Shortly after dawn on October 25, 2021 — 606 years to the day after the Battle of Agincourt — an embattled warrior, about age thirteen, went to sleep in my arms. My dog Freddie was no conventional soldier, but he knew how to fight. He’d spent more than a year fending off a combination of heart disease and cancer, until his frail body could fight no more.
Rescued from a dreadful trifecta of puppy mill operator, backyard breeder, and hoarder, in the British Columbia interior, Freddie came into my life in 2010, when my partner and I met him at the BCSPCA branch in Victoria. He was at least two years old, and he was terrified of everything.
Puppy mills are work camps for dogs, places where females are perpetually impregnated in substandard settings, their pups taken away to serve as breeders themselves or sold on. These are often animals of pedigree — spitzes like Freddie, King Charles spaniels, French bulldogs — whose progeny, rife with hidden genetic flaws and saddled with neuroses, fetch high prices when in the hands of unscrupulous proprietors. When would‑be owners ask no questions.
Coming from such a place, Freddie had many fears. We spent most of his eleven years with us helping him dismantle them. While we never convinced him not to be terrified of other dogs, he did learn from us how to play with toys. He also learned that the food and water we put out were all for him alone. Most amazingly, despite sufficient proof from the moment of his birth that our species is not always particularly lovable, he learned to trust and even to love humans.
As a biographer, and as the great-grandson of a suffragette, I’ve specialized in the lives of extraordinary but unsung women, those who made their mark in a man’s world and did so on their own terms. But when Freddie appeared on the scene, I began to think of the unexamined lives of animals, especially those we’ve conscripted into human wars.
The history of human-animal relationships is inspiring, but it is also terrible. The latter quality peaks in accounts of animals used in conflict. It is rare to find written accounts of animals that are focused through a lens of compassion before the Victorian era. Ironically, this is not so for animals conscripted in the First World War. By then, generations of men had been brought up with dogs, had been raised to see animals as feeling beings worthy of kindness.
Through those soldiers’ eyes, we meet such message-carrying pigeons as Cher Ami. Despite being shot in the breast, blinded, and blasted out of the sky by enemy fire only to rise again with a leg hanging by a tendon, Cher Ami flew a message through hell and saved an encircled battalion. In that same battle, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, a former Paris stray called Rags, adopted by the American First Division, shielded a battalion from destruction by running a message to artillery despite being wounded and gassed on the way.
I was raised by parents who took animals seriously and considered them part of the family. But it wasn’t until I saw, through Freddie, what an animal risks to navigate a world of human use and abuse, and to not lose hope but forge ahead, that I understood my opportunity and my duty to give voice to the voiceless.
Freddie never stepped onto a battlefield, but his example led me to write about Rags; about the English general’s wife, Dorothy Brooke, who saved thousands of former war horses abandoned in Egypt to lives of hard labour; about Woo, the magical and tragic monkey who inspired the artist Emily Carr; and, most recently, about Muggins, the fundraising spitz of Victoria, who in his short life collected thousands of dollars for the Red Cross, POWs, orphaned children, and injured animals of the Great War — animals who made an indelible difference in human lives and human history.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote of her dog, Percy, “For he was made small but brave of heart.” So are all our animal family: small, but brave. It’s incumbent on us, I believe, to take their bravery seriously as they, in turn, unfailingly try to teach us the priceless lesson, despite all the risks and dangers, of saying yes to life, again and again and again.