‘Don’t blame me’: Pit bulls are often linked to controversy because of their unfit owners. *MCT photo
‘Don’t blame me’: Pit bulls are often linked to controversy because of their unfit owners. *MCT photo

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 15: Back in the late 1990s I made a television series which was shown on the UK’s main commercial channel, ITV. It was called ‘Animal Rescuers’ and it followed the work of a team of RSPCA animal inspectors based in Oxfordshire — one of the more affluent parts of England. 

As an experienced journalist and television producer nothing prepared me for the sheer horror and level of cruelty that we witnessed during our year long filming. Some of the images have stayed with me to this day.

So it was with great sadness that I read about the attack by a Pit Bull dog which went on the rampage in Hamilton. For everyone concerned it is a tragic story. The dog was shot dead after it attacked a dog warden and it seems that just before the incident the animal had been taunted as it sat tethered outdoors around the Angle Street area

Apparently a number of people had reported their concerns about the dog’s welfare and there were mixed reactions to the decision to shoot it dead. The incident comes just a few weeks after a child was badly mauled by an unlicensed mixed breed Pit Bull and was lucky not to have been killed.

Unscrupulous

These recent tragic events reminded me of a story I witnessed while filming with our team of RSPCA inspectors. We were told that there was an unlicensed dog breeder who was keeping his animals in atrocious conditions in some dingy farm outbuildings.

The inspector who rescued the animals was horrified by the conditions in which the dogs were being kept. They lacked room, stimulation and adequate food. It was torture pure and simple and the owner was taken to court, banned from keeping animals and given a hefty fine. Doubtless if those dogs had not been rescued they would have ended up with damaged temperaments and possibly sold to unscrupulous people who would have no regard for their welfare. That’s assuming they even survived the conditions they were born into.

The UK prides itself on being a nation of animal lovers but each year the RSPCA (equivalent to Bermuda’s SPCA) reports a shocking catalogue of abuses. In 2009 they rescued and collected over 135,000 animals. Pit Bull dogs are bred illegally in the UK for vicious dog fighting and are beaten to ‘toughen’ them up for a fight. They are often made to do hours of exercise on a treadmill to build up their muscles. Some of those rescued are so badly injured after fighting that they have to be put down and UK police have seized some sickening footage of dog fights which would be impossible for most of us to watch. Increasingly dogs are used as weapons or status symbols by gang members or individuals who want to intimidate others.

It seems that this is also happening in Bermuda with certain breeds of dogs being acquired for their threatening appearance and fearsome reputation.

As I read about the problems of animal welfare on the island I’m hoping that regulations can be strengthened to give better protection and to further deter unsuitable owners. The Animal Welfare Act introduced in the UK in 2007 now requires owners (and others responsible for looking after animals) to take reasonable steps to ensure that wider welfare needs are met including suitable shelter, diet and exercise.

In the recent child attack case, the owner of the mixed breed Pit Bull told magistrates that the dog was normally kept indoors and was only allowed outside for toilet purposes. For a pack animal with a strong need to socialise and exercise that type of contained environment amounts to cruelty. But as we’ve seen in the UK laws can only go so far.

Animal welfare education has to start with the very young. Children need to be taught about how to look after animals, how to give them exercise and stimulation and above all to treat them with respect. So it’s good news that SPCA representatives are visiting schools across the island to teach children how to avoid being bitten by dogs.

Complaints 

As for the frontline inspectors I filmed in the UK, they were in a constant battle to deal with the sheer number of calls they were getting. Members of the public complained that they couldn’t get hold of an inspector or that their concerned calls were not followed up quickly enough. The inspectors were doing their best but at the end of the day priority had to be given to the more extreme cases of abuse.

After Animal Rescuers was aired a number of children wrote to say they were glad they had watched the programmes and the inspectors we featured were invited to give public talks.  Surprisingly, there were plenty of inquiries about how to become an animal welfare inspector despite the nature of some of the material we showed.

So I’m hopeful that animal welfare will continue improve here in Bermuda and three words sum up what is really needed to make things better: Education, Education, Education.

Maggie Fogarty is a Royal Television Society award winning TV producer and journalist currently living in Bermuda.