op ed articles

Get serious about farm animal cruelty

Lynn Kavanagh
Winnipeg Free Press

Friday, September 17, 2010

On June 18, 500 pigs were found starved to death at a farm near Notre Dame de Lourdes, Manitoba. Bones and decomposed bodies were scattered around the rural property. Euthanasia was the only recourse for some of the 2,000 pigs still alive. The grisly discovery continues to be investigated by the RCMP and, three months later, charges still have not been laid. The case calls to mind Canada's inadequate animal protection laws and is another in a growing pattern of disregard towards farm animal cruelty.

Both provincial and federal laws address animal protection, though farm animals are excluded in many cases. On-farm animal care falls mainly under provincial jurisdiction, but many provincial acts, such as the Manitoba Animal Care Act, exempt "accepted practices of animal agriculture," such as severe confinement or invasive procedures like dehorning or castration without pain relief. Since these practices are inhumane, it is not always clear what is meant by "cruelty" in our laws.

Flagrant abuse, as well as failing to provide basic necessities of food, water and veterinary care, typically falls outside "accepted agricultural practices," thereby making them an offence under the cruelty to animals section of the Criminal Code of Canada and provincial animal protection acts.

Animal cruelty, however, is contained in the property section of the Criminal Code. As property, only animals "owned" by someone are protected. The corollary is that if an animal does not belong to someone but is stray, wild or used "for lawful purposes" (e.g., animals raised for food) then anti-cruelty laws rarely apply. To make matters worse, wording pertaining to the commission of an act, namely, "wilfully" causing or permitting "unnecessary" suffering implies some suffering is acceptable. It also translates into few convictions because proving wilful cruelty is difficult in a court of law.

Depriving pigs of food and water should constitute severe neglect under anti-cruelty laws. Will the perpetrators be charged and prosecutions pursued in the pig starvation case? As other recent cases demonstrate, Canada's track record for prosecuting farm animal cruelty suggest otherwise:

-- Investigations earlier this year by the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition and CBC's The National found abuses at horse slaughter plants in Alberta and Quebec, such as extreme electric prodding of horses in the face, hitting horses while they thrashed about in the kill box, and shackling and hanging horses while still conscious. This abuse was captured on videotape, yet the RCMP chose not to prosecute due to lack of evidence showing wilful abuse.

-- Undercover investigation of two Quebec foie gras farms in 2006-2007, where abuse and mistreatment were rampant, failed to result in criminal charges, even with the compelling evidence and brutality of the crimes. Slaughterhouse workers were shown to pull heads off live ducks, smash ducks into floors and walls, cut the throats of fully conscious ducks and repeatedly punch, kick and throw live ducks. The provincial prosecutor, however, decided it was too difficult to prove intent to be cruel.

The problem is both a philosophical and legal one. Philosophically, animals are too often viewed as dispensable and unworthy of strong protection. By categorizing animals as property, they are afforded no rights and few protections. There is little recognition of them as sentient beings other than a limited acknowledgment that they can suffer.

Legally, Canada's anti-cruelty laws date back to 1892 and have barely been revised since. Federal politicians cite the legislation's 2008 revision as their lofty contribution to animal welfare. This is disingenuous. The Conservative government increased penalties for crimes but "cruelty to animals" remains under the property section of the Criminal Code and the wording pertaining to "wilful" commission of an act was not revised. Many crimes, therefore, continue to go unpunished or are penalized with a slap on the wrist -- to the chagrin of many Canadians.

Nonetheless, both provincial and federal statutes provide enough ammunition to press charges and seek prosecution in these cases. Rather than cite the legal challenges of proving "wilful intent" as an excuse to shirk the pursuit of justice, law officials and prosecutors have a responsibility to take these crimes more seriously.

Members of Parliament interested in re-election should familiarize themselves with the current views of Canadians and take substantive steps to finally bring the laws governing the treatment of animals into line with these views.

It is in their -- and the animals' -- best interest to do so.

Lynn Kavanagh has an MSc in animal behaviour and welfare and is a director with the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.