Opinion: Canadian laws are slowly but surely working to protect animals

Jan 13 2020, 1:57 pm

Written for Daily Hive by lawyer Rebeka Breder, who specializes in animal law and is a founder of the UBC Animal Law program. She was voted as the top 25 most influential lawyer in Canada, winning the Changemakers category.

Over the last couple of weeks, as I was shutting down my very busy year of fighting for animals in court, I gave myself a moment to write. In the past decade, I’ve seen a growing trend of people caring about animals.

You know times are changing when mainstream outlets such as The Economist declare 2019 the “Year of the Vegan,” when superstars like Arnold Schwarzenegger publicly endorse veganism, and when celebrities like Joaquin Phoenix engage in animal rights activism. Even some films like The Game Changers became extremely popular and successful.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the media reports on an animal protection or rights issue every day. Rightfully so. People are finally waking up to the idea that animals deserve better treatment. People recognize that we should be fighting for animals, whether it’s a domestic dispute over pet custody or a case brought on by an organization against government to ensure animal protection.

As usual, it takes a long time for the law to catch up to societal values, and Animal Law is no exception. Throughout the last decade, Canada saw this relatively unknown area of the law emerge. Animal Law is finally here to stay. Lawyers and advocates are shaping the legal landscape to better protect animals. It is, however, two steps forward, one step backward.

Two steps forward in Canadian animal law include the federal government making landmark amendments to animal cruelty provisions in the Criminal Code for the first time since the 1800s, including a ban on keeping cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in captivity, a ban on the sale and distribution of shark fin products, and a close in loopholes dealing with bestiality and tougher animal-fighting provisions.

For years, animal advocates, including me, have protested, attended city council meetings and wrote to various government officials, and made the federal government finally listen.

Various cities are also passing better laws for animals, such as the recent ban on horse-drawn carriages in Montreal, or the ban on private fireworks in Vancouver. Ontario is reconsidering its ineffective and inhumane ban on “pit bulls”; in the same period, Ontario passed the Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act (brilliant acronym, PAWS), which will have the highest penalties for animal cruelty in the country.

British Columbia also passed a ban on grizzly bear trophy hunting, and, after hearing from animal advocates, increased their fines for irresponsible behaviour leading to bear deaths. 

I have also seen some incredible wins in the courtroom, including in my cases, where courts have recognized that the best interests of animals must be considered in pet custody disputes, judges allowing dogs who have caused injury to be given a second chance at a better life, lifetime bans on owning animals in animal cruelty cases, courts recognizing psychological (and not just physical) suffering in animals, courts using language such as “family member” to describe a pet, courts allowing animal protection groups to sue the government (such as in a recent horse-slaughter case of mine brought on behalf of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition), and courts agreeing that animals are a special type of “property” that should be treated differently and should be afforded protection.

The above are only some of the much-needed legislative and case law wins in animal law and protection over the last decade.

But as I said, it’s two steps forward, one step back. Recently, we have seen some extremely troubling legislative considerations and changes known as “ag-gag” laws. These are anti-whistleblower laws aimed at shutting down and punishing animal activists and reporters from exposing the truth behind the mass and institutionalized cruelty of farmed animals.

Alberta passed Bill 27 within a matter of days and without proper procedural fairness, making it now a serious crime to trespass onto farms, and almost eliminating liability for farmers who may injure trespassers. Ontario is very close to passing a similar law, and BC is considering the same. These laws will have a devastating effect on animals by keeping the animal suffering behind closed doors and without any way of exposing the perpetrators.

We have also seen some terrible courtroom losses, such as the Alberta Court of Appeal denying Zoocheck’s heroic attempts to free Lucy, the lone elephant at the Edmonton Zoo, from a life of misery, and my case on behalf of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition at the Federal Court, where the court held that the federal government does not need to enforce its own regulations to ensure horses are protected during the slaughter process (spoiler alert, we are appealing!). In other cases, animal abusers have gotten off with basically only a slap on the wrist.

That said, as the year 2020 kicks off, I see a light shining bright in the next decade in animal law. I expect more laws to be passed to protect animals at the city, provincial, and federal levels. I expect the ag-gag laws to be challenged, successfully, in court, just as they have been in the United States. I see an increasing number of people and organizations fighting for animals in court. Change is coming, slowly but surely.