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24/12/01
The Act begins to bite

IN THE months following the 'live' enactment of the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, police forces around the country began seizing any dog that resembled a pit bull terrier 'type' of dog. Under Section One of the Act, any unregistered 'pit bull' was liable to seizure and incarceration at secret kennels, guilty of being a dog 'of the type' until such time as the dog's owner proved in court that the dog was not 'of the type'.

The creation of the DDA was, as veteran peer and vehement anti-DDA campaigner Lord Houghton of Sowerby famously put it, "A knee-jerk reaction of the very worst kind". There had, undoubtedly, been some problems in the preceding two years with dangerous dogs, but it was not the nationwide epidemic the popular media would have the public believe.

So when Home Secretary Kenneth Baker found himself under extreme political and media pressure, his resulting Act was badly worded and ill defined. Even so, Baker could not have foreseen that some individuals in positions of authority would take the vague wording of the Act regarding pit bull 'type' dogs as a green light to seize any dog that in their opinion resembled a pit bull.

Perception

It soon became clear that many such seizures were done far more from the point of view of the officer's perception of the dog's owner, rather than the dog itself.

This led to the seizure of so many dogs which became, over the next few years, causes celebré in the fight against the Act. Sadly, many of them became martyrs, too, when all legal channels to secure their freedom failed, thanks to the blatant unfairness of unsympathetic judiciary and hostile prosecution evidence.

Names such as Otis, Dempsey, Buster Crothers, Buster Brock, Tiggy, Judd, Lacey and many others will never be forgotten, especially for the fact that each chalked up many months, indeed years, in secret kennels while the legal arguments to free them raged. And one fact, which must be borne in mind with every case, is this: NONE of the dogs had attacked or injured a human being.

None were deemed 'dangerous'. There only crime was to resemble a Pit Bull Terrier - or not, depending on which expert's point of view was accepted by the courts. In one of the many parliamentary debates about the DDA during the early and mid 1990s, the long drawn-out legal process was likened to "a virtual cottage industry" and "a gravy train" where solicitors, barristers and expert witnesses alike could earn large sums of money for their services, each appeal, each court appearance adding to the growing bill, all to be met by the taxpayer.

Perhaps the most lucrative occupation at this time was to be the owner of one of the many kennels - most of them surrounding London - where dogs awaiting trial under the DDA were held. Kennelling fees for these dogs averaged £9.00 per day, for a bare concrete pen, devoid of toys or blankets and, in most cases, any kind of visiting rights for the dog's owner.

This was in stark comparison to the average costs of £4 per day for a 'holiday boarder' dog, which would have toys, bedding and be fed whatever food its owner required it to have.

Thus the Act rumbled on, the legal process lumbered on: Magistrates' Court, Appeal to Crown Court. If no freedom was granted, a further appeal to the High Court, occasionally even to the Lords. And there was the added threat of the dog being re-seized under a totally different section of the Act if the police decided the dog was, despite all rulings to the contrary, a pit bull 'type'.

Surreal

Looking back now, ten years since the DDA came into force and four years since the Act was amended to be less draconian, and it seems astonishing, unbelievable, and almost nightmarishly surreal that such injustices were perpetrated against innocent dogs and their owners.

But it happened. And, crucially, the DDA provided the template for the even worse "Kampfhund" laws which were enacted in Germany from June 2000 onwards.... and breed Specific Legislation (BSL) continues to spread its tentacles around the world.