I’ve never stolen a duck but I was accused of an animal related offence when I found myself in Crown Count several years ago now pleading not guilty to a charge pertaining to the Dangerous Dog Act. I was acquitted after being cross examined in front of a 12 strong jury for two hours. The case lasted two days and almost ran into three but I was found not guilty within ten minutes of the jury adjourning to decide their verdict on my fate. I was hugely relieved as the charge comes with a minimum three month prison sentence, which would have ruined my career and ended my practice as a forensic clinician.
That was a very dark time in my life and all because my sons wanted a father replacement, which came in the form of a ‘Spolly’, a collie/spaniel cross we rescued from the local RSCPA. The dog had obviously been breed in a puppy farm and needed training and socialising. We set to and did what we could but Spollies are energetic, intelligent and completely barmy. Our dog was also extremely loyal and protective of his new found family and duly rounded up the boys whenever we went on family walks.
As the novelty of a father replacement wore off the dog got walked less and less to the point I took up the offer of a dog walker to train our mad mutt.
All was going well and gradually we found ourselves with a dog we could manage more often than not. One warm summers evening the dog walker popped round to take the dog for a five-minute loo break. This consisted of putting the chocker lead on the dog and taking him round the block for a quick wee. No sooner were they out of sight than I got a call from a very stressed out dog walker telling me the dog had bitten a girl, she was bleeding and they couldn’t find the parents. As I shot round to the playground nearby I was told by a couple of small children to go to the girls house but before getting there I saw my dog walker and dog coming up towards me looking very anxious. This all took place sometime after ten o’clock at night. I was regaled of the whole unfortunate event involving several young children hanging around the playground, not an adult insight, and a small girl asking to pat the dog who was laying on the ground panting gently in the heat. The dog apparently stayed in this position as the girl came over holding out her hand. She then decided to kneel down in eye line with the dog and held up her hand. Given the animal is part Collie I was informed that if they cannot retreat when intimidated they would snap out as they might with a sheep. With the dog held tightly on the chocker collar he was unable to move back and so snapped out at the girl catching her under her eye and above her mouth. I was told there was a lot of blood as the dog walker lifted the child and took her back to her home only to be told the parents were out at a party and had been drinking. Another family member was alerted and took the girl to A & E.
The whole episode horrified us, we had no intention of causing harm to anyone and decided the next day to buy some gifts for the child by way of an apology such was our remorse. As we went up to the child’s home we could hear loud and ferocious barking coming from inside. We were met with the parents and could see a pack of what looked like pit bull terriers from inside the house. We gave our apologies and asked after the child. She was well, we were informed, but needed minor stitches. Grateful but in shock we left only to have a police officer on our doorstep later that day.
He listened carefully as I recounted what I’d been told and watched the dog laying calmly beside us. He liked the dog but said the worse that might happen is that we’d be ordered to have the dog euthanized. The officer suggested we contact the dog handling department as he thought our pet would make a good sniffer dog. We did this but were told they weren’t in need at that time. I took the decision to have the dog put down as we couldn’t risk anyone else being hurt and the boys felt unconfident then to walk the dog.
The dog was terminated leaving the family mortified yet relieved, but the story didn’t end there. The child’s family decided to press charges and I was asked to give a statement at the police station at my earliest opportunity. I then received a solicitors order to attend the magistrates’ court. Bewildered and dismayed I pleaded not guilty on the grounds that the dog was not dangerous and was being held responsibly at the time, but under the dangerous dog act, which I was reliably informed is one of the worse written laws, any person owning a dog that causes damage to a human, or indeed behaving in a threatening manner, should be prosecuted. I decided to get advice and was told I had a good case to fight. I spoke to a high court judge who was equally dismayed stating it was a total waste of public money and that the parents should be prosecuted for negligence.
Time went on and I heard nothing, weeks later I again stood in front of a judge in the magistrate’s court and again I pleaded not guilty. This time the case would go to Crown Court. I had no idea what this meant but was advised to accumulate character witnesses from my colleagues. Determined not to be beaten I ended up with about 30 character witnesses which was nice as people said things that might only be said at a wake.
In the meanwhile I was made redundant from my post, another trauma, and received a small redundancy package. With the court date looming I had no idea about representation and the solicitors were no better than useless. I studied the specific bit of the dog law act pertaining to my case and became a dog law expert in the event I had to represent myself. It wasn’t looking good, I told my friend one evening after a meeting. She had a think and said, it was a long shot but a family member was a barrister and she could ask him if he would represent me.
Fortunately for me he said he would and agreed to take my case for the paltry amount I’d been paid from my redundancy. This would leave the boys and I with little to live on but might keep me out of prison.
Anyway, the barrister was a Godsend, my guardian angel and saviour. The boys came with me to court and sat in floods of tears throughout. I sat behind glass with a police officer beside me and she chatted about what she’d cook for dinner when it was all over to keep my anxiety at bay.
Years later I still think about this episode and remain eternally grateful to my friend and the barrister for their help. We replaced the dog with a cat, called Malcolm, joined by another cat called Teddy, who terrorise the local wildlife but nothing more. I’ve learnt another of life’s great lessons and this experience has served me well.
When I saw the article in the Metro newspaper about the stolen duck it made me laugh and wonder what the law states about steeling a Mallard?
We won’t be having another dog and we often look at owners with their unruly pets charging around off the lead scaring people walking by, curious if the owners know they could easily be prosecuted if the dog even just barks in a public space, as this is all it takes so the specific article of the dog law states. I’m just saying, if dog owners knew they could be breaking the law by not keeping their dog under control there’s no way they’d let them off the lead!
Cathryn Johns has worked in forensic and mental health settings for the past 30 years pre and post qualifying in art psychotherapy. Kate is an educator, author, editor, supervisor and most recently qualified in NHS Leadership.