibson said,
“These dogs pose a danger to the public, as well as to the families where they are housed. I’m sure there aren’t many who would be happy to let their children or grandchildren play out in the street, if one of these dogs was in the vicinity. These dogs are not designed to be family pets.”
Do all Pit Bull types really present a danger to children? If we are to believe what we read in the newspapers, then yes. But real statistics prove otherwise. According to DEFRA there are over 2,000 exempted Pit Bulls living in the UK as of 2013, and, since the Dangerous Dogs Act is infamous for failing to eradicate Pit Bulls, as was the intention of its creator Kenneth Baker, it is likely that there are thousands more living ‘illegally’ (“There are more Pit Bulls in this country than Labradors”, an illegal breeder told The Sun in February this year). Despite all these ‘devil dogs’ living amongst us, there have been less than twenty deaths as the result of dog attacks (from any breed) since 2005. To put this in perspective, it is estimated that around ten people are killed per year in the UK as the result of horse riding accidents. And according to statistics published in the book ‘Dogs Bite But Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous’ by Janis Bradley, children are more likely to be killed by toys and playground equipment than as the result of a dog attack. Pit Bulls are not ‘devil dogs’ at all, and were historically bred for low aggression towards humans since those involved in dog fighting never wanted to be bitten themselves when dealing with their dogs. Socialised and well-cared for Pit Bulls are no more likely to terrorise the neighbourhood than a Golden Retriever (indeed, Pit Bulls have ‘beaten’ popular dog breeds such as Retrievers and Beagles in temperament tests – obviously these are “not designed to be family pets” either).
Fatal dog attacks are extremely rare, especially in proportion to the millions of dogs living in the UK, yet when attacks do happen both the media and law enforcers want something to blame, and as a consequence of breed specific legislation Pit Bulls are the scapegoat. Prior to 1991, the Rottweiler, German Shepherd and the Doberman all received similar negativity and any of these breeds could easily have replaced the Pit Bull in the Dangerous Dogs Act. The full version of ‘Not my Business’ consists of the message that injustice should never be ignored since one day there may be a knock at your own door. If we continue to turn a blind eye to the routine euthanasia of Pit Bulls how long will it be before more breeds are put in danger by legislators? Targeting innocent owners, and innocent dogs, instead of unscrupulous breeders and irresponsible owners who produce the real dangerous dogs is a fault with legislation, the blame for which does not lie with one police force. But as long as the euthanasia of family pets on the basis of appearance and prejudice alone continues, the recent action taken by Merseyside Police is definitely the business of all dog owners, no matter what breed we have at home.
DDA Watch campaign for the removal of breed specific legislation and assist families whose dogs are seized under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.