Protests grow over law that condemns dogs to die: Confusion over definition of a pit bull

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The Independent Online
The Home Office has insisted that it will not change its legislation on dangerous dogs, despite growing opposition from animal organisations, and evidence that in its first year it has not worked as intended, and is costing far more than expected.

While attacks by pit bull terriers, and the use of dogs in crime, have been reduced, the hurried drafting of the Act - introduced in response to an outcry over attacks - is causing confusion to thousands of owners of mongrels, and is an expensive drain on police resources and on court time. No extra money was given to police to cover the costs of enforcing the Dangerous Dogs Act.

Many owners, who had no idea their dog might be defined as a pit bull under the terms of the Act, have been questioned by police and even convicted. While publicity surrounding the introduction of the Act focused on dogs looking like the American pit bull breed registered in the United States, the police interpreted the 'type' much more widely.

In June, in a test case at Knightsbridge Crown Court, Judge James Mendl ruled that the commonsense definition of 'type' was legally correct. A dog was a pit bull if it had the 'substantial characteristics' of a pit bull - bringing thousands of mongrels into the definition.

The RSPCA has called for a lifting of the mandatory death penalty on dogs whose owners are convicted under the Act, allowing magistrates to use their discretion in cases where there is no aggravated offence. This would reduce the number of appeals. After initially co-operating with the Act, the RSPCA has now told its inspectors to stop helping prosecutions except in cases of cruelty.

Even the Kennel Club, which represents pedigree breeds, describes the Act as rushed legislation which needs to be re-drafted.

The expensive component of the Act is the vague wording in clause one, listing banned dogs. It lists two breeds of South American fighting dog unknown in Britain, the Japanese Tosa, of which there is one example here, and a phrase which has become a legal nightmare, 'the type of dog known as the pit bull'. The onus is on owners to prove their dog is not a pit bull.

To appease the RSPCA and veterinary surgeons who were unhappy at destroying up to 10,000 healthy animals, the Home Office added a clause allowing pit bull owners to keep their dogs as long as they were muzzled in public, neutered, insured, tattooed, microchipped and officially registered. But it said no dogs could be made legal in this way after the end of last year, and if they were pit bulls they must die.

Since then, owners charged under the Act with owning a 'pit bull' who want to save their pet's life have had no alternative to arguing all the way to the Court of Appeal that their dog is not a pit bull. The result is that thousands of hours of court time are wasted, and the dogs are usually kept in police kennels. Privately, many police say there should be a renewed opportunity to register dogs and make them legal, which would give owners an alternative to going to court.

The Home Office says it has collected no data for the number of dogs seized and cases brought, dropped or pending.

The Metropolitan Police, which has the biggest caseload, spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on kennel fees last year and has brought about 700 prosecutions.

Each day a dog spends in kennels is thought to cost on average pounds 9. The Home Office has told police forces to try to reduce the bill by cutting down the months it takes for cases to come to court, and to try to recover boarding costs from convicted owners.

The police do not believe it is realistic to stamp out all pit bulls, as the Act hoped. In most forces officers are not able actively to pursue dangerous dogs, but only to react to complaints, attacks, or dogs which are found loose.

Chief Inspector Eric Hampson, of the Metropolitan Police, said: 'We try to enforce the act sensibly and sensitively.' The degree of sensitivity varies from force to force. Ch Insp Hampson said the definition of pit bull type had to be wide because there had been so much cross-breeding of the original fighting dogs imported from the United States.

Bill Edmond, executive officer of the Kennel Club, said the difficulty in identifying a pit bull was not unexpected. 'All emergency legislation has flaws in it,' he said, adding that it was very hard to prove a mongrel was not a pit bull.

Yesterday the Home Office repeated a statement made by a Home Office minister in August that 'it would be irresponsible of the Government to lessen the protection' the Act has given to the public. It said those who choose to ignore the law 'face tough penalties', including possibly jail.

(Photograph omitted)