Death penalty on dogs should end, say MPs

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A committee of MPs yesterday called for relaxation of the Dangerous Dogs Act, including an end to the mandatory death penalty and introduction of "bail" for dogs awaiting trial.

Owners of dogs put behind bars should also be allowed more frequent visiting rights, the cross-party Commons Home Affairs Select Committee said in its report on the operation of the 1991 Act.

The MPs decided to review the Act - rushed on to the Statute Book in the wake of a spate of attacks by pit bull terriers - because it has been condemned by dog lovers as draconian.

The report calls for a relaxing of some provisions of the Act and an end to the requirement to put down all pit bulls which contravene section 1, which banned all breeding, importing, selling or giving away of pit bulls. The Act also required all existing ones to be registered, neutered, tattooed and subject to third-party insurance as well as being muzzled and on a lead when in a public place.

The MPs say there have been cases in which a pit bull was properly registered and responsibly controlled by its owner, but it was involved in a "minor breach" of the Act. They highlight two celebrated cases: Dempsey, who was allegedly unmuzzled in a public place; and Otis, who was driven in his owner's car without a muzzle.

The MPs also call for a re-opening of the pit bull register. It was closed in November 1991 after owners were given a deadline to declare they had one of the breed. But, because the breed is not clearly defined, the MPs say pit bull puppies may be born after cross-breeding of two dogs, neither of which are pit bulls.

The committee argued that it would be unfair to demand destruction of such puppies, which may have been bred accidentally. Also, some owners were not aware that their dog was a pit bull by the time the register closed.

In court cases under the Act, the committee calls for a shift in the burden of proof, with the onus being on the prosecution to prove that a given dog is a pit bull. Currently it is up to the defence to prove that the dog is noThe Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 Reform Group, which has been campaigning for five years for a change in the law, welcomed the report and said it would seek an urgent meeting with the Government to press its case.