Dangerous Dogs Act has never worked, says RSPCA

The bedroom in the council house in Essex was carefully converted to allow the men to watch their pets rip each other apart.

A door leading into the box room had the top half cut off so that the pit bulls could be videoed fighting.

After each session, the bottom of the bedroom walls were repainted a dark blue to hide the stains left by the bleeding dogs.

This was the scene that greeted RSPCA officers during one of their investigations into dog fights. They were in action again yesterday when they helped police to seize at least 13 pit bull terriers from properties in Stourbridge, West Midlands, following a tip-off that the dogs were being used in fights.

Senior figures within the RSPCA believe there are record numbers of pit bulls in Britain despite the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 which was supposed to outlaw the keeping of pit bull terriers. The issue of pit bulls and other dangerous dogs being kept illegally in Britain was highlighted by the death of the five-year-old girl, Ellie Lawrenson, on 1 January.

Ellie died of severe head and neck injuries after being mauled at her grandmother's house in St Helens, Merseyside. The dog was a pit bull terrier-type breed.

Pit bulls are one of four types of dog that are outlawed under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The law bans the breeding and sale or exchange of pit bull terriers, or their cross breeds.

Any other dogs "appearing ... to be bred for fighting or to have the characteristics of a type bred for that purpose" are also outlawed.

Chief Inspector Ian Briggs, of the RSPCA's special operations unit, said: "The Dangerous Dog Act initially had an effect on the number of animals, but over the past few years there has been a big increase in the number of pit bulls."

He said despite a crack down on "premier league" dog fighters, and a series of successful prosecutions, there were still about 100 "hard core" fighters. "It is an obsession for them, they travel the length and breath of the country to take part in an organised fight," he said. The biggest expansion had been in what he described as "tier two" dog fighters, of which there are hundreds. "These are young hoody men who keep pit bulls as a macho symbol."

The police and RSPCA have been targeting the second tier of fighters in Merseyside during the past week. Thirteen people were arrested and 28 dogs were seized at 16 addresses in Huyton and Stockbridge Village, Knowsley.

The total number of suspected pit bulls seized in Merseyside since Ellie's death now stands at 56.

Mike James, who said he left the pit bull fighting scene about five years ago, said the rules of combat have disappeared since the early to mid-1990s, when 20 fights would be staged each month. Once, the dogs would be matched by weight and examined by a vet who would remain in attendance, along with a referee, said Mr James - not his real name. He said the "gangsters" involved in the game now "scatterbreed" the dogs: mate fighting dogs with pure pit bulls to create powerful new breeds. "Dogs will be strapped to a treadmill for half an hour or placed on an electric one so they can't slow down," he said.

He said that the stakes can be high - as much as £10,000 - and the consequences for the creatures involved can be grim: jaws left hanging off or dislocated, puncture marks to the face and, in some cases, death in the "ring".

The reason so few people are prosecuted under the Dangerous Dog Act is that the current laws are hard to enforce and that many dog owners try to get round them by pretending their pets are not pit bulls, using names such as Irish Staffords, according to RSPCA officers. Chief Inspector Mike Butcher, of the RSPCA's special operations unit, said: "It is still easy to buy a pit bull - you just need to go on the internet to buy one. The Dangerous Dogs Act does not work, it has never worked."

How does the law define a dangerous dog?

* The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 bans the breeding and sale or exchange of four breeds: pit bull terriers, Japanese tosas, the dogo argentinos, and the fila brasileiros. Cross-breeds of those dogs are covered by the law.

* Other dogs "appearing ... to be bred for fighting or to have the characteristics of a type bred for that purpose" are also outlawed.

* The Act says owners of "dogs known as a pit bull terriers" must have it neutered and keep it muzzled and on a lead in public.

* If a dog injures someone, the owner can be jailed for up to two years.

* A dog classed as "dangerously out of control in a public place" may be destroyed. The owner can be fined and imprisoned for up to six months.

* The Animals Act 1971 says the keeper of an animal is liable for any damage it causes.

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