The truth about Stella

I am compelled to write this article due to the gross misrepresentation of facts widely distributed by the media and Facebook groups.

All the information provided here is truthful and can be verified by Court transcripts and reports.

In November 2013, Stella was left tied up outside a shop by her owner Anthony Hastie, and displayed aggression towards two passing police officers. They were concerned, and tried to speak to Mr Hastie about the dog’s behaviour when he re-appeared from the shop. He became extremely abusive towards the officers, and used Stella as a weapon to threaten them. They attempted to follow him, and he continued with the verbal abuse and threats to set Stella on them. The whole incident is documented and statements were later produced for Court.

In May 2014, Devon & Cornwall Police attended the home of Anthony Hastie on a drugs-related matter. Mr Hastie was abusive and once again used Stella to threaten officers. He was arrested on drugs charges. Stella’s breed and behaviour concerned the officers, and she was later seized from the house by the police and conveyed to secure kennels. She was fearfully aggressive on seizure and attacked one of the officers.

Stella was extremely aggressive in secure kennels and the decision was made by Devon & Cornwall Police that in the interest of the safety of kennel personnel she should remain in her kennel. Stella’s kennel was in the main thoroughfare and adjacent to the staffroom to ensure Stella received plenty of social interaction and exercise within her kennel on a daily basis from staff members. The decision to house Stella without exercise is extremely controversial but was made solely by Devon & Cornwall Police and not by kennel management or independent behavioural experts. Each dog is assessed by Devon & Cornwall Police on an individual basis.

I was instructed by Devon & Cornwall Police to provide an independent behavioural assessment of Stella in 2015. I found that she was dangerous due to her territorial aggression, and her fearfully aggressive and unpredictable behaviour: in my report to the Court I stated that she required very specialist handling and behavioural modification. I did not feel she was suitable to be returned to her owner Anthony Hastie due to her need for professional help and his previous character and irresponsible behaviour. I did not recommend destruction. However, in the absence of a responsible keeper at this time, destruction was the only option offered by the prosecution.

Stella’s case was finally heard in court on 8th February 2016 in Torquay. Stella was found to be a prohibited breed (a pit bull type) – this fact was not contested by the defence expert. The defence and prosecution did not reach agreement about Stella’s temperament. Under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, in order for a prohibited breed to be accepted on to the Index of Exempted Dogs, the dog must pose no threat to public safety and the owner must be considered to be a fit and proper person. Although this latter piece of legislation came into force eight days after Stella was seized, the District Judge highlighted Mr Hastie’s character and behaviour and referred to his extensive criminal record and history of antipathy towards the police. She also expressed concern about Mr Hastie using Stella to intimidate police officers. She referred back and expressed great concern about the incident in 2013 where Stella was tied up outside the shop, and criticised the defence expert for ignoring this evidence regarding both Stella’s behaviour and Mr Hastie’s own behaviour. She was satisfied that during seizure in 2014 the police officers had not provoked Stella in any way and had attempted to put a lead on her using positive, reward-based methods. She further criticised the defence expert for misinterpreting the statements referring to Stella’s behaviour during seizure.

Finally, the District Judge, having considered all the evidence from both sides including cross-examination of myself and the defence expert, ruled that she did consider Stella to pose a risk to public safety and that Mr Hastie was not considered to be a fit and proper person. Mr Hastie was found guilty of offences under Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act and Stella was given a destruction order.

Mr Hastie took his case to the Appeal Court. In that time, due to breaches of security concerning Stella’s location she was moved to a new kennel on 3rd March 2016 where she began to receive daily exercise away from her kennel. She was assessed by a second defence expert who concurred with the first defence expert regarding temperament.

Following media reports highlighting Stella’s case, a proposed new keeper came forward. Working with the police, he located a more suitable kennel for Stella, and she was moved again on 12th May 2016. The new kennel owner has vast experience of working with dogs like Stella, and agreed to try and modify Stella’s behaviour. At the same time, she could offer her plenty of securely fenced land for free-running during exercise periods away from her kennel, up to 3-4 times a day, while remaining out of the public domain. Stella made great improvement but concerns continued to be raised over some issues. After one month at the new location I re-assessed Stella. I concluded that although she had made vast improvement in some areas, she remained a danger to the public due to her behaviour in other areas. I stated in my report to the Court that Stella would require a highly competent, experienced and responsible owner with the ability to provide her with a stable and calm environment offering space, routine, and very controlled and professionally-guided exposure to people, dogs and other stressors. Both the kennel owner and Devon & Cornwall Police were of the opinion that the proposed new keeper would not be able to meet Stella’s needs.

I did not recommend destruction, but again, in the absence of an appropriate keeper, destruction would be the only available course of action for the prosecution to seek. The defence felt that Stella should be returned to Anthony Hastie, backed by public support following misleading media reports.

Fortunately, the kennel owner proposed that she would put herself forward as a potential new keeper for Stella and continue to work with her. This proposal was welcomed by myself and Devon & Cornwall Police as Stella would remain away from the pubic but at the same time receive behavioural modification and plenty of exercise and stimulation. The proposal was put to the defence, who then agreed that this would be the best option for Stella, despite their many other offers of new homes - but all of which involved Stella being exposed to the public. They acknowledged that Anthony Hastie was not a suitable owner for Stella.

The case was put before the Judge in the Appeal Court in Exeter on 22nd June 2016. The prosecution and defence were in agreement that Stella be kept out of the public domain by having keepership transferred to her current kennel owner. The Judge cross-examined the kennel owner and asked pertinent questions about public safety. He was satisfied that in this kennel, Stella would not come into contact with members of the public or their dogs and at the same time, Stella’s welfare would be paramount. The experts were not cross-examined as they were in agreement about the new keepership.

The Judge granted new keepership on the basis that Stella would remain at her current kennel.

Contrary to public opinion widely shared on social media, Stella is still kennelled. However, it is a large kennel with secure outdoor area attached, and she is taken out for free-running off-lead exercise 3-4 times daily in fields. The order has been submitted to Defra by Devon & Cornwall Police asking to accept Stella onto the Index of Exempted Dogs, and then she will be neutered, microchipped and insured. She must be kept in secure conditions so that she cannot escape, and on lead and muzzled in all public places; but at her private kennel she will not come into contact with members of the public. There are some other conditions of exemption as outlined by Defra relating to changes of address (the Index must be notified if the dog is kept there longer for 30 days) and notification of death of the dog.

Stella will live out her days still kennelled, but receiving plenty of stimulating exercise and training. It is hoped that her behaviour will continue to improve with the support and expertise of the kennel owner, Stella’s new keeper, with whom Stella has formed a strong and positive bond.

However, it is important that people are not misinformed about the Judge’s ruling.

Stella must be kept away from the public domain. This was agreed by both prosecution and defence; that Stella does not pose a risk to public safety if and only if she remains with her current keeper, because she will not come into contact with members of the public.

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