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BSL, the Gulf War and Déja Vu

THE CURRENT conflict in Iraq has sparked off an interesting case of deja vu in my mind – and it relates to ‘dangerous dogs’ and, specifically, to Breed Specific Legislation writes Nick Mays
Just recently, anti-BSL campaigner Marion Harding form New Zealand remarked to me that the intense media coverage of every dog biting incident in New Zealand had abruptly ceased the moment that American, British and Australian troops launched their attack against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

"Goodness knows what’s happened to all these dangerous dogs that were supposed to infest our streets," says Marion. "I can only assume they’re all at home reading the newspapers or watching the TV coverage about the Iraq conflict. In other words, the media has something else to focus on."

This put me in mind of the situation 13 years ago, when the media – largely prompted by the RSPCA and the vociferous anti-dog lobby – were launching a concerted campaign against ‘dangerous dogs’, invariably Pit Bull Terriers, Dobermanns, Rottweilers and the like, all owned, we were led to believe, by shaven headed, vest wearing lager louts. "Something Must Be Done!" screamed the headlines in the nationals, the regionals and the local rags, where every incident relating to a dog was reported – the Yorkshire Post once even famously reported the case of a stray dog walking down a street in one town – and thus the political momentum began to gather.

This was tied in with a campaign by the RSPCA to introduce compulsory dog registered and somehow, went their argument, all these dangerous dogs could be contained if they were licensed and registered – even if irresponsible owners such as those depicted as being typical owners wouldn’t register their dogs anyway.

Irresponsible

Such warped logic was meat and drink to the Society’s then Campaigns Director Gavin Grant who brushed aside any suggestion that irresponsible owners wouldn’t register their dogs, and continued to parrot the line that managed to get the RSPCA banned from Crufts until 1994.

However, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saw off the calls for compulsory dog registration, even imposing a three-line whip on her MPs to ensure that an amendment to the Environment Protection Act introducing compulsory dog registration was not passed. The Government won the day by a margin of three votes, but such was the measure of the Iron Lady, who decreed that dog registration would not solve any problems and would only add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to society.

But the media hue and cry against dangerous dogs abruptly scaled down when Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, and the coverage stopped altogether when the Allies launched a counter-strike against the occupying Iraq forces in January 1991, driving the oppressors out of Kuwait and back to Iraq.

Did dangerous dogs just cease to exist? Were there that many to start with? Did the "epidemic" of dog attacks cease? Why did the calls for tough new dog laws dry up? The answer is simple: Because the media had another bogeyman to pursue – Saddam Hussein.

Of course, once the Gulf War was over, the dangerous dogs came back, then after a spate of particularly nasty dog attacks in the Spring of 1991, new Premier John Major, fearful of the renewed media onslaught, panicked and tasked his Home Secretary Kenneth Baker to "do something about it". Baker opted for Breed Specific Legislation and thus the Dangerous Dogs Act – largely drafted by Baker with the help of the RSPCA – came into being.

Hate campaign

Fast-forward to the summer of 2000 and witness the anti-dog hysteria in Germany, whipped up by the media. A child was killed by a genuine fighting dog. The media whipped up a hate campaign against dogs and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder famously declared that any protest against BSL is, in fact, BS, and the KampfeHund laws are enacted. This time there is no conflict to deflect the German media away from dangerous dogs.

Deja vu – of a kind. Sadly so.

Go forward another three years to New Zealand, 2003, where the New Zealand media are deliberately targeting the entirely innocent Staffordshire Bull Terrier as a ‘dangerous’ breed, the protests of campaigners are being ignored, the voice if reason is stifled. And then…. Iraq is attacked and Saddam is the bogeyman again. How’s that for Deja Vu?

But once the war is over, will the New Zealand media renew their anti-dog onslaught? Will the New Zealand Government go down the deja-vu road and enact Breed Specific laws; laws that will not work and that will only demonise dogs and their owners? Or will they use this respite from the media hate campaign to think calmly and rationally about workable dog laws, those that punish the deed, not the breed?

Who knows? Watch this space. Will it be deja vu all over again?