Emotional reunion for Hank and owners as judge frees pet from death row
Weeks after council seized their dog for appearing to be a banned breed, couple overjoyed to have him home
The owners of Hank the dog have said they are overjoyed to be reunited with their pet.
Hank returned home last night, nearly three weeks after he was seized by Belfast City Council because he appeared to be a banned breed.
Although an expert said he was a pit bull terrier type - currently outlawed in Northern Ireland - yesterday it was ruled that he could be released.
There was applause at Belfast Magistrates' Court after a judge ordered Hank's exemption from the list of banned breeds.
Owners Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows spoke of their relief to have him back. Joanne said: "I missed him so much."
Earlier, she fought back tears after Judge Ken Nixon confirmed that the dog would not face destruction.
Hank was seized from his east Belfast home on July 14 by a team of eight police officers and four dog wardens.
The move followed a complaint from a member of the public. When officers attended, they identified the dog as a potential pit bull. It showed signs of "agitated behaviour", the court hearing was told.
Hank's owners were not present, but he was seized after a warrant was executed.
It prompted an enormous online campaign, with almost 300,000 people signing a petition to save the animal.
The pet was examined by canine behaviour expert Peter Tallack last week.
He concluded that while the dog was a pit bull terrier type and his behaviour was "boisterous", there was no evidence that he posed a threat.
In court yesterday, a lawyer for Belfast City Council applied to have Hank spared from destruction. Judge Nixon was told that the pet has already been microchipped and neutered and would be insured.
Supporters in the public gallery applauded as the judge agreed to make the order to allow Hank to be returned home.
After the hearing, Ms Meadows said: "It was just such a relief to know that it actually was happening today.
"Until the judge said the words, we were just afraid in case something changed.
"It means so much - I just can't get over being able to see him again."
Hank's owners claim he is actually a staffie-labrador cross, however, as part of the court process they have had to accept the council's ruling that he is a pit bull.
They are considering a legal challenge in order to overturn the council's findings.
"We have to (accept Hank is a pit bull) - this is the legislation, and this is where the legislation fails," Mr Collins said.
"It's such an abstract concept of what a pit bull terrier actually is. For us to have him back, we have to go in and legally accept the council's findings, regardless of our own personal opinion about it.
"This is something that we hope to challenge.
"We are less than happy with the legislation. As far as we know the council is less than happy with it, politicians aren't happy with it, the public isn't happy with it - something has to change."
Although they are overjoyed to have Hank home and safe again, the couple have vowed to continue their campaign to reform Northern Ireland's dog laws.
They want an end to the controversial breed-specific legislation which exists here and which led to Hank being seized.
A rally is planned to take place at Stormont on Sunday afternoon, August 14.
"We can't in all good conscience accept the help that we've been given and now decide that the fight is finished because we have Hank home," Mr Collins explained.
The couple also thanked members of the public for everything that they did in helping to ensure that the beloved pet was returned to his owners.
Mr Collins said: "We do not think Hank would be coming home, especially this soon, without the support.
"Belfast City Council, when the pressure was put on, they expedited the process."