Tighter laws fail to curb attacks by Pit-bull terriers: Number of incidents involving dangerous dogs remains as high as before legislation was introduced

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The Independent Online
DESPITE legislation introduced last year to protect the public from dangerous dogs the number of attacks by pit-bull terriers has gone up, figures issued yesterday by the Metropolitan Police reveal.

In the first five months of this year, following the introduction of the legislation, pit bulls were involved in 107 attacks in London on people or animals. That represents almost a half of all dog attacks in the capital and a significant rise on 1991 when only 34 per cent of attacks were by pit bulls.

The new figures suggest that the Government's regulations to control dangerous dogs have failed. Although the number of attacks leading to injuries has gone down, the overall frequency of attacks remains as high as when the legislation was implemented a year ago.

Two days ago Lee Stannard, seven, was attacked by his pet dog as he reached out to stroke it. The dog repeatedly snapped at the boy's head, gashing his face and puncturing an eye-ball.

The case has revived the controversy surrounding the Dangerous Dogs Act. The Government is coming under mounting pressure to review its approach in the light of evidence that the legislation is being only partially, and in some cases mistakenly, applied.

Demands for an extension in the law to cover other dangerous dogs are likely to follow the revelation that Lee's attacker was a rottweiler, a type ignored by the legislation. There is also evidence that more than 2,000 pit-bull terriers are being held illegally. Experts say that number could be the tip of the iceberg.

Since last August there have been at least three serious attacks on people by pit bulls, the main category listed under the Act. Two attacks involved animals whose owners had allegedly failed to register them.

A three-year-old girl was savaged in February while attempting to separate two pit bulls at her grandmother's house in Clydebank. Last month, a police officer was forced to retire as a result of a back injury he incurred while strangling a pit bull which had run wild on a housing estate.

Any dog classed as a pit bull must have been neutered, tattooed and had a microchip implanted in its neck. Owners must also have taken out third party insurance and ensure that the dogs are muzzled and on a lead in public. About 5,100 pit bulls were registered by March, the deadline, and a further 900 have been put down by their owners or the courts. There are more than 300 dogs held in secret kennel locations awaiting court hearings.

In addition, the owners of 2,200 pit bulls notified police about their dogs last year but have since failed to complete the registration process. This suggests they are being held illegally.

A vet, who asked not to be named, said that he had about 100 pit bulls on his books but 'I would be surprised if more than 10 had been registered. Some of my clients smuggle their pit bulls into the surgery, others are quite blatant'.

Police say they follow up any case reported to them of pit bulls whose owners have failed to comply with the law. But they admit that it is uncommon for officers to actively root out illegally owned dogs. Inspector Mark Mathews, of the Metropolitan Police, said that the law had to be enforced tactfully. 'We are dealing with family pets, and people can be very sensitive. If we unnecessarily seize a dog, that will cause undue pain for both owners and their animals, so we have to tread carefully. The law says we must seize these dogs, so we seize them. But we aren't turning over every stone looking for them. We've got much more important work to do.'

But while the Government is being pressed to enforce the law more firmly, animal protection groups are pulling ministers in the opposite direction. They want to see the law relaxed to allow the courts greater discretion.

The RSPCA, which was involved in discussions with the Government around the original legislation, yesterday criticised it for being 'inflexible and draconian'. It called for reform of the clause which requires the courts to automatically put down listed dogs whose owners have failed to comply with the law.

The RSPCA pointed to a case of a pit bull from Ealing, west London, which faces destruction because it was allowed to walk unmuzzled in public when it was ill.

The Government yesterday flatly rejected the RSPCA's reform proposals. A Home Office spokesman said: 'No one who saw the results of the horrific attacks on members of the public could fail to see the need for action. There will always be hard cases but there must be stiff penalities for dangerous dogs.'

To add to the Government's problems, rows are also brewing over the correct definition of pit bulls. The law states that 'any dog of the type known as pit bull' is subject to regulations. Yet many of the original dogs - imported from the United States in 1974 - have been crossed and re- crossed with other types, making simple identification impossible.

Lee Stannard was yesterday recovering in Canterbury hospital after surgery to save his sight. Doctors described his condition as 'comfortable'. As for his adored pet, his parents had no second thoughts: they have had it put down.

----------------------------------------------------------------- RECORDED ATTACKS BY DOGS IN LONDON ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1990 1991 1992 (Jan-May) Total 565 467 231 Numbers of injuries 380 274 77 Police officers hurt 90 34 3 Type of dog involved in the incident Pit-bull Terriers 127 158 107 German Shepherds 132 104 20 Rottweilers 84 55 15 Dobermans 22 26 10 Cross-breeds 84 53 14 Others 116 71 65 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: Metropolitan Police -----------------------------------------------------------------

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