Family's relief as Hank the dog is allowed to return home
The owners of a family pet broke down in court as a judge ruled the pit bull type dog could be returned home.
Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows also vowed to continue their high-profile campaign to change the law after securing the release of their beloved Hank which had been seized by Belfast City Council three weeks ago.
Outside Belfast Magistrates' Court, they spoke of their relief that Hank had been placed on the council's exemption register, sparing him from destruction.
Mr Collins said: "It has been three weeks but it seems like three months. It has been very, very difficult.
"We are glad that common sense has come through and that they recognise that Hank is a friendly dog."
As part of his release conditions Hank is to be kept on a lead with a muzzle; will be assessed by a behaviourist and his owners have agreed to adhere to any recommended training to control his exuberant nature.
Ms Meadows said: "We just can't get over we are going to be able to see him again.
"Even when we were told the decision on Thursday, I didn't want to believe it because I didn't want to get my hopes up. I just miss him so much."
Animal rights campaigners who had packed into the public gallery of courtroom 16 in the Laganside Court Complex erupted into applause as District Judge Ken Nixon confirmed he would sign the court order placing the dog on the exemption register.
Barrister Mark O'Connor, representing Mr Collins, said they wished to thank the public for their support.
"They are delighted this has been resolved in this way and that Hank can be returned home," the lawyer said.
During a hearing which lasted less than five minutes it was revealed that Hank had come to the council's attention as a result of a complaint from a member of the public about alleged mistreatment.
When officers attended the property, Hank's owners were not present and the dog was displaying "agitated behaviour", it was claimed.
The animal was seized when a warrant was executed.
He was subsequently examined by a breed expert who concluded that although Hank was a "boisterous" pit bull type dog, he did not show any signs of posing a threat, the court was told.
An online "Save Hank" petition had secured almost 285,000 signatures while a Just Giving legal fighting fund has raised almost £20,000.
Celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell and boxer Carl Frampton were among those who backed Hank's campaign.
Mr Collins and Ms Meadows, who insisted Hank was a Staffie/Lab cross, also appeared on nationwide media, including ITV's This Morning show, to highlight their case.
Mr Collins, a 33-year-old student, said he would continue to challenge Stormont's breed-specific dangerous dog legislation, despite having Hank home.
"We are less than happy with the legislation," he added. "As far as we know the council are not happy with it, politicians are not happy with it, the public are not happy with it. Something needs to change."
A rally organised by Hank's owners against dangerous dogs legislation is set to go ahead next Sunday.
According to Belfast City Council, 12 of 13 dogs assessed by the council to be pit bulls since 2011 had been exempted and returned to their owners.
In 2012, a family pet called Lennox was put down after the council determined it was a pit bull. The destruction came after a high-profile, two-year legal fight by the dog's owners.
Indicating the extent to which the story has penetrated the local news agenda, the council decision was met by almost immediate statements from senior politicians including East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson and Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long.