Fighting dogs stronger than ever in UK, says TV documentary
‘DOG FIGHTING UNDERCOVER’ - PANORAMA – BBC 1, Thursday August 30th 2007
Review by Nick Mays
‘Ellie Lawrenson was the first child in the UK to be killed by a Pit Bull.
But sadly, I am certain that she won’t be the last.’
- Surgeon Christian Duncan, Alder Hay Children’s Hospital
ONE OF the most hard-hitting TV documentaries for many years was screened by the BBC last week. ‘Dog Fighting Undercover’ did exactly what it its title suggested – it delved deep into the world of dog fighting.
Starting with a graphic account from a member of the emergency services team that attended the scene in the early hours of New Year’s Day when 5 year-old Ellie Lawrenson was found mauled to death by her uncle’s powerful Pit Bull Terrier, the programme showed how dog fighting in the UK has its roots in Ireland and the wider International stage.
Reporter Mandy McCauley teamed up with former ‘elite special services’ soldier ‘Steve’ to investigate the trail of fighting dogs into the UK. Before they set off, McCauley spoke to plastic surgeon Christian Duncan, based at Liverpool’s Alder Hay Children’s Hospital. Showing McCauley some horrific dog bite photographs, Christian was unequivocal in his belief that the ban on Pit Bull Terriers brought about by the Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991 was simply not working.
The action shifted to Northern Ireland, described by USPCA Special Investigations Officer Stephen Philpot as the ‘epicentre of British dog fighting’, who explained that Pit Bulls are legal in the south of the country and are shipped over the border into Northern Ireland with impunity. Philpot took part in a joint police/USPCA raid on a house in Dungannon in April 2006 on the trail of a known fighting Pit Bull that had been smuggled over the border from Eire. Four Pit Bulls, including this particular dog, a top fighter named ‘Cannonball’ were seized. But the identity of the dogs’ owner was the greatest shock – the house and the dogs all belonged to Gaelic Football star Gerard Cavlan.
The documentary later revealed that Cavlan had pleaded guilty to holding the illegal dogs, but not to fighting them and had received a paltry sentence of a fine and a five year-ban on owning Terrier-type dogs. This ban was dropped on appeal, and Cavlan made it clear to the investigators that he was still involved in dog fighting.
Paperwork seized from Cavlan’s house led the investigators onto the trail of ‘Cannonball’s’ breeder in Finland. Two Finnish breeders regularly supply fighting Pit Bulls to UK buyers, namely Paul Dunkel and Robert Gonzales.
McCauley and Steve went undercover to visit Dunkel at his farmhouse in Finland, just an hour’s drive from Helsinki, posing as a couple who wanted to buy a fighting dog. The genial Dunkel showed them many of his own bred Pit Bulls and described their various ‘bones crushing ability’. In the end, they agreed to purchase a young dog named Nipper for 2,000 Euros (£1,350).
Dunkel explained that he sold many of his dogs to the most notorious and, in their own circles well-respected – dog fighting kennels in the UK – the Farmer’s Boys. After this, Steve travelled to Northern Ireland where, at an outdoor ‘dog show’ he befriended Stephen Barriskill, the head of the group. Using a secret camera, Steve recorded his conversation with Barriskill and others in the Farmer’s Boys and gained their trust by saying that he was buying a dog bred by Dunkel. In the course of his association with the group, he learned that the Farmer’s Boys were almost operating a ‘franchise system’, supplying top grade fighting dogs to chosen clients in English inner cities, including Newcastle, Liverpool, London and Birmingham. In fact, their biggest client base was to be found amongst the Asian communities in Birmingham.
Dunkel’s account was backed up by the other Finnish breeder Paul Gonzales who also counted the Farmer’s Boys amongst his best clients and associates.
Steve attended a dog fight, but for safety reasons did not carry a hidden camera in case he was searched. But just seven weeks after this fight at what the Farmer’s Boys referred to as a ‘Party House’, Ellie Lawrenson was killed by her uncle’s Pit Bull, Reuben.
The programme showed that in the weeks after Ellie’s death, there were several raids on homes in the Merseyside area where Pit Bulls were seized. However, some hardened dog fighters simply ‘spirited’ their dogs away. The father of one know dog fighter explained on camera that his son had taken all of his fighting Pit Bulls to Spain until the furore died down.
The grandmother of an eight year-old girl bitten by a Pit Bull a few months before Ellie was killed told the reporters that youths on her estate openly paraded their dogs on the street but that when he reported the matter to the police, she was simply told ‘They can’t be proper pit bulls then’ and no action was taken… until it was too late.
The clamp down spread across the Irish sea and in Northern Ireland Framer’s Boy Tom Bell’s ‘Party House’ was raided by police and USPCA officers and all 28 of his dogs confiscated and later destroyed.
Mandy McCauley and Steve returned to Dunkel’s farm and collected Nipper. Dunkel’s wife had filled out Nipper’s pet passport and had specified that the dog was a Labrador/Boxer crossbreed, whilst giving them his ‘real’ paperwork which included his official Pit Bull pedigree.
It was frighteningly easy for Nipper to be imported into the UK. He was flown from Helsinki to Frankfurt, Germany and from there to Dublin, and then simply driven across the border into Belfast. Apart from a few bureaucratic queries along the way, McCauley and Steve were not challenged about his breeding.
One of the most satisfying parts of the film was when McCauley and the BBC film crew ‘stung’ the protagonists in public, confronting them with evidence of their involvement in dog fighting. Both Paul Dunkel and Robert Gonzales were arrested at the time by Finnish police and charged with illegal dog fighting. Gaelic footballer Gerard Cavlan jumped into his car and drove off, whilst the various Farmer’s Boys denied any involvement. The Finnish police and the USPCA will be following up the BBC’s findings against all concerned.
The final scene was perhaps the most disconcerting. McCauley and Steve brought Nipper, the trained fighting Pit Bull Terrier to Liverpool by ferry – they were not challenged at customs. They were shown openly walked him on the streets of Liverpool, "just one of many such dogs" as McCauley said. They were not challenged.
As a documentary, it would be hard to beat. Its message, however, was clear – dog fighting is as strong in the UK as ever it was before the ‘sport’ was banned in 1835… and fighting dogs are easily available if you know where to look and they are in the hands of some very irresponsible owners indeed.