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Joan K. Smith

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Lennoxgate? Outcry for Investigation of Belfast After Lennox's Death

Posted: 07/23/2012 1:46 pm

The story of Lennox the dog (background story here) took a final, tragic turn on July 11 when Belfast City Council announced he had been killed, after a desperate legal fight by the family and in spite of a worldwide "Save Lennox" movement. In keeping with the less-than-stellar community relations skills Belfast City Council has demonstrated over the past two years (Lennox was seized in May of 2010), they did not even have the courtesy to inform Lennox's family, the Barnes, instead issuing a tersely worded press announcement that "Lennox, an illegal pit-bull terrier type, has been humanely put to sleep." The task of informing the family fell to respected, celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, a close ally of the Barnes family throughout their ordeal, who heard it from a source at Radio Ulster; Stilwell later expressed disgust over this insensitivity, saying in a Facebook post "Belfast City Council should hang their heads... heartless doesn't even begin to describe the people surrounding this case."

2012-07-22-lennoxsm.jpgThe Barnes had already been informed that they would neither have a final visit nor even have Lennox's body, only "some" of his ashes, which would be sent in the mail. Then, a final insult to the devastated family: Belfast even refused their request to return Lennox's collar for young Brooke to have as a keepsake of her beloved companion and "bestest friend in the world." I called the Belfast Lord Mayor's press office to ask if they had a statement on this, and received an email saying "our office is investigating." That was several days ago.

PHOTOS OF LENNOX. STORY CONTINUES BELOW:

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  • Lennox

    Dog wardens deemed Lennox, a pug-nosed black Belfast dog, to be a public danger and seized him from his owners in April 2010.

  • Lennox

    Lennox as a puppy

  • Lennox

    Lennox's family's daughter makes a plea to bring the dog home.

  • Lennox

    Lennox plays with his kennel mate, Juicy.

  • Lennox

    Lennox plays with his kennel mate, Juicy.

  • Lennox

    Lennox was put to sleep Wednesday amid claims that city council staff had been threatened with death.

  • Lennox

    Lennox relaxes with his kennel mate, Juicy.

  • Lennox

    Lennox sits in his prison cell.

Photos Via Facebook

Although it may seem that Belfast City Council has won this case, it is far from over. Their actions, from the beginning, have ranged from indifferent to utterly callous, and much of it simply doesn't add up. How, and why, did Belfast City Council allow a leak of their own videotape of noted animal behaviorist and author Sarah Fisher's 2011 assessment (which concluded Lennox was friendly, socialized, and "one of the easiest dogs I've worked with")? Somehow a three-minute snippet of Fisher's 45-minute session, showing Lennox barking while still crated in a van, was released prior to court proceedings, even though this was official evidence. The footage was taken by Belfast City Council employees, so it had to have been leaked from an inside source. As Fisher notes, "...it was skewed and out of context. It appeared to have been meant to make Lennox look bad."

Even more inexplicable was the manner, during the court proceedings, in which the judge completely dismissed the evaluation of the highly experienced Fisher, whom Stilwell, in a conversation earlier this year, described as "an amazing expert." In court, Rodgers actually allowed Peter Tallack, the man brought in simply to measure and identify Lennox as "pit bull type," and who by his own admission is not a behaviorist, to critique the methodology of Fisher's videotaped evaluation -- a little like allowing a lab technician to critique a surgeon's technique in a malpractice case.

Rodgers' subsequent ruling baffled Fisher and anyone else who knew of her extensive reputation in dealing with with bull breed dogs; Rodgers wrote that Fisher "...gave evidence that she had very little experience of Pit Bull Terriers but had experience of Staffordshire Bull Terriers." When I spoke with Fisher, she related that in reading that statement her reaction was "What? I never said that... Trust me on that one, Sarah Fisher never said that." In fact, she'd stated she had a great deal of experience with "bull breeds" (of which "pit bull types" fall).

2012-07-22-lennoxoutside.jpgMany have suggested sexism was involved in the way Fisher's evidence was dismissed. Noted dog aggression expert Jim Crosby (also referenced in my earlier articles) has stated, "One suspects that the BCC [Belfast City Council] had issues with the opinion of a 'mere woman' despite her clear qualifications."

And, of course, why did Belfast City Council completely stonewall Victoria Stilwell, who, after the loss of the appeal, personally offered to remove Lennox to a sanctuary in the United States? She had travelled to Belfast to facilitate this, yet she couldn't even get a return phone call, much less a meeting. They also refused multiple offers from Stilwell and Crosby to visit Lennox for additional, expert assessments.

The city even ignored a plea from their country's own First Minister Peter Robinson, who made a personal call to Belfast's Lord Mayor, urging him to accept Stilwell's offer. (After the announcement that Lennox had been killed, Peter Robinson posted via Twitter, "Destroying a dog that had no history of aggression is folly and shames society.") 

And the question looming largest right now: why was Belfast City Council so insistent on not allowing the family access to the body, much less the simple return of his collar? Is a dog's collar "a danger to the public," as they'd claimed of Lennox? Fisher relates that during the court hearings in 2011, the family was told that, should they lose the case, they would be allowed a last visit. After the case was lost and it became clear that Belfast City Council would not even release the body to the family, on the Friday prior to execution date Fisher contacted the council directly and offered to personally collect the body, to "sign whatever papers were necessary," and transport the body to a private crematorium, to thus make certain Lennox's actual ashes were returned to the family; as Fisher explained, "This child needs closure. This family needs closure." Even this request was denied, no explanation given. Like Stilwell, Fisher had also travelled to Belfast to fight for Lennox -- or at least the family's right to his body -- during his last days.

2012-07-22-lennoxskin.jpgBelfast City Council's actions -- and inactions -- over the weeks before and immediately after Lennox's death have heightened suspicion of a cover-up. Crosby is one of many who surmises that either Lennox's health condition was so bad that Belfast City Council didn't want it made public, or that Lennox already been killed before they'd been authorized by law to carry out the sentence. It should be noted that when Fisher assessed Lennox in the spring of 2011, she reported that he had a neck injury, hair loss, freshly forming scabs on his flanks, and blood around his nail beds; photos leaked nearly a year later showed Lennox with massive areas of hair loss and sores.

One thing is now clear: worldwide outrage has heightened since Lennox's death, and now the focus has switched from saving the life of Lennox to investigating everyone involved in handling this case, from beginning to end.

Those who have fought hard and spoken out for Lennox, such as Stilwell and Crosby, had previously somewhat tempered their public criticism for fear of hurting Lennox's case (and also in the hope of leaving a door open for Belfast to gracefully compromise without losing face), but they have now gone full out in airing their feelings about Belfast City Council. Crosby's recent blog post title, "Lennox: The Gloves Come Off" sums up the current attitude. Saying "...I no longer have to hold my tongue," he critiques the credentials of, and evidence provided, by Tallack; he also offers a point-by-point analysis of a recently public video of David Ryan's assessment of Lennox, ultimately agreeing with Ryan's conclusion that Lennox was not aggressive and should be returned to his family.

Oh, and about that video. Take particular note of its co-star, a seated female who clearly has a friendly bond with Lennox, calmly patting and smiling at him. This is the same woman who has been shown in photographs to be laughing as Lennox licked her face, none other than Alexandra "Sandie" Lightfoot, the dog warden whose court testimony, along with that of Tallack, was given great weight by the judge over the opinions of the real experts.

2012-07-22-lennoxlightfootlick.jpgLooking at Lightfoot's interactions with Lennox in the video, her court testimony that Lennox was "the most unpredictable and dangerous dog" she'd dealt with would be laughable, if that testimony hadn't sealed Lennox's fate. The fact that Lightfoot has not been investigated for perjury (in fact, she was promoted last March, to the position of Animal Welfare Officer) is yet another issue that continues to fuel outrage. The Lightfoot situation, in particular, is even the focus of a rap video dedicated to Lennox by Sinistadacapo, "Freedom for Lennox" (note that the Barnes family has no connection to this independently produced video, and that it does contain explicit content).

And while Belfast City Council continues to emphasize that they've been targeted and harassed online (even in the announcement of Lennox's death, they made a point of referring, again, to "a sustained campaign of abuse" against Council officials, as if that situation provides some rationale), there are certain hate groups that have been rather viciously targeting the Barnes family and Lennox supporters from the beginning of this long saga. Oddly, now that the case has seen its (supposed) conclusion - with Belfast City Council the winner -- why have these hate groups stepped up their actions in recent days? To cite just one bizarre case, Beverley Cuddy, publisher of Dogs Today magazine, after posting a Facebook link to Belfast City Council's complaint address, which is public information, found that somebody was systematically contacting all of her advertisers, telling them to pull out of the magazine due to her "building a campaign against the people of Belfast" and "animal extremism;" one individual bragged about it on Facebook, saying "Dogs Today magazine your days are numbered."

2012-07-22-lennox.jpgPutting aside the issue of harassment on both sides, it still seems clear that Lennox was the victim of a misplaced law discriminating against dogs based upon their physical characteristics, along with politics and stubborn egos. What remains to be seen is whether Lennox's death reflects just the surface of some very deep problems within Belfast City Council and their related authorities. With their handling of the Lennox situation, Belfast has put themselves in the world spotlight, like it or not. And the world wants to know: what have they been hiding, and why?

Perhaps Victoria Stilwell sums it up best: "There is something corrupt going on and an independent review of the council's actions in this case needs to be done. I want answers."

 

Follow Joan K. Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/wassilyk

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