LEADING ARTICLE : Love Dempsey, hate pit-bulls

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The Independent Online
Private Lee Clegg is out of jail. Time now for the readers of the Daily Mail to rally to the cause of Dempsey the Dog. Unlike Pte Clegg, Dempsey has not killed anybody, but she is a pit-bull terrier who (momentarily) was unmuzzled in a public place. And for three years now the courts have deliberated upon Dempsey's fate. This week she received a stay of execution as her owner's solicitors lodged an appeal against her destruction - an appeal which is likely to be heard next year.

Meanwhile the dog-lovers of Middle Britain are being invited to band together to get the law changed. The MPs Roger Gale and Gerry Bermingham were quoted in the Mail yesterday describing the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 as bad law which is not working. In many a learned article on the British constitution the Act is given in evidence as an example of sloppy legislation, hurried through in response to one of those periodic public panics (ironically, usually stoked enthusiastically by the Daily Mail).

For Dianne Fanneran, the dog's owner, the issue is quite simple. "Dempsey was never a dangerous dog and never will be," she said. "The whole thing is lunacy." The Canine Defence League and others agree. Not only is it difficult to identify exactly when an animal is a pit-bull, but it is manifestly unjust, they argue, to condemn a breed for the actions of a few. Pit-bulls should never have been bred, but they too have a right to live.

You do not have to be Jack Straw to feel impatient with this argument. Too many pit-bull owners have emoted about the soft, cuddly nature of their dogs only to find themselves one day extricating a bleeding relative from the jaws of the beast. They are dangerous and it was necessary to legislate for the protection of ordinary members of the public.

And we should not accept uncritically the contention that the Act is not working. Several thousand prosecutions have been brought under its provisions, most of them for being in charge of a dog "dangerously out of control in a public place". Hundreds of pit-bulls have been muzzled, and enforced neutering has reduced the overall numbers. City dwellers are much less likely to be intimidated by some slavering hound following behind seedy youths. The Act has almost certainly saved lives. Which is what it was introduced to do.

It is in this context alone that the flaws in the legislation should be tackled. The Dempsey case has acquired notoriety because the Act did not permit the magistrates to exercise discretion. They had to order her destruction because her muzzle was removed for seconds.

The Act should be amended to allow the sensitive application of the law, preserving it from rigidities that otherwise discredit it. The whole Dempsey debacle might have been avoided had this been available. But it might also have been avoided had the "harmless" Dempsey never been born.