Sad tale of Hank the dog shows we're only as good as the way we treat our pets
Saga of the suspected pit bull is a reminder of the essential innocence of domestic animals, says Gail Walker
I don't know Hank the dog. I've never had the pleasure of meeting him, but he looks like the kind of guy I could happily knock about with. You see, I've known guys like Hank all my life. They've pulled me through some tough times. Okay, they may look a bit grumpy and might steal a biscuit out of your hand, but they're affectionate, loyal, great fun and always up for a cuddle when you're low.
And I do know this - if Hank was my dog and I came home one day to find that he'd been taken away by a team of police officers and staff from Belfast City Council, I would be beside myself with worry, grief and, yes, anger, too. I'd desperately want to see my dog. I'd find the idea of being denied the opportunity to even visit him and offer him some comfort and reassurance in his alien surroundings extremely distressing.
Whatever you think of Hank's case - and I'll declare my interest from the outset as being in the "deed not breed" camp - the manner in which he was taken from his owners, Leonard Collins and Joanne Meadows is the stuff of every pet lover's nightmare.
Yes, of course the council has a duty to investigate whether Hank is a pit bull terrier and, therefore, a dangerous breed, but did it really have to take him away in such an upsetting way? Has it no understanding of that special bond between a human and a dog? What of poor Hank, entirely innocent of any crime, who suddenly finds strangers in his home, taking him away from everyone he loves and trusts? Dogs have feelings, too, you know.
Leonard and Joanne, who insist Hank is a Staffie-Labrador cross, now fear they are caught up in a process that will drag on for months and which could end with the dog being destroyed without them ever seeing him again. The council says that there is no DNA or blood test that can determine if a dog is of pit bull origin and that the assessment is based on physical characteristics and temperament.
Little wonder that the public response has seen thousands of pounds pouring into a fund for Hank's legal defence. Most of those people will have taken one look at Hank's big smoochy face and decided he just doesn't deserve that kind of treatment. They will have instantly empathised with the plight of Leonard and Joanne.
This is because people, as a rule, recognise an essential innocence in pets. Indeed, so strong is this belief that we trust them - like some kind of character diviners - to signal the good from the bad. A person who prompts the hair to rise on the back of a cat or has a dog inching away to the relative safety of the kitchen ...? No good. Nobody can prove it, but everyone knows that it's true.
I suspect that's why former PM David Cameron was determined to set the record straight about Larry, the Downing Street cat, before he bowed out. He may have not known how Brexit was going to play out, or whether the Union would survive, or what his place in history might be, but he was damned sure he was going to let the people - and posterity itself - know that, contrary to rumours, he really did like Larry, and that Larry liked him.
Hence the pictorial evidence that showed Larry draped across Dave's knees. And everyone who has ever been owned by a cat knew instantly that, yes, Larry liked him. For if Larry hadn't wanted to sit on his knee, no amount of Dreamies, no amount of cajoling and stroking, would have persuaded him to do so. He'd more likely have sank his claws into the prime ministerial flank, spat in his face and fled.
It's easy to dismiss Larry's role in Cameron's farewell to No 10 as mere PR fluff, but Dave was no fool. His gesture nodded towards certain near-universal truths: we like animals and we are a bit iffy about those who don't.
Maybe it's because, when we look to our pets, we see simplicity, and a continuous pure moment. Larry - and Hank - won't dissemble. They won't mutter about you when you leave a room. They are what they are. That can't be said about humans, who are often more about deception - even if that deception is principally themselves.
Treat a pet well and you have a friend for life. They are keen to love - and want to be loved back. They are endlessly entertaining. They greet you like your their long-lost friend when you've just nipped to the shops and back. They are often diminutive, but full of ego. And that's all they have - somehow they have to make you love them based on personality, charm and a few other tricks. And yet are they not as joyous an addition to our lives as art, philosophy and science?
Hence Dave's Twitter pic of Larry. Even children can be bullied and cajoled to play their part in a photo opportunity - but not your average cat. Cameron's pic said: "Huge swathes of the country may hate me, but see, I'm not so bad, Larry likes me." Which, let's be honest, is better than a joint character reference written by the Queen and the Pope.
That's why the eyes of the world - and that's no exaggeration - will now be on Belfast. Why Hank's photo is going viral. Why thousands of pounds are flooding in.
How we treat our pets - our animal friends - says so much about us. Let's hope Hank is back home soon.