Deborah Orr: It's not just the upper classes that are getting away with deadly blood sports

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The Independent Online

When a pair of Rottweilers belonging to her mother's boyfriend mauled five-month-old Cadey-Lee Deacon to death, the nation remained largely decorous about the glimpse into social chaos afforded by the tragedy. There was acceptance, in the public sphere, at least, that it was reasonable that the pub the family lived in might need guard dogs, that a rule about the dogs remaining outside could have been understandably overlooked, and that no one was to blame for the baby's death.

Even a background in the family of the child's young father that included a fatal stabbing the same day, and reports of heroin addiction and family criminality, were low key. As usual, the Kennel Club defended the dogs, insisting that the problem was with owners and not breeds. But not too much emphasis was placed on just how true this statement was and is.

There are many similarities in the way the background to the killing of five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson on New Year's Day has been presented. Here, too, the dog was not allowed in the house, but had mysteriously managed to get in, with predictably awful results. Further, it emerged that the dog's owner, the child's uncle, Kiel Simpson, was a convicted cannabis dealer, who had already been warned twice by the police about the threat posed by his savage one-year-old pup. So even though the grandmother was seriously injured trying to defend the child, the cosy extended-family innocence of staying at granny's house was quietly undermined.

But crucially different in this case was the breed of the dog, a pitbull, supposedly banned 15 years ago under the Dangerous Dogs Act, but surviving quite nicely along with rather a large number of others. Here was a point of legality to cleave to, instead of an unseemly class judgement to ignore. How could a fighting dog such as this one even exist when the law decreed otherwise? What was going on?

Merseyside police appear keen to discover what might be occurring. In raids on two buildings, they have discovered eight other such dogs, and tentatively suggest that they may have busted a dog-fighting ring. Dog-fighting? Surely not. That's been banned for eons. Presumably the ban is as well policed on Merseyside as it is in south London, where fights take place regularly, are complained about regularly, but seem rarely to be actually challenged. What are all those young men doing with their balls of muscle and aggression trotting along beside them? Who could possibly guess?

It's often said that the animus against fox-hunting is motivated by class hatred, although those who are most fond of making the accusation are less happy to acknowledge that among the lower classes, rituals that celebrate "nature red in tooth and claw" were outlawed long ago. It's also said that the failure to police the fox-hunting ban is motivated by class deference, although again the fact that the motivations of scary-looking individuals swaggering around town with bull-mastiffs covered in scars are afforded a sort of willed invisibility, calls the theory into question.

The real trouble is that in intellectually and financially starved cultures, activities that celebrate brutality easily spill over into damaging the lives of others. Just as promiscuity looks glamorous on Sex and the City and rather less glamorous on Inside Club 18-30, setting animals to fight each other is even less palatable in a squalid setting than in a wealthy, highly ritualised one. Which I guess is why one group feels able to flout the law with impunity, while the other is so successful in keeping its activities secret.

My New Year's Day was spent at a large woodland barbecue, mingling with city-dwellers who couldn't understand what the red-coated riders could possibly be doing as fox-hunting had been banned. They would have done well to curb their indignation as this lot were the most desultory fox-hunters I've ever seen. They skulked through trees at a plod, and could be heard giving a couple of half-hearted horn-blows, then shouting: "Come on! C-O-M-E O-N." Enquiries revealed that this hunt was famous for having failed to catch a fox in eight years. Instead of banning this crew, give them a grant.

Another Mexican stand-off?

The Mexican actress Salma Hayek certainly seems to be a force to be reckoned with. Already a respected director and producer as well as an Oscar-nominated actress, she is passionate and outspoken in all her endeavours. Her latest project, the steering of US television comedy series Ugly Betty from Mexican telenovella into world-hype smash, can only enhance her burgeoning reputation.

Hayek is passionate about securing a cultural profile for Latinos in America that goes some way to matching their actual physical presence, which is what her championship of Ugly Betty is all about. Some years back Hayek told Vanity Fair that her early experience in Hollywood could be summed up in one prevailing attitude. "It doesn't matter how good you are as an actress or how pretty you are. You can never be a leading lady because we can't take the risk of you opening your mouth and people thinking of their maids - because that's what you sound like."

I suppose it's progress that you can now be a Latina leading lady as long as you hide your good looks behind a brace, big specs, and terrible clothes, and play the corporate equivalent of a maid. Or am I missing the irony here?

The reality of caring for a disabled child

Whatever one thinks about "the Ashley Treatment", which involved medical intervention to stop a severely disabled child's growth and puberty, the truth is that the parents of many highly dependent children anticipate their offspring's development with some trepidation.

When a child with very limited potential for cognitive development is very small, the differences between the baby and his typically abled peers are less noticeable and less hard to bear. When tiny, all children are in nappies, or being fed with a cup or spoon. However well a parent adapts to the idea that their baby is not going to share the same milestones as others, it is painful to see that reality unfold.

A very disabled child has support - the child goes to school, and is picked up for his trip there by an experienced driver. Good respite care is sometimes offered with others who know the child and care for him. All this amounts to a routine engagement with the wider world that again is not so different from that of other young people.

In many cases, once a disabled person is beyond school age, much of this support vanishes. The parents of disabled children sometimes dread puberty too, not for the reasons of discomfort that the parents of Ashley cite, but because they are acutely aware that this makes their child sexually vulnerable - or given widespread worries about paedophilia, even more so.

It would be comforting to believe that we lived in a world in which no person could be taken advantage of in this way. But parents of beautiful but defenceless adults have good reason to fear that this may not be the case. Above all else, nagging for ever at the backs of the minds of parental care-givers is a panic about what will happen when he or she has died and the vulnerable person they love has to rely on others for their care. This is the shadow that dedicated parental care-givers live with for ever.

What is most astonishing about the explanation of the family's motivation given by Ashley's father is that none of these common fears - apart from the possibility of forced sexual contact - has been acknowledged by him. Quite extraordinary, indeed.

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