Law must be reformed to make it a criminal offence to harm or kill a service animal in the line of duty, says Brian Monteith
I remember January 1, 1973, well, not just for the football match I was queuing to get into, but for the fact my father got separated from my uncle and I by the police who were managing the crowds. As a ploy to encourage a policeman to let him join us, my dad went up to a police horse and started stroking him and pleading to him to tell the officers he only wanted to join his family. The vision of my rather small father and the giant horse braying at him has always stayed with me. Another is TV sports commentator Alex Cameron standing outside Hampden Park speaking live to the camera only for a police horse to swivel round and, with his rear end, send poor Cameron flying.
We probably all have fond memories of police horses or dogs demonstrating their skill and courage, but unfortunately not all interactions with the public are as entertaining or well meant.
When in 2002 Millwall fans rioted after losing a play-off, 26 police horses required treatment after having fireworks, marine incendiary flares, bricks, broken paving and bottles thrown at them. One horse, Alamein, suffered a severed artery in a leg after a thunder-flash was set off underneath him, causing him to rear up and crash down on to a car. Last year, when football fans started fighting in Bristol, a woman threw a punch at a horse, but no arrests were made.
The lack of arrests is not necessarily because assailants cannot be identified but because the law does not give sufficient protection to service animals such as horses, guard and sniffer dogs, or guide dogs, being injured while in the line of duty working for the police, fire services and military. A horrific example of how absurd the law is across the UK is the story of dog-handler PC Dave Wardell and his German shepherd Finn. In 2016 the pair were chasing a robbery suspect when he turned to attack the officer with a knife. The dog’s instinct and training was to protect his handler and he leapt up, receiving the blows that were meant for PC Wardell, resulting in serious stab wounds to the dog’s face and chest. Finn’s lung was punctured but he held on to the suspect long enough for other officers to arrive and make the arrest.
PC Wardell had received a slash to a hand but his dog – who had undoubtedly saved his life – had come off far worse and was not expected to make it through the night. Miraculously, after four hours in the surgery requiring a chest clamp, drains, stitches – and a ten-minute dash from one veterinary clinic to another for a second operation by a specialist – Finn’s life was saved.
Finn’s injuries were not unusual for a police dog. Other recent examples are: police dog Anya – stabbed; Theo – bitten: Ronny – strangled; Theo (again) – set on fire; Canto – stabbed in the chest; and Quantum – stabbed near the eye.
Other examples of attacks on horses include a demonstration in London in 2015 where vets treated six horses after their legs were “glassed” and cut. Their eyes had been poked with sticks or targeted with high-powered lasers that can blind. Fireworks were also lobbed at the horses to make them bolt, resulting in one police rider being thrown and injured. A student who tried to protect one of the horses was herself attacked. The horses had been deliberately targeted by demonstrators.
Both PC Wardell and his dog recovered and eventually returned to duty, although this took a great deal of recuperation and care, especially for Finn. Had Finn not intervened to defend his master, the charge would more probably have been attempted murder or worse. As it transpired, their assailant, who had been in possession of a 10in hunting knife and an imitation firearm, was brought to court and charged with aggravated bodily harm of PC Wardell – but only with criminal damage for the more serious injuries inflicted on his dog.
In the end the accused was found guilty of four offences but the sentencing panel then determined that the damage caused to Finn was of such low significance that it did not warrant any separate penalty. The problem is that, while the law protects animals from abuse, there is no specific law to protect service animals from attack when serving in the line of duty.
Only two possible charges may be used when injuries are inflicted on service animals: either the causing of unnecessary suffering to an animal or criminal damage. Both are ineffective and mean police dogs and horses are afforded little protection.
The first offence was intended to protect animals from abuse by the people whose care they are in and includes an allowable defence where a person caused harm to an animal from being afraid that that animal was going to cause harm to them or others, or the property of others. This is known as the “defence of fear”. The result is that Finn’s attacker could plead he was defending himself from the dog and the high threshold of reasonable doubt would make it difficult to obtain a conviction. The second offence treats police dogs and horses as property of relatively little value, again causing reluctance among prosecutors to bring forward charges.
What is required is a specific law – what is being called “Finn’s Law” – to make it a criminal offence in its own right to harm or kill a service animal in the line of duty. Other countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Canada, and eight states in the US, already have one – showing it can be done.
With different jurisdictions in the UK requiring separate laws to be passed, the campaign www.finnslaw.com is spreading and is now under way in Scotland. Conservative shadow justice spokesman Liam Kerr MSP has started a petition (protect police dogs on www.change.org) that has gathered more than 22,000 signatures in just over a week and is looking to build public and cross-party support to convince the Scottish Government to reform the law.
We should all get behind the campaign; the least we can do to say thank you for their dedicated service in protecting us is that we protect them.
• Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org