Belfast Telegraph

Hank Facebook page to close: Power of social media was life-saver for seized dog... but now campaigning pair are feeling hounded

By Fionola Meredith

Massive global publicity was what helped to save Hank from possible execution after he was seized by Belfast City Council on suspicion of looking like a dangerous dog.

Despite being deemed to be a 'pit bull terrier type' breed by the authorities, Hank was finally returned to his owners, Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows, under certain strict conditions.

A not-so-shaggy dog story with a happy ending, you might think. But Leonard and Joanne, as well as Hank himself, are discovering that the new reality of day-to-day life is far from a fairytale. Hank is having difficulty adjusting to the prescribed regime, which stipulates that he must be muzzled and leashed in public. And now the couple have taken down the 'Save Hank' Facebook page because the personal stress levels generated by the case are simply too high.

It seems that the same phenomenon which brought Hank's plight to the world - social media, with its capacity to quickly raise worldwide support - is now making daily life difficult for the pair and their dog. "Hank is not reacting well to his muzzle nor the entire ordeal and honestly neither are we," they say.

The problem is that the high visibility of the case has made Hank something of a celebrity, public property almost, and he's instantly recognisable. But what Hank and his owners need right now is the opposite of publicity. Peace and quiet, and time for Hank to get used to wearing a muzzle in public - which can make any dog anxious and defensive - is urgently required.

The final straw for Collins and Meadows came after a member of the public encountered Hank on the street then claimed he had been injured. In a direct message "to the gentleman who is telling people that Hank 'attacked him yesterday'", Leonard and Joanne state that "you put your face directly in front of Hank and put your hand on his muzzle … Can we ask that people allow Hank to settle back in and respect that he is a dog, not a toy."

Later they said that they had received word that the man wanted money and had threatened to put details of the so-called "attack" online. "Spreading rumours and making threats to extort money is not something that will work," the couple said. As they are painfully aware, allegations such as this could have serious implications for Hank, since he is already deemed - quite unfairly, in many eyes - to be a dangerous breed of dog.

While most people have been supportive and respectful, there have been some jibes against Hank's owners. One supporter claimed that the decision to close the Save Hank page was "a slap in the face to those who have followed this story and tried to help in any way they can", while another said that the couple now had their dog back plus "a shedload of cash".

Collins and Meadows have repeatedly emphasised that they will be keeping none of the money raised to fight for Hank's freedom, and will instead donate it to good causes.

Hostile, negative reactions like this illustrate the problem with harnessing support on social media. Inevitably, some people will feel that they have ownership of the story, as well as the people - and dog - involved in it. In their heads, they think it belongs to them, as though it's a soap opera, or an episode of reality television.

Then, when Collins and Meadows quite naturally and rationally want to step back from the spotlight, these people resent it. They want to know - indeed they feel entitled to know - what happens next.

As Hank's owners are discovering, publicity comes at a price. But they don't owe the world anything, and they are perfectly entitled to do whatever is best for themselves and their much-loved dog.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph