By now the story has become such a media archetype that it almost writes itself. There is the grim housing estate, the baby-sitting session that turns into a nightmare, the traumatised aunt or grandparent, the shocked neighbours, the remorseful parents.
Dog kills child. Oh dear, poor little thing. It is another grisly, depressing, predictable tale from lost England.
We sigh, shake our heads and turn the page.
The death on Monday of four-year-old John-Paul Massey, mauled by the family mastiff, will fade from the news soon enough. He will become another sad little statistic like Archie-Lee Hirst (aged one, killed by a Rottweiler), Jaden Mack (three months, a Jack Russell and a Staffordshire bull terrier), Ellie Lawrenson (five, a pit bull terrier) and Cadey-Lee Deacon (five months, two Rottweilers).
Apart from the five children killed by dogs over the past three years, there are countless others who have been attacked, some scarred for life. There were 3,800 casualties of dog attacks treated in accident and emergency in 2008, according to National Health figures. The figure has tripled since 1991.
Nothing, beyond a bit of routine hand-wringing, is ever done about these incidents, perhaps because, in the comfortable world of MPs and civil servants, the worse that a pet pooch can do is snap benignly or chase the neighbour’s cat. The thinking seems to be that there are bad dogs out there, and bad owners. Once every few months, a child is attacked and killed. These things happen.
How is it that a government which cheerfully pushes the limits of individual freedom in order to restrict adult contact with children is so utterly feeble when the contact is canine and fatal? There is, after all, a direct and easy way to place legally enforceable controls over dog ownership. Like many other countries in the world (including, if a new proposal becomes law next year, Northern Ireland), a mandatory dog licence should be introduced.
The argument that a licensing system would affect the vulnerable who are dependent on the company of their pets is clearly ludicrous. Who, after all, is more vulnerable than a baby or small child being brought up with a dog which will, under certain circumstances, tear its throat out?
Current legislation, the Dangerous Dogs Act, is clearly out of date and ill-suited to deal with the weird and unhealthy vogue for owning aggressive dogs. Banning the ownership of a small number of breeds suggests, quite wrongly, that only certain types of animal pose a serious threat to humans. The truth is that any dog, ill-treated and under-exercised, can be dangerous and unpredictable. Significantly, only one of the five children killed recently was the victim of a banned breed.
What exactly is the problem here? Apart from the small matter of saving lives, of reducing the burden on the NHS and making it more difficult for social and sexual inadequates to terrorise their neighbourhood, the statutory requirement of a dog licence would provide an important, much-needed reminder that owning an animal involves responsibility.
Violence by dogs is invariably caused by human cruelty, neglect or ignorance. If the concept of animal rights is to mean anything, then the relationship between humans and their pets needs redefining and sharpening with the help of the law.
Dogs are not weapons, status symbols, toys or accessories. Owning them and controlling their lives involves a moral commitment not only to those who might be vulnerable to them, but to the animals themselves.
Nostalgic for the worst days of our lives
By a neat coincidence, a report revealing the terrible price in later life paid by boys attending a single-sex boarding-school was published within days of my having lunch with someone whom I had not seen since we both left a particularly ghastly prep school.
We were both sent away to school at the age of seven. Soon after arriving, we were both beaten black and blue by a peculiarly sadistic headmaster – the first of many beatings for my friend. Of course, Virginia Ironside is right in her comments on the new report: most of us who attended these expensive, well-appointed child prisons grew up to be confused and hopeless adults: emotionally unavailable; sexually odd; and riddled with what they call “trust issues”.
Oddly, though, my friend and I recalled those miserable days with a sort of nostalgia. He remembered being terrified by the PT master. I remembered having to perform hand-springs in the nude for another master. We both recalled the slow, public ritual, a subtle form of psychological torture, which led up to – and were the worst part of – the headmasters’ beatings. His wife would be arranging flowers outside the study as her husband thrashed some small boy.
Ah, happy days. We could have spent all afternoon talking about what we went through. Our prep school was so dysfunctional that, in retrospect, the universal perviness of the adults and our own innocence have an almost Carry On quality to them. Could such things still go on at single-sex boarding-schools for boys? I rather suspect they can.
A dysfunctional response to family matters
At first glance, the recent findings of the Family and Parenting Institute would seem to be almost aggressively uncontentious. There is today no obvious, fixed family unit, the report says. One-parent families are on the increase. Grandparents are becoming more involved in child-rearing but should not be exploited.
The role of men is changing. “Fathers are now spending 200 per cent more time ‘actively engaged’ with their children than in the 1970s,” the institute’s chief executive Dr Katherine Rake has commented, adding that they are also less likely to be living in the same household. In these confusing times for men – some of whom seem to be actively engaged yet absent child-rearers – support services needed to be more flexible than they used to be.
The response to these observations has been bizarre. In the right-wing press, there have been arguments about this attack on the nuclear family. David Cameron has spoken of the Government’s “pathological” opposition to marriage. Dr Rake has even been accused of being a feminist. Clearly she is on the right track.