Animal abuse is a criminal act in Canada, but defining what abuse is gets tricky. Animal Justice, a Toronto-based advocacy group, is pushing for further protection of animals by lobbying lawmakers to help them establish a Charter of Rights and Freedoms for Animals
“Thirty years ago we did something really great for human beings in Canada by introducing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that made this country a fairer and more equitable place in all kinds of ways,” says Camille Labchuk, director of legal advocacy with Animal Justice. “But we’re really lagging behind when it comes to animals. Right now they have very few legal protections in Canadian law and [there is] almost no way to enforce the few protections they do have—they just don’t have the right to go to court.”
The animal charter will provide better protection so animals can live free from suffering, express normal behaviours and socialize with members of their species. If these rights are violated, the charter will ensure their case is heard in court.
Does this mean no more pets or zoos? Not exactly. The charter will ensure that animals, such as pets, are treated properly. Labchuk says the current laws are weak and sometimes the abuser faces criminal charges, sometimes provincial, but charges are oftentimes never laid or well prosecuted.
“Due to a number of loopholes in the law, that sometimes means that animal abusers get away with it,” she says. “So what the charter would do is strengthen those protections for animals and ensure that [authorities] can enforce them.”
Canada is not the first place to entertain the idea of animal rights. The Animal Legal Defense Fund in the US has been pushing to increase the rights of animals for some time. The Treaty of Lisbon of 2009 says that as animals are sentient beings, European Union member states need to look after their welfare. The UN has universal declarations on animal welfare as well.
Animal Justice is representing the desire of many Canadians, as recent opinion polls have shown that the majority of Canadians recoil at stories of animal abuse. A 2013 Strategic Counsel poll commissioned by the Humane Society International/Canada and Animal Alliance of Canada found that “80 percent of Canadians support a nation-wide ban on the testing of cosmetics and their ingredients on animals.” A World Society for the Protection of Animals survey from 2011 showed that “95 percent of Canadians agreed that animal pain and suffering should be reduced as much as possible.” A 2010 poll conducted by Environics Research Group for the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that more than half of Canadians don’t agree with the use of taxes to support the hunt of seal pups. A 2006 poll from the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that “85 percent of Canadians support legislation that will make it easier for law-enforcement agencies to prosecute those who commit criminal acts of cruelty to wild or stray animals.”
“I know when Parliament was considering fixing the Criminal Code a few years ago, parliamentarians told me they got more mail on that issue (animal abuse) then on any other issue in the history of Parliament,” Labchuk says. “People really care about animals and I know a lot of politicians do as a result, too.”
Labchuk says there are lots of politicians at both the provincial and federal level friendly to Animal Justice from whom they are hoping to garner support.
“It’s becoming pretty clear, science says unequivocally, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that animals experience both suffering and pleasure, just like we do,” Labchuk says. “But the law just doesn’t protect them the way it’s supposed to and the way that society really wants it to. Every time we see a case of cruelty in the news, it generates an incredible reaction from people and that’s because they understand that this is not right, it’s not fair, animals shouldn’t be treated this way. Every time we see an undercover investigation from groups like Mercy For Animals that go undercover in factory farms and expose the conditions, people are just outraged. So what the charter would do is remedy that situation and take the first steps.”
Labchuk says it’s only been in the last two years that we have been getting a glimpse of the abuse happening at factory farms in Canada as undercover investigations have been surfacing. The groups have found horrible instances of suffering every time.
“Sometimes from neglect, sometimes open abuse and beatings and other inappropriate behaviour and other times just the conditions that inherently exist in a high-volume factory farm, just make life miserable for animals,” Labchuk explains. “So it’s a huge problem here. There are no laws that prohibit factory farming or anything like that. The laws that do apply are the Criminal Code, which prevents causing cruelty to an animal. In practice, that’s only really applied in the most egregious of cases like open beatings and clear abuse of animals. There’s some neglect provisions there, but they’re rarely charged.”
The Criminal Code states that causing unnecessary suffering to an animal is what constitutes a crime.
“That sounds pretty good when you think about it for a second, but if think about it for a few more seconds you don’t have to think very long or very hard before you realize that the corollary of unnecessary is necessary,” Labchuk says. “So if we’re going to allow some suffering, what suffering is necessary?”
The way courts interpret suffering at factory farms is as a byproduct of farming practices so it is not seen as criminal in nature. It is up to the prosecution to make a case for why a farming practice is not normal, which becomes complicated. It’s a similar story for zoo animals.
“Lucy the elephant at the Edmonton Zoo, some people decided to go to court on her behalf a couple of years ago,” Labchuk says. “Basically seeking a declaration from the court that her rights were being violated and that the city and the province were violating the law by keeping her in the conditions that she was in. The courts dismissed it on a technicality … they said that groups like the animal-rights group that went to court just don’t have the standing to bring that kind of suit, and neither does Lucy. So in practice there’s absolutely no way, unless the government decides to act, there’s no way for anybody to enforce Lucy’s right to not be subjected to distress.”
Labchuk says it’s always a battle to get lawmakers to act on any issue, but the group is hopeful because Canadians feel an affinity towards animals and care for their well-being.