Last updated: January 31, 2011 5:14 pm
Canada’s dirty secret
Our outdated animal rights laws are enabling cruelty across the country
MONTREAL (CUP) — There are some things you never forget.
The sound of hundreds of dogs barking in cages so small that they are unable to turn around. Left for days without food or water, they become driven to attack and eat each other. There is no daylight — sometimes there is no light whatsoever. The corpses of dead animals remain in cages beside their brothers and sisters. The smell of feces and decaying flesh is so overwhelming rescue workers wear protective masks.
This is the reality of the Canadian puppy mill. Here, animals are treated as commodities to be traded and sold, not as living creatures that feel pain, distress and loneliness.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” Mahatma Gandhi famously stated. According to this model, Canada's greatness must seriously be called into question.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, which was founded in Canada and has grown to become one of the largest animal welfare charities in the world, recently published a report that compared animal rights laws in 13 industrialized countries. Canada ranked at the bottom in all areas.
“Those who might seek to measure Canada's moral progress by our treatment of non-human animals would be deeply disappointed,” said John Sorenson, author of About Canada: Animal Rights.
Sorenson teaches critical animal studies at Brock University and his book takes a serious look at the exploitation of animals in Canada, focusing on the agriculture, fashion and entertainment industries. “As Canadians, we should be deeply ashamed of how animals are treated here,” he said.
Canadians seem to suffer from moral confusion when it comes to the rights of animals. Certain customs, like the seal hunt and individual acts of cruelty against pets are condemned and considered to be abominable, yet the practices of factory farming and animals being used for entertainment in circuses and rodeos are widely accepted. Even practices the majority of Canadians would disapprove of, like the mass production of pets in squalid conditions, continue to occur because the country's laws don't reflect these ideals.
Recently, the residents of Granby, Que. were appalled after the discovery of a dog and her litter of puppies abandoned with nails embedded in their heads just before Christmas. The most horrifying part of this story, though, was not the act of cruelty itself, but the fact that if found, whoever committed this violence would merely be subject to a small fine and would likely still be permitted to be a pet owner. This is due in part to the Canadian animal welfare legislation that has not been significantly modified since it was written in 1892.
Canada's archaic laws need changing
“In general, our animal-cruelty laws are antiquated, remaining essentially unchanged since the 19th century,” Sorenson said. “Even the most modest proposals to update them have been stopped by an effective alliance of animal-exploitation industries, including agribusiness, breeders, equestrian associations, hunters and vivisectors.”
A bill was passed in 2008 to improve these laws, but the only changes that were made were to increase fines according to inflation.
IFAW reports that 99 per cent of acts of cruelty to animals go unpunished in Canada. There has been an increasing trend worldwide to improve and instate laws regarding animal cruelty and in the past few decades many countries have made changes to their legislation, but Canada has not.
“We impose some minor penalties on individual sadists who torture and kill animals for their own entertainment, but in terms of industry practices you can get away with almost anything in this country,” said Sorenson.
This is a result of the way Canada’s Criminal Code is written. It specifies that only ‘willful neglect' can be prosecuted. This means that it has to be proven that the animal cruelty was premeditated for legal action to be taken. As a result, very few animal abusers are being penalized because they can claim that the mistreatment was unintentional. Many of the other countries involved in IFAW's survey have provisions in place to ensure that people who neglect animals are prosecuted, whether there was willful intent or not.
The puppy mill capital of North America
The Animal Legal Defense Fund published a study in June 2010 measuring the differences in provincial laws across Canada. Provinces were split into three tiers and Quebec was placed at the bottom, alongside Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
“Unfortunately, Canadian laws pertaining to this area are archaic in nature and deal primarily with issues of property such as not poisoning your neighbour's animals. Therefore the laws are incredibly out of touch with the current values of the public,” explained Lauren Scott, a campaigner for Humane Society International. “Also, although this has seen a slight shift in recent years, Canadians do not tend to make animal welfare issues a priority when deciding who to vote for in terms of political representation.”
Scott, who is currently invested in the issue of puppy mills in Quebec and has been involved with several puppy mill raids in recent years, agrees with Sorenson that it is these outdated laws that permit animal cruelty.
This issue received a lot of attention in the media a few years ago due to a string of raids that exposed the deplorable conditions where the animals were kept. There were cries for action by many welfare groups along with the public. But since then, little has changed.
In Quebec there are no mandatory incarceration periods and people are rarely given jail time for their crimes. Mistreated animals are not required to be seized from their owners even when they are convicted of abuse or neglect. This means that known animal abusers are often given small fines and are permitted to keep their pets.
Quebec has been called the puppy mill capital of North America, with the majority of the dogs being exported to other provinces and to the United States. Its weak provincial animal welfare legislation, combined with inadequate enforcement, has allowed the province to become a puppy mill haven. Dog breeders in Quebec do not need a licence to run their businesses, which ultimately leads to many instances of malpractice.
Quebec is also the only province in Canada that does not allow provincial SPCAs to enforce animal welfare laws. Plus, mass breeders stand to make more of a profit in the province because they can get away with anything. The Humane Society International estimates that there are more than 2,200 clandestine breeding operations in the province.
The existence of ineffective penalties
In Quebec, a first offence of animal cruelty gets you a maximum penalty of a $600 fine, with subsequent offences not exceeding $1,800. The maximum fine amounts for commercial instances of cruelty are $1,200 for the first offence and a $3,600 fine for subsequent offences. For a puppy mill owner, a few thousand dollars will barely impact their operations, with the cost of the fine quickly earned back by selling a few litters of puppies.
In October 2008, a mill was raided in St-Lin, Que. Acting director of Montreal's SPCA, Alanna Devine, described the conditions to the CBC.
“If you want to envision what hell would look like, you know, certainly for the small dogs, dogs stacked on top of dogs, very little access to food or water, excrement and feces everywhere. It's so disheartening to see what we are capable of doing in the name of profit.”
During the raid, 150 dogs were rescued and the owner, Francesco Coelo, was fined $3,300 and sentenced to 180 hours of community service. Coelo was also banned from owning more than three animals at a time. It begs the question of why a man who pleaded guilty to multiple acts of animal cruelty should still be permitted to keep any animals in his care.
In order for the Humane Society to obtain a search warrant to investigate a potential puppy mill, they must first convince a judge that there is strong evidence of animal cruelty. Quebec only has 10 animal inspectors compared to Ontario’s 200.
The goal of puppy mills is to produce as many dogs as possible at the lowest cost. Dead animals are left to decompose, dogs are given little or no veterinary care and are left to starve, often going days without food or water.
“This cruelty goes on behind closed doors, often in the basements or sheds of individuals living on the outskirts of cities. Therefore there tends to be an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality, whereby the public feels less of a need to act on cruelty when they do not witness it firsthand,” said Scott.
The future of Canada's animals
Caring about animal rights is often something that is treated with distain in modern culture. The idea that animals even deserve to have rights is considered to be comical, with people joking about whether squirrels deserve the right to vote.
Sorenson believes that even though we have become accustomed to a culture of animal exploitation, animals should have rights for the same reason that humans should have rights — out of a sense of compassion, fairness and justice.
“Animals' lives are important to them,” he said. “They want to live as much as we do. They experience pleasure and suffering as we do. Why would we want to deny to others the same enjoyment of life that we wish to experience ourselves?”
But the unanswered question is why. Why haven't Canada's animal welfare laws been changed since the 19th century? Why isn't there more awareness about the nonexistence and ineffectiveness of the Canadian laws? Why does Ontario have a significantly higher number of animal welfare enforcers than Quebec? Why are Canadians allowing these shocking acts of cruelty to take place?
There may not be answers to these problems now, but there are actions that the public can take to show that they are not willing to support these industries of mercilessness and exploitation.
“The challenge lies in getting the appropriate laws passed to protect animals, and the public needs to be involved in this process,” said Scott. “Only the public can put an end to the demand, and ultimately an end to these horrific operations.”