Vets fail to agree on a life or death decision: Stephen Ward meets the owner of a dog that has been sentenced to death

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IGBO, a 10-month-old bitch, was sentenced to death last week because she looked a bit like a pit- bull terrier.

A vet who spends much of his time in court identifying the dogs said Igbo was a 'pit bull type', while a second vet, who had 100 pit bulls on her books, said she was not. Magistrates at Highbury Corner, north London, took the word of the prosecution witness and ordered the dog's destruction under Section 1 of the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act.

Marina Cleland, 24, looks less like an archetypal pit bull owner than Igbo looks like a pit bull. She is a nanny and although the magistrates imposed no fine or prison sentence, she now has a criminal record.

She acquired Igbo from a friend in January. The friend had been given the puppy for Christmas and could not look after her. Miss Cleland had never had a dog before, but had Igbo vaccinated straight away. Then as the puppy grew bigger some friends remarked that she looked a bit like a pit-bull terrier.

Miss Cleland knew it was too late to register a pit bull under the Dangerous Dogs Act, so she took Igbo to the police for advice. They suggested she went to Wood Green Animal Refuge, who told her to go to a vet. A practice in north London told her the dog was a mongrel. The vet registered her as a cross-breed, and for pounds 130 put a microchip in her ear, tattooed her back leg with an identification number, and spayed her. The owner thought that now no one would accuse her of keeping a pit bull under cover.

Unfortunately in April Igbo escaped and was taken to a police station. When she went to collect her Miss Cleland was told Igbo was a pit bull and she could not have her. She was later charged and, most unusually for a dangerous dog prosecution, allowed to have Igbo at home 'on bail' pending the court case.

Duncan Davidson, the vet for the prosecution, said he had once carried out a study of more than 200 pit bulls for a magazine, and had been a witness in more than 50 cases under the Dangerous Dogs Act. 'One has to use one's expertise to come to a subjective opinion,' he said.

With Igbo he noted 'reasonable but not excessive musculature of the front and hind quarters', a reddish coat, short harsh hair, smallish eyes. She had a fairly large head, a reasonably long muzzle and a distinctive crumpled forehead, wrinkled front to back, for him, the clinching factor. She had 'squealed and yowled' when he examined her. She was interested in her surroundings and in people. 'That is the behavioural characteristics I would expect in a pit bull. The vast majority are quite friendly with people, even strangers.' He said the other characteristic was that they could 'turn' in certain situations.

Although she was a mongrel, she had 'more of the characteristics of a pit bull than any other type or breed of dog'.

April Jones, a vet giving evidence for the defence, said: 'I accept there is some pit bull. I violently disagree she is half pit bull.' Her head was the wrong shape, the neck, fore and hindquarters were not muscly enough to be a pit bull. 'In outline Miss Cleland's dog looks like a greyhound,' she said.

Miss Cleland was given three months to have Igbo destroyed. She has lodged an appeal.

(Photograph omitted)