Sara Gunther is providing a refuge for the ‘dogs of death’ that can be put down under British law
He was once branded the ‘dog of death’ by a British tabloid. These days Raymond, a pit bull terrier, jumps and frolics playfully outside an Irish cottage that is offering a safe haven for dogs under death sentences in the UK.
The pup gained national notoriety this year when he was bought online by a British Sunday newspaper from underground dealers in fighting dogs. Like others, Raymond is illegal in Great Britain and could be put down at any time because of the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, which banned the breeding, sale or exchange of pit bull terriers and some other breeds.
The hyperactive ginger pit bull has now been ‘rescued’ and relocated to an isolated corner of Co Galway, where pit bulls and other dogs in danger live in exile. His saviour is German-born dog-lover Sara Gunther, who has turned her rented cottage into a refuge for breeds that are banned in Britain as well as dogs that Irish owners have either neglected, starved or exploited. On arrival, Gunther nervously asks for ID cards to verify who the strangers at her door are.
‘I have to check you out because of the Farmers’ Boys,’ she said, referring to a notorious gang running illegal dog-fighting rings in Ireland. The Ulster Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals labelled the group the ‘Manchester United of the dog-fighting world’.
‘They know that I have pit bulls here, some of whom come from fighting stock,’ added Gunther. ‘I have received threats on mobile phones that these gangsters want my dogs and will take them from me.’ She pleads that The Observer does not print the precise location of where she lives with 22 rescued dogs and her four-year-old son. ‘I have to protect myself and my family,’ she adds.
Gunther says that she grew up with pit bulls in Frankfurt. She says this is why she has no problem allowing her son to play with dogs that have such a fearsome reputation on the other side of the Irish Sea.
‘The only dog that ever attacked me in my entire life was a golden labrador, but no one in the media will ever do a report about someone being attacked by an Andrex puppy lookalike,’ she added, as Raymond leaped around with a fellow rescued pit bull named Bowie, after the rock star.
Gunther revealed that her cottage is home to yet another pit bull media star. Nipper was sold to Panorama, the BBC’s investigative current affairs show, during a programme on dog-fighting rings. An undercover reporter bought Nipper from European pit bull dealer Paul Dunkel in Helsinki. Nipper was described on the programme as a lethal dog descended from a legendary Texan fighting dog called Little Killer. He was subsequently sold to the documentary makers but has ended up, Gunther claimed, at her sanctuary to avoid being put down.
‘My son is four and he plays with Nipper,’ she said. ‘I am even able to foster him out part-time. Nipper has more scars and injuries than any of the other dogs we look after, but he sits and watches cartoons with my son.’
Asked if she was prepared to take in more pit bulls and other illegal breeds that face being destroyed in the UK, Gunther replied: ‘I have to be very clear about this. I will not break the law in Britain, so I won’t go over and take a dog there. But if someone comes to Ireland with a dog and hands it over here to me in the Republic, then that is different.’
The organisation that speaks for rank-and-file Irish police officers, the Garda Representative Association, is currently campaigning for an Irish version of the UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act brought in by John Major’s government in 1991. The GRA highlighted the lack of legislation after one of its members was subjected to a ferocious attack by a pit bull terrier in Galway earlier this year. The officer had to receive more than 100 stitches during a raid on a house in the city when he was savaged by the dog belonging to a suspected drug dealer.
The prospect of an Irish Dangerous Dogs Act which would outlaw certain breeds like pit bulls horrifies Gunther. She pointed to her T-shirt, which reads ‘Deed Not Breed’, referring to a campaign that fights against ‘breed-specific legislation’. Gunther argued that legislation would only drive the problem underground and result in dogs such as Nipper and Raymond being put down ‘just because of their looks’.