A Belfast mother feels she has betrayed her ill daughter by failing to save their family dog from being put down.
Caroline Barnes broke down in court as she was told that her beloved pet Lennox will be destroyed after a judge ruled it was a danger to the public.
The pitbull terrier-type dog was seized by council officials in May last year after it was reported for snarling and barking at wardens.
Since then Miss Barnes (34) has battled to keep the animal alive, launching a major internet campaign that has attracted support from around the world.
Her daughter Brooke (12), who has chronic asthma, wrote a letter to Belfast City Council asking them to save her best friend.
At a hearing at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday, District Judge Ken Nixon ignored desperate pleas to release the dog.
He ruled that the dog’s “total unpredictability” made it a danger to the general public under the Dangerous Dogs (NI) Order.
Miss Barnes said she was “absolutely devastated” by the decision to put Lennox down.
“As a parent your children look to you to fix things, and I have to go home now and tell Brooke that her mummy has failed,” said the former veterinary nurse.
“Lennox isn’t a bad dog — he’s just frightened of people he doesn’t know. He is a big dog but he has no issue with anyone or anything, except strangers.
“If people came and saw how he behaves at home, how much a part of our family he is, they would make a different decision.”
Lennox was picked up by council dog wardens after the animal showed signs of aggression during a routine licence inspection.
The court heard that officials were warned by Miss Barnes’ partner at the time that the dog would “rip your head off” if approached.
More than 20,000 supporters have joined the Save Lennox campaign since the pet was impounded in May 2010.
At one stage threatening letters — including one drenched in petrol — were sent to female dog wardens, while another officer had her car tyres slashed. Lennox’s devastated owner said she hoped to appeal yesterday’s decision before the summer.
“If the appeal goes ahead I’ll be able to tell Brooke that I haven’t given up,” Miss Barnes said.
Mr Nixon heard that the Barnes family brought Lennox into their north Belfast home when the dog was just a puppy.
Miss Barnes’ mother Margaret said Lennox was “a nice family dog” that would be left alone to play with her grandchildren.
But animal behaviour expert Peter Tallaght said Lennox’s aggressive behaviour was “unusual”.
“As incredibly sad as it is, there is just so much risk in that dog being involved in a family environment,” he said.
Mr Tallaght told the court about an incident in which Lennox had tried to attack him as he shut him in a kennel.
“My professional opinion is that this dog is not safe,” he added.
Animal handler David Ryan said the dog’s behaviour could be changed through treatment
Belfast City Council said it was the right decision to order Lennox to be put down.
A spokesman called for changes to legislation on dog control and the definition of a dangerous dog in the aftermath of the case.
“Today’s ruling vindicates the actions of our staff who have had to endure a relentless campaign of intimidation and abuse throughout these legal proceedings,” he said.
Lennox was seized by Belfast City Council wardens and has been impounded in kennels since May 2010 under the Dangerous Dogs (NI) Order 1991. Miss Barnes initially denied her pet was a banned breed, saying it was a cross between an American bulldog and a Labrador crossed with a Staffordshire bull terrier. She later accepted that Lennox was classed as a pitbull terrier-type, but insisted he was not a danger to the public.
Dogs legislation needs to be clarified, says council
Belfast City Council has called for the laws on dangerous dogs to be changed after confusion emerged in the Lennox case.
In Northern Ireland the control of dogs is governed by the Dogs Order (NI) 1983, which was amended by the Dangerous Dogs (NI) Order 1991.
Unlike the rest of the UK, there is no registration system for dangerous dogs and no provision for an illegal dog to be made legal because of good behaviour.
The 1991 order bans the ownership, breeding and sale of certain types of dog used for fighting purposes — including, among others, pitbull terriers. But whether a dog is banned or not depends on its type, not just its breed label.
This means that even if a dog is perceived to be a pitbull, it may fall outside the legislation if its characteristics suggest that it is not.
The decision is made by a court, which will assume the animal is an unlawful type unless the owner can prove otherwise.
District councils are responsible for enforcing the laws on dangerous dogs and can seize any pet that appears to fall within the definition.
The maximum penalty for owning a banned dog type is six months’ imprisonment or a £5,000 fine.
The original legislation also required the judge to order the destruction of the animal.
However, an amendment made in 2001 means that he “may” order the dog to be put down “unless the court is satisfied that the dog will not be a danger to public safety”.
Lennox was seized by council wardens after his aggressive behaviour led experts to think he might be a pitbull terrier-type.
The dog’s owner, Caroline Barnes, at first contested that her pet fell outside the definition, arguing that the animal was a crossbreed. She later accepted that Lennox’s size made him a pitbull terrier-type.
Yesterday’s hearing hinged on whether or not the dog was a danger to the public. District Judge Ken Nixon ruled that Lennox was dangerous to strangers and ordered him to be destroyed.