1,000 dogs held in legal limbo

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The Independent Online
UP TO 1,000 dogs are being held in kennels at taxpayers' expense while costly legal battles are fought over whether or not they should be put down. Dog breeders, lawyers and animal welfare experts are calling for changes in the legislation brought in to curb dog attacks.

A court reprieve for a dog called Otis last week underlines the massive costs and legal confusion involved in the issue. Three years ago Otis was seized in east London by police who claimed he should have been muzzled under the Dangerous Dogs Act as he was in a public place. Although he was in the back of his owner's car and experts agree that the dog is a Great Dane cross, the Crown Prosecution Service pursued the case to the House of Lords. The case has cost the taxpayer more than pounds 100,000 and his owner, Harry Bates, pounds 20,000 in legal fees. He is also paying Otis's pounds 9-a-day kennel charges.

The Otis case illustrates the ambiguities ofthe Act, under which police can seize dogs deemed to be of 'pit bull type'. The pit bull is not a recognised breed in this country - frequently people mistake Staffordshire bull terriers for them - and experts cannot agree its characteristics.

The Act was rushed through Parliament in 1991 on a wave of panic about the introduction of the pit bull terrier from the US where they were bred for fighting. A number of well-publicised incidents in which dogs attacked adults and children or were filmed fighting fed public agitation on the issue.

But the result has been a costly mess. The RSPCA will no longer provide inspectors for prosecution cases and the police are being asked to shoot dogs that vets refuse to destroy. The Home Office has no idea how many dogs are being held because it does not collate the information centrally.

Amanda Dunkley, of the Endangered Dogs Association, which campaigns against the Dangerous Dogs Act, said: 'The costs are quite shocking. The estimated cost in London alone is pounds 10m.'

Stephen Fidler, a lawyer who acts for EDA members, said the fees for defence solicitors, prosecution and expert witnesses regularly top pounds 20,000 a case. 'The owners all get legal aid and fight the cases because they face a criminal conviction. It is scandalous. The only sensible thing that can be done is a change in the legislation.'

Gary Dunn, 25, from north London, had his dog, Judd, taken away after walking him on Hampstead Heath in November 1991, days before the Act was passed. The dog, currently five years old, is expected to live in kennels for the next seven to 10 years unless the Home Office relents.

'I had the forms to register him,' Mr Dunn said. 'But the police still seized him. There was no way to register him retrospectively once I had won my case. So the situation is, the police can't put him down but they won't let me have him either.

'I've e xhausted the legal system, on legal aid. I don't believe in dogs biting people. If they do they should be put down, fair enough. But these dogs have never hurt anyone. It's a joke.'

Ian Dunbar, an authority on aggressive behaviour in dogs, said the Act would be laughable if it wasn't so dangerous. 'The only valuable legislation would be based on what the dog has done,' he said. 'They should be assessed like drivers. There should be a training course to ensure there are no accidents. Then if they break the law in a minor way - say, harassing someone - there should be a fine; a single bite, without breaking the skin, a bigger fine, and so on.

'I have trained more pit bulls than anyone else in this country. But it is a dog and dogs bite. It is strong so its bite hurts. But there are other dogs that are stronger, that bite harder. And there are other breeds more likely to bite.

'The way these dogs are treated is no different from racism. It's just a fascist, breedist approach. So, we eliminate these breeds - what next?'