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Change in the law to 'deed not breed' is possible with public's help

By Gavin Robinson

Published 30/07/2016

Pets are part of the family. If you have or have previously owned a pet, you'll know just how attached you become. Spending half of my working week in London doesn't make having a dog either fair or practical, but the fondness I had for Rolly, the rescue Springer Spaniel we had growing up, was strong.

How could I forget or ignore that affection this fortnight? It felt as though the whole world was rallying behind Hank.

Next week Hank the dog will return home after assessments were carried out by Belfast City Council, and it has been recommended that he is placed on the council's exemption register.

This has been a stressful few weeks for Hank's owners Leonard and Joanne, but an end is finally in sight and they will soon be reunited with their much-loved pet.

I have been in contact with Belfast City Council on Leonard and Joanne's behalf for much of the time since Hank was confiscated, and while any time apart is very difficult for a pet owner, the council did move as quickly as possible to reach a resolution. Indeed, there was even scope for a further assessment of Hank that could have been carried out, but thankfully it has been able to negate the need for that further delay.

Because this animal welfare legislation is implemented by our local councils there is an obvious focus on them, particularly when they are dealing with a particular case such as Hank's. However, ultimately it is the law underpinning their actions which should be the main focus.

To use a Northern Ireland term, the law that governs Hank's case, and those of other dogs across the province, is somewhat bigoted. It effectively says if a dog is a particular breed, or even if it looks like a particular breed, then it is in the wrong. That doesn't seem fair or just to many people, particularly when there is a presumption that the dog is unlawful unless it can be proven otherwise.

There is also a strong argument to say that it does not provide the best protection to the public from dangerous dogs, which ultimately is what everyone wants to see.

We cannot ignore the level of public support that cases such as Hank's have generated.

For anyone who would argue that politics doesn't matter, or that no one is interested in political issues, then the support that exists to ensure there is adequate animal welfare legislation dismisses that argument immediately.

The fact that Hank will be returning home to his family is a successful resolution in this case.

But, ultimately, it will arise again and one of our councils may be forced to confiscate another much-loved family pet.

In that case the outcome may not be as positive as it has been for Hank.

My colleague Emma Little Pengelly has submitted proposals for a Private Member's Bill at Stormont on domestic animal welfare that could allow changes to law to be brought forward. The first consultation stage for this will commence in the early autumn and it can ensure there is a discussion with animal welfare experts, with our local councils, charities and with the general public about how we can bring forward better legislation.

If Hank's case has impacted upon you, or you believe there is a need to ensure that such a case does not arise again, then I would urge you to look out for proposals to change this legislation.

Feedback and support from members of the public is vital in any process to change the law, and it is something where we can achieve a positive change and ensure that other families don't have to suffer what Hank's family have.

Belfast Telegraph

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