Belfast Telegraph

Hank's owner exclusive: Public support is vital if the flawed law that saw our pet incarcerated is to change

Leonard Collins writes of his joy over Hank's return, but appeals for campaign to amend controversial legislation

I don't have any kids. Nieces and nephews are as close as I came. I love them dearly, but they are not my children. They can be returned at any time to their parents; that's another way of saying that I am not responsible for them. To be honest, I have never had to look after anyone, or anything, but myself for my entire life. Then Hank came along.

He was very small. That's really all I could think about him. On an intellectual level, I understood that he was "cute", possibly even "adorable", but my thoughts outpaced my feelings. There was no heart-wrenching pull of love, no stunning realisation of some tangible bond. There was simply this yappy ball of uncertain legs and fluff, and a curiosity forming somewhere inside of me.

Maybe I'm lazy, or selfish. Quite probably both. But for the first few months, a part of me begrudged the realities of dealing with a puppy. It seemed like hard work getting up in the middle of the night to check on him, cleaning up his poop, trying to get him to walk, but eventually my feelings began to change.

As I was feeding him one day, it struck me that Hank was reliant on us for everything. Without us he would die. From that moment on, every feeding, bathing, walk, or visit to the vets, reinforced the previously unfathomable idea that my life was inextricably linked with Hank's. Is that love? I didn't know at that time.

Hank sleeps in my bed now, every night. We made the transition from crate to bed quickly. Joanne wanted him to sleep in our room; I pretended I didn't and, after a few feeble protestations on my part, Hank joined in the chorus of snores emanating from our bedroom. My partner Joanne keeps referring to him as "a big hot water bottle".

So, life goes on, circumstances change, people come and go, but, always, Hank is there. Usually lazing around on the sofa or my bed, waiting for the next postman to bark at or visitor to lick.

Hank's idiosyncrasies have crystallised the love I now feel for him. He has a personality. Previously, I never believed people when they spoke of their dogs this way.

On July 14, things changed. Belfast City Council dog wardens, with the assistance of the PSNI, entered my property without my consent and removed Hank. As normal, he was lying quietly on my bed. I don't know how Hank reacted to this. I would imagine not very well.

When I returned home, I was stunned to hear the reports from a neighbour and to find a warrant stuck to the front door, which explained how Belfast City Council had the legal right to come into my home and remove my best friend.

My head spun, yet I tried to remain calm. I assumed this was a misunderstanding and common sense would soon prevail. Unfortunately, after I phoned the council, I was left even more confused and fearful.

"Reports of a banned breed", "suspected pitbull type" and "criminal offence". The words reverberated inside my head like they had been shot out of a cannon.

I was asked if I wanted to sign Hank over, which I was told would probably result "in his destruction". Words eluded me at that point. I could not begin to form a coherent sentence, other than to decline their kind offer and excuse myself.

We cried. Joanne and I held each other for comfort, lost in our own fears and unanswerable questions. We believed we would never see Hank again. The cold finality of it all seemed so cruel.

Out of sheer frustration, we posted a picture of Hank along with a few words expressing our dismay on Facebook. This was shared a couple of thousand times by the time we went to bed but, at that point, all I could think about was that I was going to bed without Hank.

Within 48 hours, it seemed like half the country knew of Hank's plight. The support was overwhelming and much-needed. Interviews and social media kept us busy, but when we stopped, we crumbled.

We knew Hank would not be adjusting well to his new surroundings. The more information we received, the more fearful we became. Belfast City Council continued to inform me that they believed he was a "pitbull type", but now they began to call him "aggressive".

"Aggression" was the reason he wasn't walked for 11 days while in the council's care. "Aggression" was the reason he was having next to no human interaction. "Aggression" seemed, at that point, to be the reason we would never see him again.

Days passed as hopes faded. Publicly, I remained hopeful, yet cautious. Privately, I was despondent. Everything from Belfast City Council indicated this would be a long and hard road.

Every night, I lay without sleep, thinking about Hank; wondering where he was and how he was coping. Unable to reconcile the fact that I may never see him again.

Joanne and I continued to rally support and the response was the only thing that kept us going. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank each and every one of you who reached out to us. Without you, things would have gone very differently.

The one feeling that I could not shake was the feeling that I was letting Hank down. That it was my fault that this had happened. I had an overwhelming sense of guilt that threatened to smother me at any time.

We kept moving forward, but I was wondering how long we could continue. Every interview, every conversation about Hank, every Facebook post seemed to stir unwelcome emotions in me. All the while, Belfast City Council's refusal to let us visit Hank made this all hurt even more.

Days were beginning to take on a transient quality; there was no news forthcoming and now Belfast City Council refused to speak to me; everything had to go through my solicitor. Last Wednesday, we heard a rumour that Hank was getting his assessment that day, but we had no way of confirming this.

That night, we were told that the details of Hank's assessment would be released the next day. Again, I spoke of hope to anyone who asked, but, again, inside I was hopeless.

Another sleepless night was followed by another anxiety-filled day. Yet this day was more angst-ridden than any before. We prepared ourselves for the bad news we thought was coming. Minutes before they released a public statement, Belfast City Council informed my solicitor of the news. Their assessment concluded that he was a "pitbull type", but he posed "no danger to the public". This meant that he could come home.

I sat down before I fell down. The relief was palpable - even more so as it was so unexpected.

I do not believe Hank is a pitbull, but at that point I would agree to the council's assessment in order to take him home. Hank has been a victim of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). Prior to this, I knew very little about BSL. With everything that I have since learnt, I firmly believe the Northern Ireland Assembly needs to change this legislation.

I am not a dog expert; I cannot tell you if one dog is inherently more dangerous than another. But what I do know is that BSL does not work. It failed in its intended aim (pitbull ownership and dog attacks are up) and is wielded with impunity by councils across the UK.

We must, collectively, demand a re-examination of BSL. Let us have a frank and open debate, without hysteria, regarding this legislation.

In order to facilitate this, there will be a rally at Stormont Buildings at 1pm on Sunday, August 14. I urge you all to attend.

No change will come unless we are all prepared to speak with one voice.

Belfast Telegraph


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