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Trade in 'Irish' pit bulls flouts dog law

By Daniel Foggo and Adam Lusher

(Filed: 02/06/2002)

British dog breeders are making a mockery of the law banning American pit bull terriers by selling an almost identical breed that is equally vicious and is being widely used in illegal dog fights.

The Telegraph has discovered that the new dogs, whose extreme aggression and tenacity mirror those of the feared American breed, are being sold under the "codename" of "Irish" Staffordshire bull terriers.

The RSPCA says that the "Irish" variety - which it does not recognise as a breed - is helping to fuel the return of dog fighting to levels last seen in the 1980s before the Dangerous Dogs Act was enforced.

Mike Butcher, the chief inspector for the RSPCA special operations unit set up to prosecute dog fighting rings, said that between 1980 and 1991 he and his colleagues carried out 13 raids and jailed almost 100 people.

There was a lull in the number of dog fights during the 1990s, but in the past 18 months alone the unit has pursued seven court cases.

The widespread appearance of the new breed has also heightened fears of a fresh wave of dog attacks on people. Two weeks ago five-year-old Leah Preston had most of the muscles in her legs and buttocks ripped away by two dogs described as "bull terrier crosses" while playing outside her home in Wolverhampton.

Last week two other children were savaged. One of them, seven-year-old Abigail Williams from Newcastle, needed surgery after being attacked by what the police described as a "cross-bred Staffordshire bull terrier that was like a pit bull".

Under the Dangerous Dogs Act, which was enacted in 1991 following a spate of savage attacks on humans, owners of American pit bulls are banned from breeding their dogs or bringing further specimens into the country. Existing dogs had to be neutered, registered with tattoos and microchips and kept muzzled in public.

Animals affected by the Act must belong to one of four breeds: the American pit bull terrier, the Japanese tosa, the Argentinian dogo and the Brazilian fila. While there were about 10,000 American pit bulls in Britain by 1991, there was only one tosa and none of the other two breeds.

"The legislation is very clear that a dog must be an American pit bull terrier to come under the confines of the Act," said Mr Butcher.

"What happens, however, is that people who fight dogs are using animals they call an Irish Staffordshire bull terrier but which are in fact like an American pit bull terrier. They can be prosecuted for this if a vet states in court that the dog is actually the equivalent of an American pit bull."

Inquiries carried out by this newspaper have found that the law is being circumvented by breeders of the "Irish" variation of the Staffordshire bull terrier. These dogs are significantly larger than ordinary Staffordshires and almost indistinguishable from American pit bulls.

Both the RSPCA and the Kennel Club are worried about the "Irish" variety's sudden proliferation. Mr Butcher said: "There is no such breed as an Irish Staffordshire bull terrier. This is a codename for an American pit bull."

Eleven days ago, Mr Butcher helped to secure the conviction of a man from Redruth in Cornwall for participating in dog fighting. David Reeves, 38, an unemployed guitar teacher, who had made videos of dogs savaging each other, claimed in court that his dog, Red, was an Irish Staffordshire bull terrier, but Alison Robson, a vet specialising in dangerous dogs, gave evidence that the animal was substantially a pit bull type.

The American pit bull was created from selective breeding of ancestors of British Staffordshire bull terriers, which were exported to the United States in the 19th century. Staffordshires are about 15in high at the shoulder, while American pit bulls can be 18in - and taller - at the shoulder.

The pit bull was bred to be far more muscular and aggressive than the Staffordshire. The RSPCA and the Kennel Club say that an Irish Staffordshire bull terrier is a very leggy Staffordshire bull terrier that has been created by selective breeding designed to give it characteristics similar to those of the banned US pit bull.

Phil Buckley, a spokesman for the Kennel Club, said: "Families may think they are buying a pure-bred Stafford.

"We have had a lot of calls from those who have bought these dogs at six weeks old, and at three months they are phoning us up saying, 'I didn't know what I was buying but the breeder said it would be a slightly large Staffordshire bull terrier'. Instead they get a bulky animal that doesn't resemble a Stafford in temperament or type."

Puppies from dogs described as "Irish" or "big-boned" Staffordshire bull terriers are advertised for sale in a variety of publications. The Telegraph responded to one advert in Exchange & Mart which offered "Old type (Irish) puppies, excellent pedigree, very well bred Psycho line, £400."

The seller, who gave his name as Ian and lives in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, said that the puppies' parents stood up to 20in at the shoulder - five inches higher than a normal Staffordshire terrier and tall even for an American pit bull.

"If you want a guard dog then this is perfect for you," he said.

He added that the word "Psycho" referred to a notorious pit bull type of fighting dog of the 1980s from which his litter was descended. Psycho defeated three other dogs in fights lasting for up to two hours before meeting its match in a dog called Stormer. More than £6,000 of bets were placed on the fight.

Another advertisement offered Staffordshire terrier pups with "Champion Rebel and Irish bloodline" for £450. Chris Grace, a taxi driver from Plumstead in south London who placed it, told a Telegraph reporter posing as a potential buyer: "I have been round the pit bulls and the Staffords for 20-odd years now, and all of a sudden, now that no one can get pit bulls, everyone wants Irish Staffords.

My brother's dog is as good as gold with the kids, but anyone comes anywhere near them or shouts at them or anything - the dog's straight out there. And when he comes in late at night the dog's at the door, doing his nut."

Mr Grace tells potential buyers that his dogs are "Kennel Club" registered Staffordshire bull terriers and shows certificates purporting to show their pedigree. On closer inspection, however, these prove to be issued by the "Intercontinental Kennel Club", a fringe organisation run by Ed Reid, the man credited with introducing the pit bull into Britain during the 1970s.

Mr Grace also describes his dogs as Staffordshire bull terriers "with Irish in them".

When confronted by The Telegraph, he denied that Irish Staffordshire bull terrier was code for pit bull.

He said: "Irish Staffordshire bull terriers have been around for years. It's just old breeding. When you saw my dogs, did you get bitten? No. They were nice and friendly."

The Kennel Club is pressing the Advertising Standards Agency to ban the running of advertisements for such dogs. Mr Buckley said: "Exchange & Mart are looking at not running ads for Irish Staffordshire terriers and breeds like that."

Beverley Cuddy, the editor of Dogs Today, said that her magazine would not carry such advertisements.

"There is no recognised Irish Staffordshire bull terrier breed," she said. "It is complete fiction."

Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002.

   
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