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The subject of how animals are or are not viewed under Canadian law is one of my many interests in the entire field of animal/human relationships. Currently, I am following the recent Charter challenge in the Ontario Superior Court to Ontario’s controversial “pit bull ban”—i.e. last summer’s revisions to the Dog Owners’ Legislative Act that opponents of the new law refer to as “racial profiling” for dogs.
Earlier this year, the hit-and-run attack on a horse and rider with the Toronto Police force’s mounted detail held similar interest for me, because of the disparity between the very “human” way the horse was treated in death, as compared to utter lack of legislation in this country to protect police animals injured or killed on the job. Here’s what I wrote in March about the send-off ceremony for a horse called “Brigadier”

March 10, 2006

Earlier this week in Toronto, there was a public memorial to celebrate the life and mourn the death of a police horse named Brigadier. An estimated twelve hundred unaffiliated individuals, including me, made our way along with an uncounted number of members of the media, to the Ricoh Coliseum at the Exhibition Grounds. There, we joined mounted police officers and horses and dogs from the Toronto force, from the R.C.M.P. and other forces from across the country in a solemn service that included bagpipers, an emotional eulogy from Brigadier’s now horseless rider, and—most eloquent of all—his worn saddle on display at centre stage.

In speeches made on Brigadier’s behalf, the big Belgian-cross horse’s sense of humour was lovingly recollected, along with his wisdom, his gentleness, and his enjoyment of his job. He was cited to as a fallen hero of the force, in the wistful speculation that he may have saved his human partner’s life by taking the brunt of an automotive assault, when a man deliberately drove his van into the patrolling pair.

Brigadier’s eight short years on earth and sudden death were celebrated with the same seriousness we’d expect the police to accord any human member of their ranks who’d died on duty. Perhaps it was such solemnity that brought tears to so many onlookers’ eyes. The procession of pipers and mounted officers, the montage of film clips and still photographs….all to mark the passing of an animal who, in life as well as death, would surely be unaware of the intention behind the big fuss.

Or, maybe what made the memorial for Brigadier so affecting was the need to eulogize him as if he’d been any two-legged member of the Toronto force, who’d opted to do a man’s work among other men and women. In truth, Brigadier was only an animal. Like the vast majority of his kind, he chose neither the manner of his life nor the circumstances of his slaughter. As much as mounted police in general love their horses, as much as Brigadier was especially beloved of the Toronto force, there is no evidence at all that he or any other animal would ever volunteer to put his own life on the line that way.

Nor is there any law currently on Canadian books to make it a crime to cut down Brigadier or any other police animal on the job. For all the references made at the memorial to Brigadier as an officer dying in the line of duty, the only charges leveled against the man who aimed his vehicle at horse and rider were causing bodily harm to the mounted officer and failing to remain at the scene of an accident.

During the service for Brigadier, the police onstage took the high road. To a man, they refrained from any reference to the ironic disparity between Brigadier’s lack of stature under law while he lived, and the height of heroic importance to which he’s been elevated in death. It was only after the event, milling around Brigadier’s now-empty stall, that I heard male and female cops from Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere voice their anger about the lack of legal protection in this country for four-legged police personnel .

In which case, I wonder if giving Brigadier a human-scale memorial sent the wrong message. Could it be that suffusing a horse’s senseless death in the sentimentality of skirling pipes and florid phrases actually obscures the true nature of every animal’s unimportance in the eyes of Canadian law?

It’s a question worth asking, if only because ceremonies such as Toronto’s recent tribute to the death of Brigadier are becoming more and more common. Increasingly, dogs, horses, birds, rats, are thanked in public for service in the line of police duty, or on the battlefield, or even in the experimental lab—sacrifices no creature actually elects to embrace. It seems as if for humans increasingly ambivalent about the unassailability of our dominion over other life forms, it’s becoming more and more necessary to extol animals’ heroics, to trumpet the nobility of their nature, and the selfless quality of their impulses, as a way of assuaging the guilt that comes from making life-and-death choices on their behalf.

From that ambivalence, I think, came the Toronto police force’s need to ennoble Brigadier, by anthropomorphizing his involuntary life-work and his unpunished demise, and then turning both into a self-sacrificing career choice. Meanwhile, members of the public—such as myself—may well troop to such memorials from some similar need. Along with the sincere hope that, through our high-flying homage to animals’ lives, we can somehow countervail the lowly inconsequence of their deaths.



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