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Internet rallies to save 'death row dog Hank'

Leonard Collins came home to his Belfast flat July 14 to a notice on his door telling him that his apartment had been searched — and his dog, Hank, seized.

Earlier in the day, as many as eight Northern Ireland police officers — "some with riot gear," neighbors later told him — entered his apartment to capture Hank, a large, sandy-colored dog with big, sad eyes who, Belfast City Council said, could possibly be a "pit bull."

"I couldn't believe what I was reading," he said. "I was flabbergasted. I am flabbergasted"

Collins and his ex-girlfriend Joanne Meadows ("We share responsibility for Hank," he says.) immediately took to social media to plead Hank's case and launch a #savehank campaign that has drawn nearly 300,000 signatures to an online petition, raised at least $25,000 for a legal defense fund and made "death row dog Hank" a British media obsession.

Since then, for nearly two weeks, they've waited. The city could decide to euthanize Hank — under one of the many controversial and scientifically dubious "pit bull bans" — without any evidence that he has ever been aggressive. An official even told Collins he might never see his dog again.

In a letter to Collins, the city council notes that "pit bull terrier-type dog is illegal in Northern Ireland" and that it would "undertake a full assessment of his characteristics" to determine whether he is a pit bull. But the council wouldn't tell Collins what sort of assessment that would be, only that it would be carried out by a former police dog handler, Peter Tallack, who had somewhat famously ruled several years ago that another confiscated pet, Lennox, was "unpredictable and dangerous."

The council euthanized Lennox in 2012.

"A couple of times people had stopped us and said, 'Oh, he looks like a pit bull,' " Collins says. "But I never had a real concern. One or two people over a couple of years was not enough to worry over."

Meanwhile, Collins made sure Hank was vaccinated and microchipped, regularly applied medicine to help combat a case of dermatitis and keeps him on a special diet that helps ("he only eats fish and rice," he says). He also has occasionally taken him to animal trainers to help train his rambunctious puppy.

"I'm not going to lie: He's a bit boisterous. And that's probably my fault," Collins says. He says Hank can bark at strangers and suspects that's what caused someone to complain to the city council. He admits he probably should be sterner with him.

"But I think of him as my best friend," he says. "The house feels incredibly empty."

On Wednesday, Collins had heard indirectly that an assessment of Hank could be imminent, which filled him with hope. "It's amazing to think he could be back here within 24 hours." It also, not surprisingly, had filled him with dread.

A spokesperson for the Belfast City Council declined to comment on Hank but did send a statement explaining the three scenarios the dog and his owners now face.

The first, for which Collins hopes: "If the dog is not a banned breed, i.e. a pit bull terrier type, it is returned to its owner." The statement also says that the council now includes a "behavioral assessment," and that even if Hank is judged a banned breed, "but judged not to be dangerous," it may still be returned with Collins "with conditions attached which the owner must comply with."

If Hank is determined to be both a banned breed and a "present danger to the public," he'll likely face a death sentence. At which point, Collins is promising to take the matter to court.

As Collins, Meadows and thousands of followers await the council's verdict, the case shines a harsh light on the breed-specific legislation that started in the United States in the mid-1980s, amid the start of a pit-bull panic and eventually swept overseas. Its popularity has slowed in recent years — Italy and the Netherlands even dropped their bans — with opposition from nearly all animal welfare groups, including the Centers for Disease Control and the White House.

Among the many problems with this type of legislation, many animal experts are quick to point out, the bans usually target the "pit bulls," which is not an exact breed but, rather, a vague classification that loosely targets a wide variety of breeds.

Collins says he thinks Hank is half-Labrador retriever and half Staffordshire bull terrier. If true, that would be fine under the United Kingdom's sweeping Dangerous Dog Act of 1991, which specifically bans the American pit bull terrier (along with Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro) — but not the very closely related Staffordshire (a British breed). But Northern Ireland's ban (similar, but not the same, as the U.K.'s) targets only "the pit bull terrier" — a particularly vague description.

Whether a dog expert can even differentiate between a Staffordshire and an American pit mix is highly debatable. A recent study in the Veterinary Journal surveyed four different shelters, asking their workers to identify which of their dogs were "pit-bull breeds." Out of 120 dogs, the shelter staff identified 62 as pit bulls — but DNA tests revealed that only 25 were.

Other experts argue that breed-specific legislation has never shown any success in reducing dog attacks. Another recent study in the Veterinary Journal showed that the number of people hospitalized in Ireland for dog bites rose by 50 percent between 1998 — when Ireland passed its own breed-specific ban — and 2013. Adjusted for population growth, it represents a 21 percent hike after the ban began.

"Targeting dogs by dog breed just makes no sense at all," says Páraic Ó Súilleabháin, the study's author. He says he thinks laws should punish bad owners, whose poor treatment of their dogs is what more likely leads to bad behavior. Focusing on the breed of the dog ends up ignoring the root cause, he says.

"It's really unscientific and quite possibly a threat to public health."

A campaign is being waged on the internet to save Hank, who was taken from his Belfast owner because he might be a 'pit bull.' Photo courtesy of Leonard Collins