In Northern Ireland, dogs can be sentenced to death after a tape measure 'proves' they are a pit bull.
Last week in Belfast, the highest court in the land rejected the final appeal for a pet dog called Lennox to be saved. Only an appeal on a point of law in the next four weeks – or a pardon – can save him now.
If Lennox was a human, Amnesty International would have him as a poster boy. He was an adorable puppy, as you can see from the photos. His owner, Caroline Barnes, a former vet nurse, thought he was probably a mix of American bulldog, labrador and staffie – as a crossbreed, she didn't know how big he would grow. For his first five years, he was an adored family pet.
Then, one day in May 2010, he was placed on death row. He hasn't been seen by his owners since. He had done nothing wrong. Under Northern Ireland law, it is illegal to own a dog that looks like a pit bull and they can only be saved from execution if a judge rules they are "satisfied that the dog will not be a danger to the public". But this exemption is hardly ever used – to date, only one dog that I can find has survived being identified as a "pit bull type" in Northern Ireland.
In England, Scotland and Wales our unpopular and ineffective Dangerous Dogs Act was amended in 1997 to remove the mandatory death sentence for any dogs identified as pit bulls. Northern Ireland's devolution meant they no longer followed our dog laws, and they had to wait until 2011 and the Dogs (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 for well-behaved pit bull types to be given even the slightest chance of avoiding a death sentence.
Lennox in his cell Lennox in his cell
And so it was that a tape measure "proved" Lennox was a pit bull, effectively sentencing him to death. The dog warden measured the length of his legs and the width of his muzzle. These dimensions and ratios could fit many dogs that are definitely not genetically a pit bull. For example, a pit bull is said to have a femur that is shorter than its tibia. The court does not have to prove that the dog is definitely a pit bull, the burden of proof is on the owner to prove that their dog is not.
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