It’s safe to say that cultural attitudes about animals have evolved substantially over the past century, and especially in the last few decades. Since then, we’ve learned a few things—like the fact that canine brain activity captured in an MRI scanner seems to indicate that dogs “have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.” The public has come to abhor inhumane treatment of circus, lab and farm animals, having become aware of the depth of animal intelligence. Despite this, the section of the Canadian Criminal Code that addresses cruelty to animals remains largely unchanged since 1892, the year the legislation was written.
At that time, says Ewa Demianowicz, a campaign manager at Humane Society International’s office in Montreal, authorities didn’t even bother to define the term “animal” and only addressed those that were the lawful property of an individual. Strays and wildlife were not protected by the Criminal Code, and they still aren’t. According to Demianowicz and her colleagues like Montreal SPCA attorney Sophie Gaillard, the outdated Criminal Code laws are part of the reason prosecuting animal abuse cases has been so difficult. Although some minor updates were made and sentences were beefed up in 2008, the legislation from 1892 remains essentially intact. “People just don’t think crimes against animals are that important, that’s the mindset we’ve been up against,” says Gaillard.
Meanwhile, in the United States, animal welfare groups are welcoming an FBI policy shift that signifies real progress. The agency recently announced that it would add an animal abuse category to its National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), and in 2016 will begin tracking four separate types of offenses: simple or gross neglect; intentional abuse and torture; organized abuse (such as dog fighting and cock fighting); and animal sexual abuse.
The move does not introduce new animal welfare crimes, but will make it unlikely that the owner of a puppy mill fined in one state will be able to move elsewhere to set up a shop of horrors again, as is still possible in Canada. Animal abuse was also reclassified as a Class One felony—along with murder, rape, or arson— and was given its own category, plucked out of the ambiguous category called “other.”
Scott Heiser, a Portland-based lawyer for the Animal Legal Defense Fund says the news from the FBI is “huge.” Since the vast majority of animal abuse cases are handled at a state level, and that data was going uncollected, “if anybody wanted to get a feel for the volume of crimes, or what the trends were, you'd have to go state by state and sometimes county by county, and that's a pretty substantial barrier to doing any meaningful data collection and analysis,” says Heiser. Now that data will be in one place, which should influence new legislation and enforcement.
In their long campaign to change the FBI protocols, animal welfare groups emphasized studies identifying the torture and killing of animals as common precursors for violent acts against people, including children and the elderly. Animal abusers have gone on to commit serial acts of murder and school massacres. In Canada, Luka Magnotta was identified as “the butcher of Montreal” who stabbed and dismembered Chinese international student Lin Jun in 2012. His arrest was partially thanks to a loose crew of online animal rights activists who had already been hunting him down online. They had seen videos of Magnotta smothering a kitten in a vacuum cleaner bag and later feeding a live kitten to a snake.
There is no federal registry of animal abusers in Canada, although the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies is now building a national database of case laws to help assist judges. The CFHS is working with provincial SPCAs to gather examples.
“But this is a private project,” says Gaillard, “not something the government is involved in.”
Although the criminal code allows for up to five years of prison time in cases of animal abuse and a $10,000 fine, long jail sentences have been rare. Gaillard is optimistic that this won’t be true for long. Last year in Ontario, a 24-year-old man in Ottawa was given two years behind bars for beating his dog with a shovel and leaving it in a dumpster as his mother and horrified neighbours looked on. Less serious crimes are covered by provincial acts, which allow for shorter jail times and fines.
Canadian advocates say the biggest obstacle to ending animal abuse is the challenge the Crown faces in prosecuting crimes in the first place. Most cases of animal welfare issues involve neglect rather than blatant torture or cruelty. The Crown is rarely successful in neglect cases because the Criminal Code requires that prosecutors prove intent. So, says Gaillard, an Alberta man who abandoned his horses in a winter field—leaving three of 24 horses to starve to death—walks free by explaining that he thought the horses would survive by foraging under snow and ice.
In comparison, the burden of proof is not as high in the U.S., although a different stumbling block routinely thwarts prosecutors there: the exclusionary rule. American laws covering animals are also weakened by myriad exemptions, including those for any animal involved in a rodeo, lab research, or raised as food according to industry standards. Canada’s archaic code doesn’t list these exceptions.
Both the U.S. and Canada are far behind Europe, where animal rights laws are most progressive, according to World Animal Protection. Canadian politicians came close to rewriting the relevant sections of the criminal code in the 2000s, but instead saw several bills meet resistance, fueled mainly by Big Ag, says Demianowicz. She hopes the next federal party to take power will be open to meaningful revisions to the code.
“This is what Canadians want and something that needs to happen.”