This summer I had the great fortune to travel around Europe with my family while delivering a series of live shows, training seminars and other appearances. In part one of this blog, I described the incredibly enriching experiences and people I encountered during the first half of the trip while in Finland and Italy. After wrapping up a successful two-week tour through Italy, I returned to England for a bit of downtime with my UK family and friends.
My mother had recently moved from the house in Wimbledon where she’d spent the previous 45+ years – the house I lived in since I was born. I grew up there and it had remained a constant touchstone throughout the various stages of my life until this year, so it was somewhat sad to know that it would no longer be where I’d return ‘home’ during visits from the US. I had some truly wonderful experiences and memories centered around that house, many of which revolved around (what else?) Wimbledon tennis.
The fence at the end of our back garden led directly into the practice court area on the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis Club where the Wimbledon tennis tournament is held every June and July. The popping sound of tennis balls from those practice courts was the soundtrack of life for our family, and while the seemingly endless rounds of major construction work being done to improve the grounds year after year was a sometimes significant annoyance for my mother, the fact that we were a part of the Wimbledon tennis experience for so many years was something my tennis-mad late father had always craved and truly loved.
My mother’s new house is lovely, and we spent a few days recharging (and doing some much-needed laundry) there before heading off to Dublin for what would be an eventful and sometimes exhausting week. I was excited that my mother was able to join us during this trip, as it provided an opportunity for her and my daughter to have some cherished grandmother/granddaughter time together.
We arrived in Dublin in time for me to make the rounds on the Irish morning news circuit in support of my training seminar in County Donegal over the weekend and of course, Lennox. The seminar was presented by a dynamic dog trainer called Clare Boyle of Lupanast Dog Training Centre. Clare is passionate about the promotion of positive training techniques, especially in the more remote (and truly stunningly beautiful) areas of Ireland like Donegal.
We were treated to a wonderful weekend of dogdom, from Clare's lovely countryside training location to the chance to spend time with her talented group of agility club members. It was also a chance for my daughter to make some new young Irish friends during my seminar and over the long weekend of activities. Another highlight was an inspiring trip to see the great work being done by Rainbow Rescue shelter - a group to which I was honored to be able to present a donation made possible by the fundraising work of Clare and her team.
The purpose of my trip was also to spend some time with Lennox’s family and try and set up a meeting with the Belfast City Council (BCC). For those of you who don’t know the story, Lennox was an American Bulldog/ Labrador mix, who was the victim of antiquated and ineffective Breed Specific Legislation in Northern Ireland (mixed with what I and many others feel was a healthy dose of bias and questionable tactics on the part of the BCC).
The case of Lennox garnered worldwide attention, in large part because of how close to home it was for many dog owners and dog lovers all over the world. Lennox was a loving family pet, serving as an unregistered therapy dog to an 11 year old girl with chronic asthma and an integral part of a imminently responsible pet-owning Belfast family of three. He was microchipped, licensed, and well-behaved, with no reports or history of aggression. One day in 2010, Lennox was confiscated based solely on his bodily measurements. While the current Northern Irish version of the UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act does indeed restrict the ownership of dogs deemed to be of ‘pit bull type’ (there’s no such thing as an actual ‘pit bull’ – it’s an amalgamation of several different types of recognized breeds) based on such measurements, the spirit of this outdated and ineffective law (dog bite statistics have actually risen throughout the UK since its introduction) was twisted for what can only be assumed to be personal or political reasons. Lennox was confiscated for two years, during which time his family was restricted from ever seeing him, inspecting his living quarters (a few alleged photos of Lennox in situ showed relatively abysmal kennel conditions), or tending to his various medical conditions. He was evaluated by two qualified, professional canine behavior experts as well as a former police dog handler hired by the prosecution solely to corroborate his bodily dimensions and measurements. The two qualified experts deemed the dog to be no danger to the family or the public, while the police dog handler graphically described him as one of the most dangerous dogs he’d ever met. The judge in the case apparently put more stock in the prosecution’s ex-police dog handler who possesses no verifiable professional canine behavioral assessment certifications rather than the two behavioral experts and ruled that Lennox should be euthanized. After a lengthy appeals process and repeated pleas for the court system to allow me to personally remove the dog to a safe haven in the US at my own expense, on July 11th the BCC announced that Lennox had been destroyed. You can read more about the details of the Lennox case and why BSL is such a flawed concept in theory and practice by clicking the links below.
During the tumultuous final days of the Lennox case, I continued to speak out publicly and loudly about the injustices and incomprehensible decision-making of the Belfast City Council as it related to Lennox. Working in tandem with Lennox’s family and the legal team while on the ground in Ireland, I repeatedly attempted to contact those with the power to reverse the fate they had so desperately fought to achieve. I offered them face-saving alternatives and the opportunity to make right what had gone so horribly wrong for two full years, but they refused, apparently set on waiting out the clock so that they could kill Lennox and try to move on. But those of us invested in his case as well as the cause of fighting BSL and discrimination of family pets based solely on the way they look, will not let them move on. We have continued to lobby for changes to the law on a large scale and investigate the myriad inconsistencies and suspicious claims and events in the BCC’s specific case.
For example, although the BCC could not help but be aware of the extreme pain and sensitivity the loss of Lennox would cause the Barnes family, they have since shown either a propensity towards total incompetence or a complete lack of common decency on numerous occasions since Lennox’s destruction. The day Lennox’s death was announced, I received a call from a reporter asking if I had any comment now that the BCC had successfully killed the dog. Assuming that the family must have already been notified, I called and left a message for them letting them know how sorry I was to hear the news. Only later did I learn that I was in fact the first person to have notified them that Lennox was gone – the BCC had not even given them the courtesy of a phone call! Since then, the Barnes family has lobbied constantly to be given Lennox’s collar as a keepsake for their distraught daughter, Brooke, and for Lennox’s ashes to be returned to them to be used as a memorial. The collar has still not surfaced, and after much cajoling, the Barnes family was the subject of one final indignity from the BCC: a paper-wrapped parcel containing some ashes (supposedly of Lennox, though DNA proof is not available with ashes) in a plastic grocery bag. Given that neither the family nor any 3rd party representative was allowed to be with Lennox during his euthanasia, see his body after the euthanasia or be given his collar, there are legitimate suspicions that Lennox died months prior to the date his death was officially announced, and that the primary factor behind the BCC’s complete resistance to letting my rehome him in a safe and secure sanctuary in the United States, allow myself or Jim Crosby to see him, or return any of his belongings to the Barnes family, was some form of coverup of the truth regarding his well-being. These of course are just rumors, but I join many thousands of observers around the world who have been given no reason by the BCC not to wonder if these rumors are true.
There are two levels to this story. On the one hand, the fight endured by the Barnes family represents the larger issue of the inadequacies, ineffectiveness and unjustness of BSL around the world. Many thousands of innocent, well-behaved dogs have been the victims of local municipalities’ efforts to try and do the right thing in keeping the public ‘safe’. These local governments are often enforcing laws put upon them by higher entities or, as was the case in the UK in 1991, bowing to knee-jerk reactions to some truly tragic dog bite incident. In both cases, BSL doesn’t work. It doesn’t reduce the number of bites, doesn’t make the public safer, and it targets often responsible dog owners who happen to have larger, more powerful, but well mannered/non-aggressive dogs.
The second issue in Lennox’s case in particular is what I and many others perceive to be poor governance, shoddy interpretation of already flawed legislation, possible political or personal motivations and the result of unbridled defense of both political and professional ego. During my trip to Ireland, I was fortunate that after a year of speaking on the phone and trading e-mails I finally had the chance to meet and spend an afternoon with the Barnes family in their home. I met their other dogs, talked with them about their ordeal and generally got a feel for the type of people they are. They also told me some of the internal indignities they’ve suffered privately at the hands of their local government, and I must say I was disgusted to hear of the way they’ve been treated by those who were put in office to serve them and the citizens of Belfast. I won’t go into more detail about their plight, but suffice it to say that if even half of what they described to me was true, it would be enough to warrant those members of the council being replaced in their government positions.
Following the final verdict on Lennox, there has been a lot of discussion about boycotting Northern Ireland and Belfast in general. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and reactions (provided they’re within the law), but I personally don’t feel that boycotting a country or city is the solution to BSL worldwide or governmental mismanagement in Belfast. Too many innocent bystanders can be detrimentally affected by such boycotts in my opinion. But that’s not to say that we should let this case lie. There are far too many suspicious and inconsistent decisions that have been made regarding Lennox by the BCC to allow it to be swept away, and we must all remain diligent in our efforts to help shine a bright light on what happened to him so that we can avoid this type of tragedy elsewhere in the future.
The Barnes family may have lost the battle for Lennox’s life, but I remain in contact with them and while they continue in their quest for answers from the BCC, they have also redoubled their resolve to fight BSL worldwide so that others need not suffer as they and Lennox did. I and countless others will be there alongside them all the way.
Throughout my European trip I met some amazing individuals, witnessed the powerful work being done by great organizations and spent time expanding my horizons with my family. Being in Ireland fighting for Lennox was exhausting, but even though we lost the battle for his life, collectively I would hope that we’ve shined a bit more light on the subject of how to keep people safe from truly dangerous dogs without demonizing entire breeds based on the way they look. As always, there is a mountain of work yet to be done, but those several weeks in Europe helped reignite my belief that together we can indeed make the world a better place for dogs and their people.