A case of mistaken identity? by Geraldine Cove-Print

Created: 01/05/2013

TODAY I offer you a sad tale from Kent, a case of mistaken identity, over zealous action by the RSPCA or protection of the public by a worthy group? You be the judge.
TAG (Thanet Animal Group) is a registered charity that deals with all sorts of animals, not just dogs. Some time ago it rehomed two dogs with local business woman Christine Huggan. Christine has over 30 years experience with dogs, her first love being Labrador Retrievers. Milly, an American Bulldog and Monty, a German Shepherd Dog cross Labrador moved into their new home surrounded by three acres of fenced land. Last month Christine Huggan appeared in court on a charge of allowing her dog to be dangerously out of control in a public place. The action was brought against her at great expense, by the RSPCA.
  It was said that Milly had chased a cat and when she caught up with the terrified feline, she killed her. The defence had maintained that it wasn’t Milly but a neighbours dog (owned by a rescue) who was identical and was well known for roaming. Under oath this dog’s foster carer described how this dog was covered in blood and scratches on the evening of the attack. This dog was euthanased a short time after for aggressive behaviour. However, the court decided that Milly was the killer and that she should be taken from Ms Huggan and returned to TAG despite Milly’s owner swearing that Milly had not left the house at the time of the terrible attack.
  When a police officer visited Milly just an hour after the cat had been killed there was no sign of blood or any scratches visible. The RSPCA said the dog had "licked herself clean.” Excuse me for being flippant but how I wish I had dogs who could so effectively clean themselves, leaving their coats spotless, including the area around throat and mouth. The RSPCA also said that several complaints had been made about Ms Huggan’s dogs being a nuisance prior to the attack. None of these complaints had resulted in more than a visit from the dog warden with no further action.
  According to he RSPCA statement after the case was heard: "Both we and police had received several complaints over a number of months from members of the public about the defendant’s dogs, as they were regularly seen straying and endangering people, horses, and other dogs.”
  So the question of perceived danger raises it’s head, I have a crew of large dogs who bundle along in great style with enormous amounts of energy. Yes, they could knock you to your knees with a tail flick to the back of the legs so are they seen as endangering the public too?  The previous complaints of Milly and Monty roaming from their acreage indicates that these dogs had patrolled the neighbourhood on a couple of occasions, but does that mean they were dangerous or could this perception be about the type of dog Milly is?
  We have all had the odd escapee at times, usually our initial worry is that our errant dog will be hurt or stolen although we are always aware that a loose dog could cause an accident and so we sweat like a Grand National winner until recapture. As to being able to accurately describe a breed, I have my doubts there too. I would hope that we would all recognise our own dogs, but ask a stranger to pick an Irish Setter, say, from an ID parade and the task is almost impossible.
  At the point of the awful attack the owners of the poor cat were in no fit state to make a detailed study of the dog. Police would have been lucky to achieve more than a sketchy outline of the type of dog and colour. I feel there has to be some query as to positive identification. What if it was Milly? Would your dog chase a cat and after a heated, adrenaline pumping pursuit could you be sure your dog wouldn’t see that cat as prey? Of course your dog shouldn’t be out of control, but would you expect the RSPCA to demand that your dog be taken away from you?
  I have cats too and the thought of one of my cats being killed by a loose dog is truly horrible and I am quite sure I would be blaming the owner of the dog and not the dog for responding to a natural instinct in a calamitous situation.
  It’s difficult not to see this case as an escalation of the DDA, one wonders if the sub section dealing with ‘reasonable apprehension’ that a dog may injure a person could extend to a dog barking furiously at a fence on his own property now the act includes the domicile area.
  You may think the RSPCA did a public spirited and responsible thing by bringing Milly’s owner to court, there are those who take delight in saying, "It was a cat today it could be a child tomorrow…” If we began to make judgments with a crystal ball in hand surely we would throw young, speeding drivers into jail and throw away the key based on probability statistics!
  Every year the RSPCA prosecute in hundreds of welfare cases, we cheer it on as it exposes dreadful suffering and brings the perpetrators to justice. It is the only animal welfare organisation to use their funds in this way, without its intervention it is clear that heinous crimes against animals would go unpunished, but is this a case of a sledgehammer to crack a nut?
  The removal of Milly from her owner and leaving Monty where he is just doesn’t make sense to me, either the owner is guilty of being unable to control her dogs or she is not. She could have been found guilty of having an out of control dog on this occasion and robust rules could have been insisted upon including a secure fenced area for the dogs to exercise and Milly to be muzzled while walking on a lead, but the order was that Milly was to be taken away and Monty was to be muzzled while out walking! The RSPCA did not ask for Milly to be destroyed but what was the thought process that came to the conclusion that it was a good thing to put yet another bull breed type back into rescue kennels. Our largest animal welfare society may have won this battle but I feel it is in danger of losing the war and support in equal measure.