The Blog

For Lennox Barnes

As animal care professionals we need to treat all animals as individuals through our words and actions. We must hold one another accountable to avoid those slippery slope practices that lead others to believe breed discrimination is acceptable.
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Lennox Barnes' life has come to a sad and bitter end. His story is heartbreaking and infuriating, with one part incomprehensible bureaucratic righteousness and three parts love, humanity and the shared will for profound change.

For those who haven't heard, the details of his short life are achingly tragic. In May 2010, Lennox Barnes was taken from his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His owners indicate that he was a model citizen -- that he had no known history of bad behavior, and no aggressive or violent actions in his past.

For two years he languished in an undisclosed penal facility deprived of contact with his loved ones or the outside world. His immediate and ever-expanding world family used all the forces at their disposal -- legislation, advocacy and public relations -- to gain his freedom. Their fight reached a crescendo this week and after two years of solitary confinement Lennox was executed with no opportunity for clemency.

Lennox was apprehended, imprisoned and finally killed because of what he looked like, not because of anything he did.

How could this happen in a first world country? Lennox was seized from his beloved family under the Dangerous Dogs Order of 1991. This law deems any dog "of the type known as the pit bull terrier" to be dangerous and illegal.

In 15 years of animal welfare work I've seen many unspeakable things. This story haunts me and fills me with rage. Why has Lennox's plight touched the hearts of hundreds of thousands of strangers throughout the world? Why has he become so much more than just one dog?

On a typical day thousands of dogs are brought to shelter facilities -- 35 a day in our nation's capital. Many are dumped like garbage in our lobbies. We are left to pick up the pieces; to heal them and find them new families.

Lennox was already part of a family. He was cherished by people who loved him dearly and who fought for him at great personal expense in a battle that dominated their lives for two years. At first they wanted him back home but in the end they were selflessly advocating for any solution that would save his life.

Many animals have nowhere to go. Yet Lennox had offers of sanctuary from some of the best-known dog advocates in the world. Dog trainer Victoria Stillwell went to Ireland trying in vain to meet with the Belfast City Council (BCC) or anyone with authority who would listen. She generously offered to pay all costs to re-home him in the United States and to take full responsibility for him for the rest of his life.

The BCC refused to communicate with her, as they had refused dialogue with so many others before. They were allegedly, breathtakingly heartless and cruel to Lennox, and his family, and to good people throughout the world who tried to engage them positively. Their callousness climaxed in their refusal to grant the Barnes family the chance to say goodbye, or collect Lennox's body and give him a proper burial.

Their recalcitrance led to rage among the frustrated public which converted into heated language and threats of violence. Websites called for the Olympic torch to bypass Belfast, and for people to boycott travel to Ireland forever or send hate mail to Belfast leaders. The BCC used this to cast themselves as victims, trying to scramble to the moral high ground. Yet if they had simply talked to people and shown a modicum of human decency, the anger would never have boiled.

I have seen this stubborn, virtuous desire to be right in many corners of the animal welfare world, and it never serves people or animals well. The BCC appear to have made mistakes others made before them: they shut their minds to new information and opinions; they repeated to themselves and through media spokespeople the mantra that they were right; and they hunkered down and became stingy with both information and compassion.

We are left with more questions than answers. Why couldn't unbiased behaviorists assess the dog? Why wouldn't they let anyone, including the family, see the dog -- up to and after his death? Were they abusing him? Had their lack of care led to his failing health or premature death? Had they violated the law and killed him before the appeal period was up? These were the only things that made sense in the face of a wall of silence and a bolted door. Their appalling behavior evoked anger and rage which, while understandable, is nonproductive unless it is properly channeled.

So how do we best channel the immense energy that has mobilized on Lennox's behalf? With each passing hour my own sadness and frustration evolves into a resolve to ensure that nothing of the like ever happens again to any other family. With Lennox's death can come the birth of a transformative legacy that will far outlive both his tragic circumstances and the political lives of the politicians who perpetrated them.

The most lasting thing we can do is destroy every vestige of appearance-based discrimination. Let's start calling it what it is -- canine racism. There is no place for this in a compassionate, enlightened society.

As animal care professionals we need to treat all animals as individuals through our words and actions. We must hold one another accountable to avoid those slippery slope practices that lead others to believe breed discrimination is acceptable -- including quotas on how many pit bull type dogs will be accepted, or separate temperament tests, or unique policies related to adoption of dogs who look a certain way.

On a larger scale, it means thwarting or striking down Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), which has consistently failed in communities around the world. BSL has no quantifiable impact on a decrease in dog bites or an increase in public safety. In several municipalities there have been costly legal challenges. And BSL is prohibitively expensive to enforce for taxpayers and municipalities alike. When Belfast City Councilman Pat McCarthy was asked on BBC Radio Ulster whether he would agree that their legislation needs to be reviewed, even he replied, "Yes, I certainly would."

In the nation's capital the Washington Humane Society worked in partnership with our City's leaders to establish an approach that is sensible and effective. Dogs are deemed dangerous or potentially dangerous based on a set of observed, concrete behaviors and criteria. Our approach is working. We would be honored to share the language and format and our legislative experience with anyone who is determined to implement similar behavior-based legislation in their own communities.

We will wrestle over how to best serve Lennox and others like him for a long time. For today I've done what comes most naturally: I went to our shelter and took home the oldest and most frightened dog, who happens to look a lot like Lennox. He is eight-years-old, with bad breath, kennel cough and a host of health challenges. He is sleeping peacefully at my side, the deep slumber of one who has finally left a stressful environment. We will give him love, treats, medicine, compresses and the promise of a new life. There are hundreds of thousands of Lennox's sitting alone and scared in the shelters of your community waiting for an act of kindness. Adopt them, or foster them for awhile. Make a place for them on your couch.

To Lennox's family -- know how many hearts and minds are with you. We are dedicated to ensuring that other families won't be destroyed as yours has been. To the people who fought so hard for Lennox, you did not fail. Your selflessness and kindness is felt and appreciated and you started an important and overdue groundswell. And to Lennox, I hope you are finally at peace, and resting in your own serene and undisturbed slumber after the stress and the fear and the cruelty. Know that there is an army of people mobilizing with those who were already on your side. We have just begun the fight, and it is one that we will win. Godspeed.