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Owner’s DDA heartbreak

A DOG owner whose dogs were seized under the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act hit out at the actions hit out at her City Council, whose actions led to one of her dogs having to be destroyed.
After the elation of hearing that her two dogs, Stafford crosses Roxy (aged 19 months) and Hooch (aged 8 years) were to be returned to her after a year incarcerated under the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, Irene Chambers (64) of Belfast, Northern Ireland had to make the devastating decision to have Roxy destroyed.

Roxy and Hooch were separated after previously living together with no problems, but after 12 months solitary confinement in kennels and following a controlled reunion it became clear that Roxy was unable to cope with living with another dog.

Heartbroken Mrs Chambers felt that having Roxy put to sleep was the only option open to her. Mrs Chambers, of Knock Way, East Belfast, appeared in court last week facing two charges of keeping outlawed pit bull terrier-type dogs. The dogs were seized in January 2007 by dog wardens of Belfast City Council and assisted by the USPCA, and would have been put down if she had been convicted.

The law operates differently in Northern Ireland law to the UK mainland because Stormont has not implemented the 1997 amendment to the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act (which allows dogs found to be of pit bull type but deemed not to be a danger to be added to the exemption register subject to certain restrictions). In court last week, Magistrate Ken Nixon said the expert evidence put forward in this case had been key to his decision.

‘This case is not about fighting pit bull terriers,’ he said. ‘It’s about a lady lovingly caring for dogs that otherwise would have had no home.’

Mr Nixon found the Prosecution evidence of dog warden Yolanda Lightfoot and USPCA Inspector Francis Fox to be ‘not credible’, whilst their veterinary expert Mr Liam Fitzsymmonds even seemed to be unfamiliar with a ruler to make simple measurements or to keep any record of his examination of Roxy and Hooch.

By way of contrast, Mr Nixon praised the evidence of Animal Psychologist Dr Mugford who appeared for the defence, which he found to be ‘comprehensive and compelling’.
‘He and others will get fairness from this court, and that includes Mrs Chambers,’ said Judge Nixon. ‘I’m now dismissing the complaints before this court.’ An order was duly made for the dogs to be returned to Mrs Chambers.

Dr Mugford said after the conclusion of the case: ‘In England, owners can keep a (guilty) dog whereas in Northern Ireland, they have to be killed because of an anomaly in the legislation. The 1997 amendment was never adopted, but that was an oversight on the part of Northern Ireland legislature. I hope it is now adopted because the legislation is quite cruel.’

Both dogs had been housed separately at the facility where the council held them, so a controlled meeting was arranged for both dogs to meet again. However, it soon became obvious that Roxy and Hooch who were once the best of friends were not going to settle together and though the possibility of rehoming Roxy was considered, it was thought she had been so traumatised during her long imprisonment that a rescue placement, which would entail Roxy going back into a kennel environment, would be just too cruel.

Roxy was also profoundly lame from a damaged cruciate ligament, a conditioned worsened by lack of exercise and jumping up at the front of her kennels. This is a very painful condition which even expensive surgery does not always cure.

Mrs Chambers took the hardest decision that a responsible owner could make for her beloved dog, despite that decision breaking her own heart and opted to have Roxy put to sleep to spare her any further distress.

When asked about the decision to put Roxy to sleep Dr Mugford said: ‘There was a managed and controlled reunion where both Roxy and Hooch were walked together on leads and appeared to be okay with each other, however after an off –lead meeting in the garden with Roxy wearing a muzzle, she was clearly uncomfortable with Hooch in a confined space and went for him. This did not happen because of the breed, it’s simply a matter of long-term separation and confinement in sub-standard kennels. Any dog of any breed would suffer in these conditions.’

He added that ‘dogs should either be left at home on ‘bail’ pending court hearings, or at the very least dealt with as a matter of urgency by the courts’.

Mrs Chambers’ daughter Anne stated to Deed not Breed ‘It is totally disgusting that Roxy has only had 7 months of family life and that the isolation she was kept in from then on made her unable to mix with other dogs.’

She went on: ‘My mum and brother got to see the dogs twice over the next four weeks at a location which was not where the dogs were being kept. After that mum was told she would not be allowed to see them again as the travelling was distressing Hooch.’

Six court dates were all subsequently set and adjourned for a number of reasons, finally being set for 15-16 January 2008, nearly one full year after the dogs were seized.

Mr Mugford visited the dogs on 29 July 2007 to give an expert opinion. It was then that there had been a fight between the two dogs which resulted in the dogs being permanently separated from that day onwards.

Dog warden Yolanda Elwood was quoted in the local press as saying the dogs were separated to protect them.

‘Belfast City Council acted because we believed these dogs had the characteristics of pit bull terriers,’ she said. ‘Unfortunately, Roxy became aggressive towards Hooch in the kennel situation and she had to be removed from Hooch to ensure his safety.’

Ms Elwood added: ‘We did not want Mrs Chambers' other dog to be injured by Roxy. Unfortunately, this trait in this type of dog is hard to suppress.’

Melanie Page, Founder of the anti-BSL group Deed Not Breed commented: ‘Dogs like Roxy are suffering in isolation all over the UK. Some are lucky and are eventually released, but many come home traumatised and suffering classic ailments associated with lack of socialisation, stress and solitary confinement, such as severe weight loss, skin disorders, pressure sores, separation anxiety and scarring and injury caused by stress- related self- mutilation. Several have had to have their tails amputated due to damage sustained whilst in the care of the authorities.
‘If a dog was found to be in this state in their own home the owners would be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, so why is it allowed to continue in police or council-appointed kennels?

‘There are also several dogs who have inexplicably died whilst in kennels and others have lost their lives due to contracting a preventable killer infectious disease. One was even euthanised due to a clerical error.

‘Deed Not Breed calls on the government to review an act that has done nothing to promote or improve public safety, but which has been responsible for the deaths of many innocent dogs who have committed no crime. The stress and anguish suffered by pet dogs and responsible owners is immeasurable. Deed Not Breed along with other canine organisations are campaigning to the government to reopen the register of exempted dogs.’

Page summed up the tragedy of this, he latest DDA case to result in the death of a family pet. ‘This barbaric Act affects all dog owners. Mrs Chamber’s dog Roxy was found by a court of law not to be a Pit Bull Terrier but it didn’t stop the DDA from ultimately taking her life.’

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