(Updated 06/03/01)

The lights go out across Europe

Nick Mays examines the growth of Breed Specific Legislation in Germany and throughout the world...

TEN YEARS ago, Great Britain exported a concept that caught the imagination of politicians throughout Europe. It was stunningly simple, easy to enact and provided the perfect short-term solution (or at least perceived solution) to a problem of great public concern. The concept appealed to the masses because it marginalised a section of the community upon whom the blame for the problem could be laid.


History may teach us that this particular export would, in the long term, cause far more problems than it would ever solve, and cause more divisions and political argument than that which it would replace, but political legislators invariably ignore this less palatable part of the concept.


The name of this wonderful concept which caught on with the Governments of Germany, France, Holland, Portugal and many States and counties throughout the United States of America? Breed Specific Legislation, or BSL for short. The concept is simply that dogs of particular breeds or ‘types’ are inherently dangerous and should be controlled or banned. The same sweeping generalisations applied to the owners of these breeds of dog. As many criminals - drug dealers and thugs - kept such breeds, then, by definition, every owner of those breeds is the same.


During the Spring of 1991, John Major’s Conservative Government introduced the Dangerous Dogs Act, in response to a spate of particular nasty dog attacks on people. Bakery worker Frank Tempest from Lincoln was pinned down and savaged by two alleged American Pit Bull Terriers. Six year-old Rukshana Khan from Bradford was badly mauled by another dog of the same type.


The media had been agitating for controls against ‘dangerous dogs’ since 1989, when 11 year-old Kelly Lynch was killed by two Rottweilers in Scotland. The ‘Pit Bull’ attacks of early ‘91 caused the media campaign to go into overdrive.


Major’s Government was already deeply unpopular and, with a General Election only months away, the Prime Minister had to be seen to be doing something. Thus it was that Home Secretary Kenneth Baker brought into being the Dangerous Dogs Act, having held hasty consultation with the Kennel Club, the RSPCA and a handful of vociferous ‘experts’. The consensus was that specific breeds of dog were dangerous, thus these should be banned.


Baker’s first instinct had been to order all the Pit Bulls in Britain to be exterminated, but he was forced to back down when dog owners, vets and the RSPCA refused to accept this genocidal plan. The next best thing was to ‘phase out’ the dangerous breeds, so Baker effectively made it illegal to keep the American Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasiliero. There were no members of the latter two breeds in the UK and only one Tosa. The Pit Bulls were an easy target, so Baker decided that any dog of the ‘type’ known as the Pit Bull Terrier should be neutered, registered, tattooed and microchipped and subject to third-party insurance. These dogs could not be bred from, sold or exchanged. The ultimate aim was that the breed would die out in ten years or so.


Of course, it didn’t work out as planned. Millions of words have been written in the dog press - and, latterly, in the national media - as to how innocent crossbreeds, pedigree Staffordshire Bull terriers and basically any dog with four legs, a head and a tail were seized as unregistered, illegal pit bull ‘types’, incarcerated and, quite often, destroyed.


After six years of vigorous campaigning and the deaths of hundreds of innocent dogs, the Tory Government decided to appoint a Select Committee to investigate the findings of the Act. The findings were simple; it didn’t work... unless the benchmark was how many dogs the law would kill. So, just before the 1997 General Election, the Government amended the DDA to be less draconian, by removing the mandatory death sentence for any dog ‘guilty’ of being a pit bull ‘type’.


This act of largesse did not prevent the Tories from being booted from office, and the spectre of Breed Specific Legislation remains in the UK... except that no politician now seriously believes that such a concept works.
Fast forward to June 2000 in Germany. A tragedy occurred in the city of Hamburg when a child, six year-old Volkan Kaja, the son of Turkish immigrants, was killed by two trained fighting dogs.


On June 26th 2000, Volkan was playing in the playground of his school in the Wildhelmsburg district of Hamburg. Ibrahim K, the son of Turkish immigrants and his 19 year-old girlfriend Silja W were walking their dogs, ‘Zeus’ the trained fighting Pit Bull and ‘Gypsy’ Silja W’s American Stafford bitch.


Ibrahim K was notorious in the area and known to the police as a dog fighter, whilst having convictions for drug dealing and theft. The dog Zeus was acknowledged as one of the toughest fighting dogs in Germany, earning its owner a steady income in money wagered in organised fights. The dog was already subject to a control order, requiring it to be muzzled in public, after it had bitten another person some months previously. It was not, however, muzzled when K was walking it that fateful day.


K claimed that he had his dogs on the lead, but let them off in order for them to ‘toilet’. All of sudden the dogs ran off, jumped a 1.5 meters (5 foot) high wall and ran onto a school playground. There they attacked Volkan.
The accused declared that he had run after and tried to get the dogs off the child, claiming that five times he had forcibly opened their jaws “I tried to get them off” he said. “But the dogs carried on biting.”


In the end K picked the boy up, but the dogs jumped on him and he fell over. In the end he was too weak to prevent them from mauling the child further.


Police officers arrived and shot both dogs dead, then arrested K and W.


Naturally, the German media went into overdrive. As with the British media in 1991, they had been running stories about ‘dangerous dogs’ for many months prior to the tragedy. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder immediately went on the offensive, declaring that all ‘fighting dogs’ would be outlawed in Germany. Initially, it was left to the 16 individual German Lander (States) parliaments to proscribe which breeds should be banned, whilst the Federal Government attempted to gain a consensus from the Lander to draw up a definitive list of breeds to be banned nationally. Fortunately, the Lander would not reach such a consensus, although unfortunately, individual States tried to outdo each other by introducing harsher legislation against dogs than their neighbours.


Meanwhile, dog owners in Germany became ostracised. There were lurid reports of dog owners being spat at, sworn at and attacked in the streets. At least three dogs were killed by angry mobs of citizens, while the politicians and the media fanned the flames, doing nothing to criticise such attacks, and the police could only advise dog owners to “be careful”, before questioning them as to whether their dog was a ‘fighting dog’.
The tone for the ‘debate’ about ‘Fighting Dogs’ was set early on. British dog owner Catherine Walker, resident in Austria and married to a German, wrote to Schroeder direct. Walker’s e-mail was polite and informative. She pointed out that BSL did not work, and that any legal penalties for dog attacks should be awarded against irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs, not across the board legislation for all breeds perceived as dangerous.
She received a one-word reply from Schroeder’s office: “Bulls**t”.


From here, the German Vice-Chancellor Otto Schilly announced the Federal Government’s intention to call upon the European Parliament to impose a ban on Bull breeds throughout Europe. The listed breeds included the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, an extremely popular breed in the UK and many other countries, and one which had not harmed anybody.


It is well known that the formation of the Internet group DogHolocaust was a source of complete annoyance to the German authorities, as it placed their misguided plans on the world stage and generated millions of complaints to the Government. But Schroeder’s Government ignored the protests - including many demonstrations staged by thousands of dog owners throughout Germany - and pressed ahead with their EU-plan.


Unfortunately for them, the British Kennel Club’s Press Officer Phil Buckley, a key campaigner from day one, briefed the British delegation to the crucial meeting in September 2000, and the EU plan was shelved. The opinion of the gathered nations was that canine legislation was a matter for individual countries, not the EU, much to the annoyance of the German Government.


In December 2000, Ibrahim K was found guilty of “GBH by negligence” by a court in Hamburg and sentenced to three and half years’ imprisonment.


The judge handed down this comparatively light sentence on the grounds that the prosecution could not actually prove anything. There were NO witnesses that maintained their statements that the dogs were trained. Contrary to early newspaper reports, there was no proof from the autopsy on Zeus that the dog had been given any drugs, nor that it had any scars from dog fights. Similarly, there was no such proof relating to the American Stafford, Gypsy.


The only evidence that the dogs were in any way dangerous was the record that the dogs had bitten before and that they had not been leashed or muzzled at the time of the incident, despite a court ruling that they should be muzzled and leashed in public.


The main point for the judge to consider was whether or not Ibrahim K could foresee that such a tragedy was bound to happen. The judge found that it could NOT be foreseen.


And this is, indeed, contrary to what the dog edicts state, based on the presumption that dogs of certain breeds will act dangerously. If the judge had followed the ‘Fighting Dog’ edicts, he would have had to decide “yes, because it was a “Pit Bull”. But he did not.


The judge’s ruling has legal ramifications for the German Federal and States Governments, insofar as nobody can predict or say with certainty that a particular breed of dog can be dangerous and liable to attack. Therefore, the harsh laws inflicted upon Germany’s dog owners could be ruled illegal by either the German Supreme Courts or the European Court of Human Rights.


Despite the fact that a legal challenge to the ‘Fighting Dog’ laws is pending, the Federal Government pushed ahead with its plans to effectively ban ‘Fighting Breeds’ from entering Germany. On Friday, February 16th 2001, tough laws regarding fighting dogs came into force in Germany when the Bundesrat (upper house of Parliament) decided on an import and breed ban on four dog breeds, despite numerous protests from dog lovers and the fact that such a ban is contrary to EU law.


The Upper House passed the new regulations with minimal debate. According to this, the owners of so-called ‘fighting dogs’ will have to demonstrate their knowledge of keeping dogs of these listed breeds.


Under the new law, it is now illegal to breed, sell or even keep ‘Fighting Dogs’ without a permit from the local authority. Anyone found to be keeping a ‘listed’ breed without a permit would be punished under the new law, facing up to two years in prison or a heavy fine.


A complete import ban applies for four breeds listed as ‘Fighting Dog breeds’, namely the Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bullterrier and Bullterrier, together with any crossbreeds of the same.


It is also forbidden in future to breed dogs if it has to be expected that the progeny will have a higher “inherited aggression level”, although just how the German authorities would determine such a factor is not stated.
Meanwhile, other countries stand by to enact BSL-based laws to ban dogs, following Germany’s example. The British Government has stated that it would resist any such legislation from Europe - perhaps having learnt that BSL really doesn’t work. Meanwhile, some countries, such as Austria and Czechoslovakia have rejected BSL, while France, despite its close relationship with Germany, has toned down its BSL by not including Staffordshire Bull Terriers on the ‘banned’ list.


Even so, the tentacles of BSL stretch insidiously around the world. Australia is considering such measures, various Canadian and American States already are enacting it. Opposition to BSL continues apace through pressure groups such as Dogs At Risk, DOMINO and the DogHolocaust Internet List. It simply isn’t good enough for British dog owners shrug off the laws in Europe and think that they won’t affect them - if unchecked, they most certainly will. Breed Specific Legislation is a shortsighted, short-term solution enacted for political expedience. But its cost is human freedom and human rights, and, worse, the lives of innocent dogs.


We ignore it at our peril.


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 




THE OUR DOGS NEWSLETTER

To receive Breaking News dog stories direct to your Inbox,

sign up for the weekly Our Dogs email newsletter here