A GRAND OLD DAME - DEMPSEY CELEBRATES HER 17th
SHE’S ARGUABLY one of the most famous dogs in the country - indeed, in the whole world. Her fame extends beyond mere occasional appearances in soap operas, or as part of a stable of look-alikes for nostalgia-based feature films. This is a dog that earned her fame, a dog whose endurance was an inspiration to us all - human and canine alike.
She is Dempsey, the dog who cracked the Dangerous Dogs Act wide open.
The fact that she celebrated her 17th birthday on Sunday, February 2nd is quite an achievement for any dog, but considering the fact that she was not expected to live beyond her 9th birthday, with a bloodthirsty establishment seeking every possible way to kill her under the strictest and most draconian terms of DDA, then chalking up her 17th year is a wholly remarkable achievement.
"Dempsey" is an American Pit Bull Terrier, owned by Diane Fanneran, of Hanwell, West London. Dempsey had never shown any aggression to any other dog or human being in her life, yet she found herself on doggy death row for over three years, thanks to the intransigence of the law. Dempsey was being taken for a walk by family friend Mark Cichon one evening in April 1992, duly muzzled and leashed, in accordance with the newly enacted law. Suddenly, she began to choke, trying to vomit, but unable to because of her muzzle. Mark quickly removed the muzzle to allow Dempsey to be sick, at which point two police officers - one of them an Inspector pulled up in a patrol car and informed him that he had broken the law by having a Pit Bull unmuzzled in a public place. Mark’s protests that Dempsey was normally muzzled and that he’d only removed the muzzle temporarily to allow her to vomit and not chokes to death were waved aside as irrelevant. After all, he was told, the law is the law.
Mark was summonsed to appear in court under the terms of the DDA, but he neglected to mention the fact to Diane. The case was heard at Ealing Magistrates Court three months later where Mark was found guilty of breaking the law and Dempsey was sentenced to death, as the magistrates then had no discretion in sentencing under the DDA. Mark was notified by letter on 15th July to surrender the dog to the police for destruction. He then went to Diane’s place of work to drop the bombshell on her.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Diane, 55. “Quite apart from the fact he hadn’t told me about the court case, the police were saying they wanted to kill Dempsey. To be fair to Mark, he thought by pleading guilty he’d only get a fine - he had no idea Dempsey would be destroyed. I couldn’t believe it. I’d heard about the law of course, and I‘d registered her, had her neutered, tattooed, microchipped and insured, she’d always worn her muzzle in public, even though she wasn’t vicious and here she was, sentenced to death for vomiting. I protested to the person who signed the letter, but they were adamant - I had to bring her to my local police station the next day, or they would turn up at my home in riot gear, kick the door down and take her by force.”
Thus it was, the next day, 16th July, Diane, in a state of shock delivered Dempsey to Ealing police station, from where she was taken to be placed in solitary confinement in a bare concrete kennel in the station yard, later to be taken secret kennels But Diane did not come alone- she was accompanied by Stan James, a reporter form the local newspaper, who took photographs of the handover, much to the anger of Inspector Nursey, the inspector who had approached Mark that fateful day.
From here on, the legal merry-ground that was the DDA began. There were numerous appeals made on Dempsey's behalf over the next three years, first by the solicitor acting for Mark, then later by the solicitor acting for Diane, well-known DDA expert Trevor Cooper. The appeals were heard at Crown Court, the High Court, the House of Lords and the High Court again. All were rejected. The law said that Dempsey had to die.
Diane is convinced that matters had progressed far beyond the original charge Dempsey had become a pawn to those in authority.
“I realised that the whole Establishment was out to get her, not because she was a dangerous dog, but because she was a Pit Bull,” says Diane grimly, “The DDA was coming under a great deal of criticism at that time, there were lots of dogs like Otis, Buster and Kizzie held in kennels at that time and they wanted to make an example of her, breaking the legal challenges.”
Dempsey’s story was reported extensively in the canine press, as well as local and then later, national and international newspapers. The French actress turned animal welfare campaigner Brigitte Bardot was so concerned about Dempsey's plight that she offered to fly the dog out to France to live out her days at her own animal sanctuary, entirely at Ms Bardot's expense. The offer was put to Home Secretary Michael Howard, who bluntly refused, saying that he could not intervene in the process of law.
One week in April 1995, the Metropolitan Police told Diane that Dempsey was definitely going to be put down "one day that week". Her son even dug a grave in the garden. A vet had been found to administer the lethal injection to Dempsey However, Trevor Cooper prevented Dempsey's destruction by issuing a writ against Michael Howard, stating that Diane did not give her permission for her dog to be destroyed. Should this happen, then he and the vet would be liable. The police could offer no legal protection to the vet, so vet, police and Hone Secretary backed down. The RCVS issued a circular which was faxed to every veterinary surgery in the UK drawing vets; attention to the case and stating that if any vet destroyed the dog, they would be liable to disciplinary action, as well as legal action from Diane.
However, this was a temporary reprieve. The police and Crown Prosecution Service forced another date for the High Court to make a final ruling on Dempsey’s fate and to authorise the dog’s destruction - presumably offering legal immunity to the vet carrying out this task as an agent of the Crown’.
“This time I thought we’d had it,” said Diane, “We were resigning ourselves to her death.” But with just two days to go to the crucial hearing, anti-DDA campaigner Juliette Glass discovered a legal loophole by checking through the case notes of another, little known DDA case, that of Robertina Reilly and her dog Tempra. The case bore remarkable similarities to Dempsey’s case and had been dismissed by the High Court when it was found that Reilly, as the dog’s owner, had not been informed of the court hearing - just like Diane Fanneran. As Juliette Glass herself remarked, this was truly a case of divine intervention. The High Court heard from Ealing magistrates that if Diane had been in court that day, matters might have progressed very differently. The two High Court judges considered this new evidence, and, pointedly remarking that they took a very dim view of the prosecution's whole case and promptly ordered that Dempsey be released.
“I just can’t describe that feeling when I sat there in court and heard that she’d be released,” says Diane. “It still makes me fill up to this day. And then when she was brought home the next evening….”
24 hours later, before TV cameras and press reporters, Diane and Dempsey were reunited. The pair had only seen each other once for a brief meeting since Dempsey was seized. For the next few days, Dempsey was the most famous dog in Britain, appearing on TV and in newspapers. She even knocked Princess Diana off the front page of the Daily Mail!
People called at Diane's house with gifts for Dempsey, all being extremely pleased that the pretty dog with the erect ears and alert expression and her feisty owner had beaten the cruelty of the system. Diane spent her first happy Christmas for three years with her beloved dog, who tucked into lots of tasty food, far better than the plain fare she had been used to in kennels for so long. Diane has this to say about the Dangerous Dogs Act; “It's a totally sick law. I'd been brought up to respect law and order, and I'd always believed that British Justice was the best in the world. But after this...what is there to respect? Okay, it’s been amended now, but it’s still wrong. The whole law should be scrapped.”
Happily, Dempsey has had no brushes with the law since and was, for some time, a regular figure anti-DDA protests, a symbol of true justice against adversity.
Perhaps not surprisingly for san elderly dog, Dempsey’s health has deteriorated in recent years. “She’s got major heart problems and arthritis,” explains Diane. I’m convinced that her heart problems started when she was in kennels, because when she came out, she was checked by a vet and found to have a heart murmur. My health took a downward turn after the case too; I’ve not worked since 1998. But her medication seems to keep things under control and she’s still plodding happily on. We both take our pills together - we’re a real couple of old dames together!
“She’s never so happy as when my grandchildren come to visit.”
So now, aged 17, Dempsey lives contentedly with Diane in Hanwell, and sleeps each night under Diane's duvet.
But during her years in custody, Dempsey had developed one unsavoury habit that Diane did not know about... “She snores something terrible and grinds her teeth!” laughs Diane, “But after all she's been through, I can put up with that. She's a remarkable dog and I love her to bits.”