Dog Hank saved as council rules pit bull 'does not pose risk to public'
The owners of a dog saved from destruction after authorities ruled he was a pit bull, but not a dangerous one, have said they are over the moon with delight.
Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows spearheaded a high-profile campaign to secure the release of their beloved Hank after Belfast City Council removed him from his home.
Two weeks on, the council has announced that while an expert has assessed the pet to be a "pit bull terrier type" he does not pose a risk to the public.
It has recommended that Hank is exempted from the dangerous dogs legislation that requires the destruction of specific breed types. The recommendation has to go before a judge for approval next Tuesday. If the expected approval is granted, Hank will be returned home.
"We are delighted, we are over the moon," said Mr Collins.
"We would dispute the findings that Hank is a pit bull but obviously that will come another day, we are just very happy that the council have agreed with us that he is not a dangerous dog and that he's a family pet - a much-loved pet - and that he can come home."
Mr Collins said while he was overjoyed at Hank's reprieve, he still was determined to challenge the legislation under which he was originally seized.
An on-line "Save Hank" petition had secured almost 285,000 signatures before Thursday's announcement by the council, while a Just Giving legal fighting fund had raised around £19,000.
Celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell and boxer Carl Frampton were among those who backed Hank's campaign. Mr Collins and Ms Meadows, who insisted Hank was a Staffie/Lab cross, also appeared on nationwide media, including ITV's This Morning show, to highlight their case.
Mr Collins, a 33-year-old student, said he wanted to explore the possibility of using the money raised to launch a challenge against Stormont's breed-specific dangerous dog legislation.
"Now it becomes about using the momentum and the clear support that there is and clear belief that the public has that BSL (breed specific legislation) is flawed and using that to force change, that's what we are determined to do," he said.
"We can't in all good conscience accept the help we have received and then decide this fight isn't for us. We are determined."
He said he had concerns about conceding in court next week that Hank was a pit bull.
"In order to get Hank home we feel we have no choice, but we are now looking at the legalities of agreeing to it, but then challenging it later on," he said.
A rally organised by Hank's owners against dangerous dogs legislation is set to go ahead next Sunday.
"Now it looks like Hank will be able to attend himself," said Mr Collins.
Announcing the decision on Hank's fate, a Belfast City Council spokesman said: "It is anticipated that this matter will be brought through the courts as quickly as possible, following agreement from all parties on the recommended conditions, enabling Hank to be returned to his owners.
"He will remain within the council's care until then and we again reassure all those who expressed an interest in Hank's welfare that his needs are being met, and will continue to be met, during this time."
In response, the Save Hank Facebook page simply stated: #hanksbeensaved.
The council spokesman said the dog expert had identified "some behavioural issues" with Hank but he said the council believed those could be addressed through "additional training".
He added: "The council has a statutory responsibility to protect the health and safety of the public by carrying out its duties under the current breed specific legislation, which is set by the Northern Ireland Assembly and not Belfast City Council. This involves following the legally accepted assessment process to determine whether a dog is a banned breed and, if so, whether they pose a danger to the public."
The spokesman said 12 of 13 dogs assessed by the council to be pit bulls since 2011 had been exempted and returned to their owners.
In 2012, a family pet called Lennox was put down after the council determined it was a pit bull. The destruction came after a high-profile, two-year legal fight by the dog's owners.
Indicating the extent to which the story has penetrated the local news agenda, the council decision was met by almost immediate statements from senior politicians.
Democratic Unionist MP Gavin Robinson, who represents the east Belfast constituency where Hank was seized, said: "I am pleased that a positive outcome has been reached in this case. I know how stressful it has been for the family over the last number of weeks, but it appears the council have been working through the necessary systems as quickly as possible."
Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long said the case demonstrated the need to change laws surrounding dangerous dogs.
"As a dog owner, I know only too well the suffering Hank's owners Leonard and Joanne must have gone through since he was taken from them," she said.
"I have been in contact with them and know they will be absolutely delighted by this news.
"I have long argued for the need to change breed-specific legislation and indeed remove it entirely if possible. The focus should be on the deed, not the breed. It is not acceptable that a dog who has now been found to be no threat to the public could have potentially been put to sleep because of an outdated law."