Hank saved: Owners delighted as they're told dog 'does not pose a risk to public'
Figures reveal only four dogs destroyed in 243 similar dangerous dog cases in Northern Ireland
Hank, the dog isolated from his owners after it was seized by Belfast City Council, does not pose a risk to the public and looks set to be returned to his owners.
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.
The council has recommended that Hank is exempted under dangerous dogs legislation. The recommendation has to go before a judge for approval. If the expected approval is granted, Hank will be returned home.
An assessment of the animal concluded that although it was a 'Pitbull Terrier type' it's behaviour indicates that it is not a risk.
It means the 23-month-old family pet can be returned to his owners following court approval.
Leonard and Joanne said they are delighted he is coming home.
Leonard said: "He is more than a pet - he's my best friend and it'll mean so much to have him home."
Belfast City Council said in a statement: "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."
A post on the Save Hank Facebook page said: "We have received word from Belfast City Council that their assessment has concluded.
"They have deemed Hank to be 'Pitbull Terrier type' but his 'temperament is such that it does not pose a risk to the public'. The court hearing for the exemption order is set for next Tuesday.
"Effectively this means that Hank will almost certainly come home on Tuesday!!"
It is understood canine expert Peter Tallack flew to Belfast from England on Wednesday and inspected Hank to determine whether or not he is a pit bull.
The council added: "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.
"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."
Hank was seized by the council two weeks ago after being reported because he "looked like a pit bull".
A petition in support of his release gathered more than 275,000 signatures.
Among those backing the campaign are X Factor host Dermot O'Leary and celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell.
The family have asked for people to update their Facebook status to #savehank on Thursday to show their support for the campaign.
Meanwhile, figures have shown that the vast majority of suspected illegal dogs in Northern Ireland prove not to be banned breeds.
Councils investigated more than 240 cases in the last four years.
Yet just four - one in every 60 - ended with the dog having to be destroyed.
Most cases resulted in the animal being cleared.
The figures, revealed in an Assembly question, lend weight to claims that councils are taking an over-zealous approach to family pets.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has also thrown his weight behind the campaign.
Mr Nesbitt said the legislation in Northern Ireland is flawed.
"This represents the ugly and deeply unfortunate consequences of Northern Ireland continuing to implement the flawed and archaic breed-specific legislation which we have been calling to be reviewed or scrapped for some time," he said.
Mr Nesbitt added: "The old fashioned and prescriptive thinking that all dogs of a certain breed are dangerous is incompatible for 2016."
Statistics obtained by the UUP via Assembly questions show that between 2011 and 2015 councils investigated some 243 dogs.
Most were cleared. Thirteen were seized and 13 were voluntarily surrendered. Just four were destroyed after being deemed a banned breed.
Mr Nesbitt added: "My party has been able to reveal that dozens of dogs are investigated each year, with over 240 suspected banned or prohibited being affected over the last four years. The vast majority of these have been cleared early on, with most of those seized or voluntarily surrendered dogs also being returned to their owners.
"That clearly illustrates why the breed-specific legislation is no longer fit for purpose."
Mr Nesbitt said the UUP was considering a Private Members Bill to repeal the Dangerous Dogs Order 1991.
Owners Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows claim he is a staffie-labrador cross, and has never shown aggressive behaviour. A Save Hank Facebook page has more than 70,000 followers and a fundraising page set up to help pay legal costs has so far raised over £18,000.
Belfast City Council statement on Wednesday
Belfast City Council wishes to clarify some matters in relation to the case of Hank the dog.
The council has a statutory duty to enforce breed specific legislation, which is not set by us, but by the Northern Ireland Executive. Our principal duty in relation to this legislation is protecting the health and safety of the public, a duty carried out across the city by our dedicated and experienced officers.
Under the Dogs (NI) Order 1983 as amended, both the dog’s characteristics and behaviour must be assessed to determine whether it is a banned breed and, if so, whether it poses a danger to the public.
A full assessment is being undertaken to ascertain whether Hank is a pitbull terrier type dog, which are banned under the legislation.
The legally accepted test is by way of assessment against a breed standard, partly due to the fact that it is recognized that DNA testing is not an adequate indicator to assess this type of dog. The assessment is a two-part test, in relation to both Hank’s physical characteristics and his behaviour.
We acknowledge the interest expressed in Hank’s case and are working very hard to complete this assessment, using appropriate experts, as quickly as possible; we will, of course, inform Hank’s owners of the outcome of this assessment as soon as it has been completed.
There are three options open to the council:
- if the dog is not a banned breed, i.e. a pit bull terrier type, it is returned to its owner;
- if the dog is deemed to be of a banned breed, but judged not to be dangerous, it may, with court approval and conditions attached, be placed on the council’s exemption scheme and returned to its owner, with conditions attached which the owner must comply with; or
- if the dog is deemed to be of a banned breed, i.e. a pit bull terrier type, and judged to present a danger to the public, the matter is referred to the courts for a magistrate to decide whether a destruction order should be issued.
Some coverage of this case has omitted any reference to the behavioral part of the assessment, creating the impression that a finding that Hank is a pit bull terrier type will inevitably result in him having to be euthanized.
This however is not the case. Since an exemption scheme became available, the council has been able to return ten out of the eleven dogs it has found to be pit bull types to their owner, under appropriate conditions sanctioned by the courts.
Hank is being well looked after, and his medical and dietary needs are continuing to be met.
All animals in our care are kept in DAERA-approved facilities. Hank has been attended daily to facilitate settling in, and his welfare is also being met through veterinary examinations, and the use of toys and bedding, supplied by his owners.
While we were unable to walk him initially during the settling in period, staff have worked very hard to build a sound relationship with Hank, and he is now being walked, with staff hoping to continue this on a daily basis.
Visits from dog owners are not permitted – this is to help with the settling in process, and to ensure the security of all those animals in our care, as well as the health and safety of staff.
We have written to Hank’s owners to update them on his current welfare, and clarify the assessment process. We have also explained that we will continue to keep them informed, via their legal representatives, about the outcome of his assessment and what option we intend to pursue, once this has been completed.
The council has received a large volume of correspondence in relation to this issue. As the assessment process is still ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further on specific details of this case.
All feedback has been received and logged, but it is our priority, as well as our responsibility, to ensure that we carry out our duties under the current legislation, as well as maintaining our duty of care towards staff employed to carry out these duties, and continuing to provide a good level of service to our ratepayers.
Social media, in particular, has become a key means of updating people about, and responding to queries in relation to all our services and facilities, and we will continue to apply our ‘house rules’ to these channels in order to provide our usual service.
We respectfully remind users to please read these rules before using our pages, as repetitive and spam-like comments will be removed. Abusive, disruptive and threatening posts will also be removed and persistent offenders will be reported to both Facebook and the PSNI.