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by Nick Mays

NOVEMBER 30th 1991: A date that should go down in canine, political and social history as the date when one of the most pernicious parliamentary acts to undermine, at a stroke, the rights of humans and animals alike came into effect. This was the date on which the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 came into full effect.

As we all know by now (or should know, at any rate), the Dangerous Dogs Act was brought in by the last Conservative Government after a spate of attacks by dogs alleged to be American Pit Bull Terriers. The cases which galvanised media and public opinion (in that order) were 6 year-old Rukshana Khan from Bradford and Frank Tempest from Lincoln, both of whom sustained horrific injuries by these dogs in the spring of 1991.

The political background to the DDA is quite clearly marked: John Major had only recently become Prime Minister, succeeding Margaret Thatcher after her party infamously 'dropped' her the previous November, considering her to be an electoral liability after the introduction of hated and unfair poll tax.

But even with a change of leader, the Government was still deeply unpopular. The recession was beginning to bite and the Government was "on the ropes". The media had found a new bogeyman to hit on in the form of "dangerous dogs". Since 11 year-old Kelly Lynch had been mauled to death by two Rottweilers in 1989, there had been lurid accounts of dog attacks in the national newspapers. Things reached fever pitch in the summer of 1990, but miraculously, when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, the dog attacks either ceased to happen or weren't good copy any more. When, however, the Gulf War ended in early 1991, dogs were back on the agenda.

It is often supposed that Mrs Thatcher did nothing to assuage public disquiet about dangerous dogs but it is often forgotten that she brought through a short Bill called - by strange coincidence - the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989, an Act designed simply to increase and tighten up the powers available to courts in dealing with aggravated offences involving dogs as enshrined in the 1871 Dogs Act.

It is pertinent to remember that there WAS a problem insofar as this was the time of the "lager lout" and there WERE some unsavoury individuals buying big dogs as "macho accessories". It is also true that dog fighting rings were on the increase, although it was not true to link every owner of a "macho" breed (usually considered by the media to be anything bigger than a Chihuahua) to the shady world of organised dog fighting.

The RSPCA, it must also be remembered, played their part in whipping up the frenzy against dogs with their repeated calls for compulsory dog registration, failing to see the simple logic that it would not stop irresponsible dog ownership, because only responsible owners would bother to register their dogs. In fact, one of Mrs Thatcher's last acts as Prime Minister in November 1990 had been to order a three-line whip to vote against an amendment to the Environment Act that would have introduced compulsory dog registration. But even a three-line whip did not prevent over 40 Tory MPs from voting for the amendment, with the end result that the Government only scraped by to win the vote against the amendment by a margin of 3.

So, in that turbulent spring of 1991, Major's Government had to be seen to do something, so, the then Home Secretary Kenneth Baker drafted the Dangerous Dogs Act with the help of various animal agencies.

In his autobiography 'The Turbulent Years', Baker goes into some detail about his thoughts at the time. "The issue was made more complicated by the fact that the largest number of reported dog bitings was caused by Alsatians and other domestic breeds whose owners would never have regarded their pets as dangerous," writes Baker. "But I considered that pit bulls represented quite a different scale of menace and caused far worse injuries than other dogs… Matters looked even worse when I was told that a well-known breeder had imported a Japanese Tosa dog, a fighting breed which can weigh up to 17 stone and was planning to commence breeding this monster."

Baker's initial instinct had been to order the compulsory destruction of all pit bull dogs in the UK, but was advised - in strong terms - by the RSPCA and the Veterinary profession that they would not co-operate in the wholesale destruction of dogs in this way. So Baker had to consider carefully what to do. Again, his mindset is clearly revealed in his autobiography: "I soon discovered that while many people loved dogs, others loathed them. There was a danger of over-reaction, with demands to have all dogs muzzled and to put Rottweilers, Dobermans and Alsatians [sic] in the same category as pit bulls.

This would have infuriated the 'green welly' brigade. However, the 'pit bull lobby' came to my aid by appearing in front of TV cameras with owners usually sporting tattoos and earrings while extolling the gentle nature of the dogs, whose names were invariably Tyson, Gripper, Killer or Sykes." Even Baker's consultants proved to have disparate views: "The Kennel Club supported the idea of pit bulls being put down. They did not register pit bulls as one of their recognise breeds and felt that as fighting dogs they have no place in our society. The RSPCA, while having no love for pit bulls, shrank from the physical elimination of the breed, preferring instead that the dogs should be neutered and die out over a period of time as the breed became extinct. Furthermore, the RSPCA used the opportunity to raise its long-cherished aim of the introduction of a dog licensing system - which I opposed. I was not in the business of legislating to control Chihuahuas when I wanted to rid the country of pit bulls."

Baker took his proposed Bill to the House of Commons on May 22nd 1991 announcing his intention to ban the breeding and ownership of pit bull terriers and other dogs bred especially for fighting and then embarked on further meetings with the RSPCA, Kennel Club, JACOPIS (now PAC), the NCDL, RCVS and BVA.

Even in dealing with so serious a subject, it seems that the Home Secretary and his advisors still found time to joke about pit bulls and their owners; "The issues we debated included whether to identify dogs by implanting microchips under the skin or by tattooing them. This led to humorous exchanges about exactly who would volunteer to tattoo a pit bull's inside leg and whether the tattoo should match that of the owner. Would pit bulls have 'love' and 'hate' inscribed on each knuckle?"

The Act was presented to Parliament on June 10th and received broad support form all parties, although Labour (then in Opposition) wanted Baker to include muzzling orders for Rottweilers and GSDs. The Bill was passed at one sitting, with only one crucial amendment vote that again sought to introduce a compulsory national dog registration scheme. The Government won the vote against this amendment by 303 votes to 260, again with several Tory MPs backing the Amendment. The DDA became law on July 24th 1991. Pit Bulls were effectively illegal and had to be muzzled in public, registered on the Index of Exempted Breeds and microchipped, tattooed and insured. Any PBT or - crucially - Pit Bull 'type' unregistered after 30th November 1991 would be seized and liable to be destroyed under Section 1 of the Act. More insidious however, was Section 3 of the Act, which covered ALL dogs in the UK and stipulated that any dog "dangerously out of control in a public place" would also be liable for destruction, carrying a mandatory death sentence, as with Section 1.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the Act, from a civil liberties point of view, was the fact that in all DDA cases the burden of proof was reversed; the dog was presumed guilty and it was down to the owner to prove their dog's innocence, whether this was on a charge of resembling a pit bull 'type' (essentially any short dog with four legs, a head and a tail) or an 'aggravated' offence.

The Dangerous Dogs Act, in its original, brutal form, lasted for six years until the Government, by then nearing the end of its political life, caved in to public pressure - even the media had changed sides and pronounced the Act unfair, thanks to many high-profile cases of dogs such as 'Otis', 'Kizzie' and 'Dempsey' which had been held in secret kennels for years under the term of the Act.

But the amendment Act of 1997 was a long way off; there was a lot of heartache, fighting and wholesale slaughter of innocent dogs to come after the last day of November 1991…

Next: The Act Bites

(c) Nick Mays/OUR DOGS 2001