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Woofie is saved and so joins the great British pantheon of animals as heroes

EVERY DOG has its day, and yesterday was Woofie's. The cross- collie bitch sentenced to death for allegedly biting a postman won an 11th-hour reprieve at a court case attended by the world's most famous dog-lover, the film star Brigitte Bardot.

Bardot flew to Edinburgh by private jet to lend her personal support to the campaign to save Woofie, the latest object of Britain's fanatical love affair with the animal kingdom.

For the past couple of weeks, this unprepossessing-looking canine has been a symbol of the arbitrary injustice of the legal system. She faced death by lethal injection after being convicted under the Dangerous Dogs Act in Peterhead Sheriff Court - although her teeth never made contact with the postman's leg.

The double act of condemned bitch and ageing sex kitten guaranteed a frenzied media scrum in the draughty courtroom at Edinburgh High Court, where Woofie's owners, Terry and Anne Swankie, had lodged an appeal.

As her fate hung in the balance, television crews from France, Spain and Norway prowled around.

Woofie was not in court, but her learned counsel, Gordon Jackson QC, read out a list of glowing character references to the two appeal judges. A Peterhead veterinary surgeon described the shaggy-haired dog as "one of my better patients", while an animal-behaviour expert, Roger Mugford, said she was "a good-natured family pet".

The only suggestion that Woofie was not all sweetness and light came from one expert who testified that she seemed to have a thing about men in uniform.

The case was brought when the postman, Andrew Ainsley, lodged a complaint after a tense confrontation with Woofie. The Swankies were fined pounds 200 for breach of the Dangerous Dogs Act and an order was made for the offender to be destroyed.

The judges, Lord Kirkwood and Lord Cameron, took just two minutes to make up their minds to quash the order.

As the public gallery erupted into a cacophony of applause, Bardot, who had been sitting beside the Swankies, pronounced herself "very happy" about the outcome. "It's a stupid law," declared the film star, who wore dried flowers in her greying hair.

The excitement was all too much for Bardot, who failed to turn up at Woofie's side at a triumphal press conference. "Miss Bardot has had to go bed. She is fatigued by everything that has gone on today," said Trevor Cooper, the Swankies' lawyer, who clutched a weighty tome entitled "The Dog Law Handbook." Had Woofie been put down, she would have made legal history - the first dog to be destroyed without actually biting anyone.

As Mr Jackson told the court earlier that day, "a degree of madness" had attached itself to the case. Hysteria, perhaps, would be a better description - one with a long pedigree. For Woofie is not the first animal to become an incongruous icon of the emotional British, and certainly she will not be the last. As sure as fur flies when two tomcats cross paths in the dead of night, we British love our animal heroes. If there had not already been abundant evidence, the case of the Tamworth Two would have provided conclusive proof.

These, in the unlikely event that their names are not burnt into the collective consciousness, were the daredevil pigs who scaled a perimeter fence at an abattoir in Wiltshire last January in a desperate bid for freedom.

Never mind European Monetary Union, or reform of the welfare state. The nation was transfixed by the fate of these absconding swine, who managed to remain on the run for a whole week.

Tracked down after a furious race between tabloid newspapers, the two - dubbed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Pig - gave a long interview to the Daily Mail. For this is another feature of the madness to which Mr Jackson referred. We do not merely lavish affection on our four-legged friends. We personify them, endow them with human qualities. It's called anthropomorpism.

Like old ladies who fight off muggers, they are all plucky, these animals that capture our hearts. Take Blackie, who showed such courage in adversity. Blackie was the donkey destined for the cruellest of fates, to be ridden through the streets until he collapsed as part of a fiesta held in a Spanish mountain village.

To the rescue in 1987 rode, or rather flew, Vicki Moore, the veteran animal rights campaigner, who pleaded with the heartless villagers to spare Blackie. The Daily Star then spirited the hapless creature home, where he lived out the rest of his days in a donkey sanctuary in Devon.

There are countless other examples through the ages. Shergar, the kidnapped racehorse, still not located all these years later.

Humphrey, the Downing Street cat who was evicted in murky circumstances, although reports that Cherie Blair disliked him were hastily quashed. Life grinds to a halt while the fate of these creatures hangs in the balance.

Bardot is not the only celebrity to be moved by the plight of ill-treated animals. The late Linda McCartney made a career out of it. Cindy Crawford, the supermodel, weighed in on numerous campaigns. And Carla Lane, the television scriptwriter, admitted recently that she was almost penniless because the millions that she earned from writing hit series such as The Liver Birds had been spent on running her animal sanctuary.

It is not an exclusively British form of hysteria. The campaign to rescue Keiko, the whale who starred in Free Willy, was international. Keiko was freed from captivity and released into the wild off Iceland earlier this year. But nowhere else do passions run quite so high; in no other country are animals elevated to such absurd status.

As the journalist Paul Johnson put it a few months ago: "Recently, at a party, I asked 10 of the guests, 'Do you think animals are nicer than people?' Nine said 'yes'. The tenth replied, 'What a silly question, of course they are.'"

There are plenty of theories about it, and it is worth noting that our animal heroes have many features in common. Quite often they are hairy, which we find endearing. They have pleading eyes, which are difficult to resist. They are defenceless, so they need our protection. And, to put it plainly, they are stupid. That's what makes us a superior form of life.

But let's be clear about the terms of reference of our animal idolatry. There is no great empathy with fish, for instance, which means that many people fiercely oppose hunting but could not give a fig about the cruelty of angling. Reptiles, molluscs and insects leave us cold.

To be a national hero, you need to be a mammal, preferably cute-looking with long hair. Huggability is all.

The Donkey

Blackie: He was saved from a ritual death at a village near Madrid in 1987 by the 'Daily Star', after a battle between British newspapers

The Whale

Keiko: The killer whale star of the movie 'Free Willy' was flown some 4,000 miles from his Oregon aquarium and returned to the Iceland sea

The Dog

Dempsey: The pitbull terrier was saved from a destruction order after Ms Bardot successfully leapt to his defence two years ago

The Pigs

The Tamworth Two: The swine caused a media frenzy when they gave their minders the slip and escaped from an abattoir in Wiltshire in January