THE GOVERNMENT is holding back on any ‘knee jerk reaction’ to the recent outcry surrounding illegally owned pit bull terriers in the wake of a fatal attack on a five year-old girl, but seems poised to give its blessing to a ‘Pit bull’ amnesty, sparking protests from bodies including the Kennel Club and Dogs Trust.
As reported previously, five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson died after being attacked by a dog at her grandmother’s home in the early hours of New Year’s Day. Her grandmother, Jackie Simpson, 46, had serious bite wounds to her arms and legs after fighting to get the dog, an alleged pit bull ‘type’ called Reuben, away from Ellie.
The dog, which was cornered near the family home and shot by a police marksman, was owned by Ellie’s uncle, Kiel Simpson, 23 who also lived at the end-of-terrace house near St Helens, Merseyside. Its corpse was examined by a dog expert from the Metropolitan Police, who confirmed that the animal was a ‘pit bull terrier type’. Mr Simpson could face prosecution under the Dangerous Dogs Act for failing to keep control of the animal and also for possessing a dog of the pit bull ‘type’.
Superintendent John Ward, of Merseyside Police, said: ‘An assessment has been made by a recognised expert on the Dangerous Dogs Act, from the Metropolitan Police, and he has confirmed that the dog was a pit bull terrier type. The results of this post-mortem will now be included in the investigation and we will be speaking to all family members about the circumstances leading up to this tragedy.’
Toxicology tests were also carried out on the dog’s body to ascertain whether it had any drugs in its system, but police were quick to point out that toxicology tests are a standard part of any such investigation.
A spokeswoman for St Helens Council confirmed that Mr Simpson had been sent a warning letter about his dog’s behaviour in June last year after a neighbour complained that the animal had attacked his dog.
Last week it emerged that Keil Simpson, was sentenced to 21 months in a young offenders' institution in 2003 for possessing £24,000 worth of cannabis with intent to supply.
He pleaded guilty at Liverpool Crown Court after police discovered 18 blocks of cannabis resin, weighing 19.8 kilos, in the boot of his Volkswagen Golf.
Merseyside Police officers spent days combing the property for clues about the tragedy. Police refused to comment on reports in the Liverpool Echo newspaper that the cash from the house seized amounted to £15,000, and that hard drugs were also found.
A police spokeswoman said: ‘We can confirm that an amount of cash has been seized from the house, along with a number of items which will be subject to forensic examinations.'
Ellie’s grandmother Jackie Simpson returned to her home from hospital last weekend but was still said to be too ill to be interviewed by police about the tragedy, in order to gain a full picture of the circumstances and situation which led to the dog attacking Ellie.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that Reuben had bitten Ellie’s 19 year-old aunt on the arm just days before the fatal attack.
HOME Secretary John Reid will process a request from Merseyside’s Chief Constable to initiate a ‘dangerous dogs’ amnesty in the city ‘as a matter of urgency’.
Mr Reid wants the proposal - put forward by Chief Constable Bernard Hogan Howe, with the backing of local councils - to get illegal dogs off the streets by the end of the month.
Aides said he understood the ‘passions, fears and concerns’ sparked by the pit bull killing of St Helens five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson. But equally, they said, he had to ensure police had the resources available to handle the expected influx of potentially lethal animals.
A Home Office official added: ‘The Secretary of State is fully aware that this is an important and urgent issue. Consultations are continuing with other departments and agencies.’
Dr Reid is also examining the results of an internal Whitehall inquiry into longer-term dangerous dogs legislation put forward by experts on the government’s Dog Legislation Advisory Committee, but is being careful not to make the mistake of his Conservative predecessor Kenneth Baker and legislate hastily, as was the case with the flawed dangerous Dogs Act.
The Home Office said that it had ‘no record’ of other police forces following the amnesty initiative launched on Merseyside.
A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which currently has responsibility for dog laws, said: ‘We have yet to see a specific proposal from Merseyside police. There are huge implications for the welfare of animals and the capacity of local police forces to handle them.’
On the subject of the ongoing review of the existing dog legislation and any plans to overhaul this, the DEFRA spokesperson said:
‘As a matter of course, we constantly review our legislation and will always consider suggestions for amending our laws. We deal closely with the police, who are responsible for the day to day enforcement of laws aimed at protecting the public from dogs that present a risk.
‘The police consider that the 1991 Act has had a dramatic effect in protecting people from dog attacks and are confident that it has helped prevent many serious injuries. Dog owners are now more aware that they have a responsibility to prevent their dogs from causing injury to any person.’
The leading canine charity Dogs Trust is calling for an amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act to reflect the ‘deed not breed’ of a dog; to adequately deal with aggressive or dangerous dogs based on the actions of a dog rather than its breed. This could be implemented by introducing a more effective ‘ASBO’-type control system to allow for suitably stringent controls on owners of dogs that display unwarranted aggression, whatever the breed of dog.
A spokesperson for the charity said: ‘Dogs Trust is very concerned that an amnesty is being proposed that will lead to the killing of many innocent dogs. Dogs Trust does not believe that an amnesty will achieve the desired result of eliminating aggressive or dangerous dogs, nor would it ensure the prevention of dog attacks on people.
‘An amnesty, with various conditions laid down by individual local authorities, may help encourage some owners to take more responsibility for their dog, but we are also concerned that it might in fact drive the encouragement of aggression in these dogs further underground.
‘Sadly the possession of an aggressive dog, no matter what the breed, is seen to be macho by some in society, and the abhorrent illegal practice of training dogs for fighting continues. An amnesty will do nothing to prevent this, but instead might lead to the unnecessary death of many beloved family pets simply based on their breed, regardless of their behaviour.
‘The ‘type known as a pit bull terrier’ is not a recognised breed and it is therefore difficult to positively identify a dog as prohibited. Consequently there are many Staffordshire Bull Terrier cross-breeds that have long legs and might therefore be classified as a pit bull type. Many of these are beloved family pets with no tendency to aggression and therefore no danger to the public.
‘Dogs Trust suggests that, where the dog is a family pet and shows no tendency to aggression, the owner should be allowed to have their dog entered on the Index created under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. They should also be required to comply with the other requirements under the Act (neutering, microchipping, insurance, muzzling).’
Amanda Dunkley of the anti-DDA group Endangered Dogs Defence and Rescue told OUR DOGS:
‘We are deeply saddened with the shocking news that a five year old child has lost her life due to a dog attack in the family’s home on New Years Day. Our deepest sympathies and thoughts are with the family and friends at this difficult time. The full facts surrounding this tragic incident are not yet fully understood as Police investigations are still in progress at this time.
‘For some time it has been apparent that the Dangerous Dogs Act needs to be repealed, as it is not protecting the public and is generally unworkable. The number of people owning and breeding dogs for all the wrong reasons has increased and until this is addressed in a calm and well thought-out manner, the situation will not improve.
‘Any breed or type of dog can attack if not properly socialised, trained and responsibly owned. Dogs are a product of their upbringing and environment. It is irresponsible and inadequate owners who should be the focus of legislation rather than breeds or types of dog. We have been inundated with enquires from concerned dog owners who are worried that their pet may be seized as a ‘type’, the effects have been truly devastating, we do not think that the proposed Amnesty in Merseyside will do anything to address the problem of irresponsible owners and breeders and we urge others, to ‘say no to the amnesty’.
Janet Payne of the Fury Defence Fund said:
‘We are concerned that the police are back-pedalling and using this Amnesty as a PR exercise and a cost-cutting measure and that the decent owners of well behaved dogs will be intimidated into handing their dogs in or going to the police in the misguided belief that they can identify what is a pit bull ‘type’.
‘Let the police come to them with their accusations and charge them accordingly, whereby they will be entitled to their day in court. On no account plead guilty, but rely on genuine expert evidence and, if their dog is found guilty, then it can be registered on the Index of Exempted breeds accordingly and its life spared. Better still, it will be found not to be of the pit bull type and released.'
The Kennel Club also issued a statement on the whole situation. A spokesperson said: ‘This dreadful news highlights the need for a revision to current Dangerous Dog legislation in England as the general public are not being sufficiently protected by the law as it currently stands. Breed specific legislation has not proved an effective tool to deal with people who keep dogs like the one that attacked Ellie Lawrenson, and the inability to prosecute owners whose dogs attack on private property such as a family home is also deeply flawed. This incident further demonstrates the need to both educate the public on the vital importance of training dogs correctly and to punish those that fail to do so.’