City council's treatment of Hank is proof 'dangerous' dog legislation needs reform
Secrecy and subjective decision-making is harmful to pets and their owners, says Fionola Meredith
Do Belfast dog wardens think they're the Stasi? There is more than a hint of the methods of the notorious East German secret police in the way they have seized and held Hank, a well-cared-for family pet, on suspicion of being the wrong kind of dog.
Hank's owners, Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows, found there had been a raid on Collins' house by Belfast City Council dog wardens, supported by a posse of police officers, and a warrant taped to the inside of the front door stating that Hank had been removed under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Why? Because he was deemed to look a bit like a pit bull terrier, a breed that is banned in Northern Ireland.
Yes, it was as scientific as that. No proof, no evidence. No problems or complaints about Hank's behaviour, or anything he has done. No aggression, no fights, no bites. Nobody has been injured. The worst thing he's been accused of is over-friendliness.
Apparently a neighbour called the council and said Hank was a pit bull. So the authorities took it upon themselves to enter a law-abiding owner's home, accompanied by armed police, and snatch their precious property. I'd expect this kind of raid to take place where terrorist activity is suspected, or in a high-profile criminal case. Not when someone thinks a dog looks a bit dodgy.
Collins and Meadows say that Hank, a playful, affectionate dog who spends most of his time snoozing, is actually a Staffordshire-Labrador cross.
They have had him since he was a pup, he's just under two years old now, and they clearly love him to bits. They did all the right, responsible things: Hank is licensed, neutered, insured and micro-chipped. He gets a special diet and prescribed cream for his skin condition.
Now the pair aren't allowed to have any contact with their pet. They aren't even permitted to know where he is being held. Why? Why deny both Hank and his owners the comfort and reassurance of a visit?
Collins says he hasn't been able to eat or sleep properly since Hank was taken away, and I can completely understand that.
Our dogs become very dear to us, a source of unconditional love and loyalty in a hostile, uncertain world. We would do anything to keep them happy and safe.
It's bad enough for his owners, but can you imagine how distressing the whole experience has been for Hank himself?
Loafing blissfully on his favourite rug, probably in a patch of sunshine - because all dogs seek out the warmest, sunniest spot in the house, don't they? - Hank would have been terrified when the door was forced open and strangers seized him and dragged him out of his home.
Now he's being kept away from the people he loves in a strange, alien environment. His owners have learned that he is not settling into his new accommodation well. No surprises there, sadly.
If you're going to impose this kind of inhumane treatment on a helpless creature you'd better have some very good reasons for doing so. But the reasons simply aren't there. It's the canine equivalent of arresting someone because they look a bit like a terrorist or a drug-dealer.
And this farcical case only gets more absurd.
Having got out the tape measure and failed to determine whether Hank is shaped like a pit bull, which would mean probable execution, the council is now calling in an expert from England to size him up.
Meanwhile, Hank languishes in enforced captivity and his owners fearfully contemplate the fate of Lennox, another pet seized by the dog wardens of Belfast City Council.
Despite interventions from top international dog psychologists and even the First Minister at the time, Peter Robinson, Lennox was eventually destroyed.
Local councils are often rife with petty bureaucrats and wannabe dictators, ever keen to place process before purpose, and unattractively eager to enforce the rules.
But this is bureaucracy with a lethal injection in its hand.
As everyone who is familiar with dog behaviour knows, the real problem is not with breeds but with irresponsible owners. It's essential that our flawed, outmoded legislation is reformed to reflect that fact, even if it means that the wardens don't get to do so many exciting raids on people's houses.
It's a sick joke that paramilitaries and their hangers-on can flout the law with impunity in Northern Ireland yet a young couple and their beloved pet are powerless, defenceless and treated like suspected criminals.
End this farce now, and let Hank return home where he belongs.
He's got a warm patch of sun waiting for him.