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Hank saved: Owners' delight as beloved pet to be returned but anger at Belfast council

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 29/07/2016

Owners Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows yesterday
Owners Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows yesterday
Owner Leonard Collins with pet Hank
Joanne Meadows with pet Hank

A family pet seized from its home by Belfast City Council will be reunited with its owners on Tuesday.

A expert concluded that Hank the dog did not pose a risk to the public.

Hank was taken two weeks ago on suspicion of being a pit bull - a banned breed in Northern Ireland.

It sparked a huge online campaign, with almost 300,000 signing a petition calling for his release.

However, the council said yesterday Hank could be returned.

An assessment concluded that although he was "a pit bull terrier-type", he could be placed on the council's exemption register.

He is expected to return home on Tuesday, but his owners have still not yet been allowed to visit him.

Last night anger was growing over Belfast City Council's handling of the case.

There were also calls for a review of Northern Ireland's dog laws.

Hank's owners Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows said they are looking forward to welcoming the dog (below) home.

"We're both really happy that it looks like Hank will be released on Tuesday," Leonard told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The council said he is boisterous and in need of some training, but he is certainly no danger to the public, and that is something I have said from the start."

Hank was seized two weeks ago after being reported because he "looked like a pit bull".

He was taken under the Dogs (NI) Order 1983 by a team of police officers and dog wardens.

His owners claim he is actually a Staffordshire-Labrador cross, and has never shown aggressive behaviour. The council and PSNI have been criticised for their heavy-handed approach.

Eight police officers and four council officials were involved in the operation to remove the pet from Mr Collins' home on July 14. He was out at the time, and had returned to a notice on his door saying that the property had been searched and Hank seized.

Hank the dog with owner Joanne Meadows
Hank the dog with owner Joanne Meadows
Leonard Collins with his dog Hank, who was seized by authorities amid claims that he looks like a pit bull (Leonard Collins/Joanne Meadows/PA)
Hank with his owner Joanne Meadows
Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows at home after their dog Hank was seized by Belfast City Council
Hank as a pup

The pet has spent the last fortnight separated from his family. On Wednesday Hank's owners claimed that Belfast City Council was "refusing" to speak to them after they phoned for an update. Mr Collins said: "I do have serious concerns with how this case has been handled. I feel the council has hid behind the legislation to explain its behaviour, but I'm happy that common sense has prevailed."

He added: "My concern would have been that the council would have come back and said that he was a pit bull and a danger, and it would have been a lengthy process with further assessments. "(Dog expert) Peter Tallack in this case has made an initial assessment that he does not believe Hank is a danger.

"So I am very happy that the council has come to this conclusion and hasn't dragged this out any further, but it could have been avoided. I hope this case shows that change is needed."

He added he and Joanne will have to accept that Hank is a pit bull-terrier type in order to secure his release.

Although they dispute this, they will comply in order to get their dog back.

But they are considering a legal challenge in order to overturn the council's findings.

The case sparked a massive campaign with celebrities such as Dermot O'Leary and Carl Frampton calling for Hank's release.

Celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell also joined the fight. She posted last night: "Hank will most likely be going home next week. Today is a good day. Thanks to all who helped to #SaveHank."

The case has echoes of the Lennox saga, where a dog was seized in 2010 and put down two years later after a failed legal battle. Last night there were calls for a change in the law to avoid similar issues in the future.

Belfast City Council said: "Hank first came to the attention of the council due to concerned members of the public raising a welfare issue.

"He has displayed some behavioural issues but, having worked with him since he was taken into our possession, and, in light of the expert opinion received, we believe these can be addressed through additional training.

"Subject to this court approval, and with the agreement of his owners, Hank will be the 12th dog to be placed on the exemption register and returned to their owner by the council since 2011, out of 13 dogs assessed to be pit bull types during this period. All 12 have had conditions attached to their return which are aimed at addressing issues of public safety."

It 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."

Fortnight of uncertainty after beloved pet seized

Thursday, July 14: Hank is seized from his east Belfast home with Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows by Belfast City Council officers accompanied by police. The council said it had received a call from a member of the public about the dog .

Friday, July 15: Leonard and Joanne set up a campaign to save Hank, starting with a Facebook page Save Hank which attracted thousands of likes within hours, and an online petition which received a similar response with support around the world.

Tuesday, July 19: Council announces an expert from England will determine whether or not Hank is a pit bull terrier type

Wednesday, July 27: Expert examines Hank

Thursday, July 28: Council announces Hank has been deemed to a pit bull type, and will be placed on an exemption register, but that Hank can be returned to his owners as early as next Tuesday following court approval with conditions.

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