Diplomatic dogs hold party for quarantine law reform

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IT WILL be the diplomatic debut with a difference. This afternoon, Cutty, the First Dog of the Czech embassy, will make his London appearance at a party held in his honour by his master, Ambassador Pavel Seifter.

But this is far more than a canine society event. The guest list gives a clue as to its serious intent: among the dozens of fellow four-footed creatures turning out to greet the 11-year-old Schnauzer will be others owned by foreign representatives of the Court of St James. The dogs have all endured the same penance to get into Britain: a six-month stay in quarantine.

Mr Seifter is just one of thousands of pet owners who want to see the quarantine laws of Britain changed, and among those he has invited to his dog's party is the former Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, who has been a fierce opponent of the existing law.

Most quarantine reform campaigners want to see the 97-year-old law modified. With over 40 countries classified rabies-free, and only isolated pockets remaining in Europe on the German/Belgian borders, they claim the current system is unnecessarily draconian and out of step with the rest of the world.

"We were going to wait until the quarantine regulations were changed before we brought Cutty to England," said Mr Seifter, "but we realised modifying the law was going to take time. I would certainly never put her through it again because it was so hard being parted.

"Like any member of the family who has been gone for some time, we want to celebrate her home-coming. All the neighbours have been invited along with their pets. And we are hoping that our cook will bake some biscuits in the shape of a bone for us to munch on as well."

The independent panel of scientific experts set up last autumn under Professor Ian Kennedy to assess the law and any need for change was due to complete its report tomorrow. But in a written answer to a parliamentary question to Jeff Rooker, Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, it was revealed the review has been delayed until later this year .

"It is important that all the evidence be considered most carefully before the Advisory Group's report is submitted," Mr Rooker explained.

Mary Fretwell, chair of the pressure group Passport for Pets, said: "We are all in agony over the Government's stalling. My members are a disciplined group of people, but some of them can't be held in check for much longer. Many are threatening to smuggle their pets across borders rather than be the victims of an antiquated law. I would never condone this behaviour, but I can understand why some people might be pushed to such desperate measures."

Currently, 100 people a year are caught smuggling animals into Britain and experts say the real number successfully dodging quarantine could be up to eight times that figure.

RSPCA spokesman Alex Ross said: "We are extremely disappointed and surprised at this delay. The quarantine laws are out of date and out of synch with modern requirements and because of this delay we won't see a new system in place until the millennium. The Government must implement changes because the current system encourages smuggling and it is logical to think that cases will increase if people don't see an end to the delay."

Campaigners want to see an alternative, "pet passport" system, where animals are vaccinated against rabies, given a blood test to ensure the vaccine is present in the system, and have microchip identification to provide a permanent means of identifying the animal. This would cost owners under pounds 200, instead of the present kennel fees of pounds 800 for cats and pounds 1,500 dogs.

Guy Tamplin, chairman of the Quarantine Kennels Owners, said: "People assume that kennel owners are against reform of the current quarantine system, but that isn't the case. We want the law changed to reflect the way in which rabies has been eliminated by most countries in the European Union."

The veterinary profession continues to sound a note of caution, however. Ted Chandler, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: "There is no rush to do anything and we urge extreme caution. The current system has been effective at keeping rabies out of this country and although pet owners are undoubtedly undergoing hardship it is vital to get this reform absolutely right.

"If a significant number of people are going to irresponsibly start smuggling animals into the country then I'm under no illusion that others could follow and open the flood gates."