Lennox the dog, sable martyr of Ulster

This undated family handout made available Wednesday July 11, 2012 shows Lennox, an illegal pit-bull terrier type dog in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A pug-nosed Belfast dog named Lennox, who inspired a two-year legal fight and animal-rights protests on both sides of the Atlantic, has been put to sleep by city officials. Belfast City Council confirmed the 7-year-old dog was put down Wednesday July 11, 2012 after a deadline for legal appeals expired. Dog wardens deemed the pit bull-type dog to be a public danger and seized him from his owners in April 2010. Northern Ireland’s senior appeals court last month upheld two 2011 court rulings that Lennox should be put down. (AP Photo/PA Wire)

Lennox is dead. The black “pit bull type” canine became an internet sensation over the past few weeks as authorities in Belfast prepared to execute him under the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1992, which outlaws such animals. Lennox was euthanized early Wednesday despite worldwide appeals from celebrities, including Americans who offered to find a new home for him in the U.S. The family was not allowed to visit the dog before his death, or to be present for it; they learned first from a radio interviewer that the council order had been carried out. They haven’t been given their pet’s body, either; they have instead been told by city council that his ashes will be mailed to them.

The council has handled the whole affair about as poorly as it could have, from a public-relations standpoint. The mistrust that body has accumulated will be lasting, and one supposes that any institution of government in Northern Ireland starts with two strikes against it. But it would be hard to argue that Lennox wasn’t given at least a slim chance. Born long after the laws against pit bulls were passed, Lennox was the subject of three legal appeals, including one entertained by the Court of Appeal for Northern Ireland, the UK exclave’s highest. More than two full years lapsed between the seizure of the dog and his death.

In the end, the family was snagged in a Catch-22; the city council would probably have preferred to resolve matters by letting the dog be re-homed, especially since angry cynophiles have been churning out everything from e-mail spam to gasoline-soaked threat letters, but the letter of the law provides only for the destruction of dogs once they are found dangerous. There are no provisions for putting them on a boat in the dead of night and letting them slip quietly off into exile under less dog-o-cidal regimes.

The longstanding questions about the subjectivity and humanity of legislation banning particular breeds of dog are being renewed by Lennox’s case. He was adjudged to be a pit bull after a brief physical inspection with a tape measure. A DNA test apparently indicated that Lennox is a mix of American bulldog and Labrador retriever, but the standard under the law is physical conformation, not genetics, and doggie-DNA testing may still contain quite a large component of bushwa anyway. Lennox’s owner, Caroline Barnes, had complied scrupulously with all of the city’s licensing and health laws respecting the dog—except, of course, for the one making his existence inherently illegal. There have never been any complaints from neighbours about Lennox, and there is no evidence he has ever succeeded in nipping anyone.

Most news items about poor Lennox, however, naturally left out a few details that are present in the Court of Appeal’s judgment. (Is the recognition of complicated truths bad for the web stats, do you suppose?) When dog wardens returned to the Barnes residence after seeing Lennox and wondering why an illegal pit bull was living there, they “spoke to a male on the premises who refused to permit the examination of the dog and told them that if they attempted to measure the dog it would ‘rip their head off’.” Indeed, Lennox seems to have done his best; he lunged at one of the wardens who originally measured him, and at a dog handler brought in to assess his demeanour, and even at one of the family’s own trial witnesses. Barnes herself told the court “that the dog had changed since an incident where she and her child were threatened by a group of youths” and “that the dog did not deal well with strangers who forced themselves upon him.”

Around the world this week, thousands of dogs will be turned over to shelters or put down immediately because of difficult or intractable personalities. This one, at least, will be mourned.