Defining Effective Legal Protection For Animals
Humane Canada — the nation’s federation of SPCAs and humane societies —previously outlined several indicators that must be in place for Canada to be considered a humane country. To answer the question of whether Canada is humane or at least making progress toward becoming humane, the organization identified seven “keystones:”
- Legal: there is accountability when animals are harmed
- Representation: animal interests are considered when decisions are made that impact them
- Consideration: animals are seens as individuals in a community rather than objects
- Social: the human-animal bond is seen as key to healthy communities
- Responsibility: members of the public take action to provide humane animal treatment
- Evidence: animal welfare policy is informed by science and data
- Compassion: compassion for human and non-human animals is a core societal value
While Humane Canada will examine each of the keystones in future reports, this specific report focuses on the status of the legal keystone using 12 indicators of legal effectiveness. When all 12 indicators are adequately present, it should be the case that the legal system treats (non-human) animal harm in the same way as human harm. Below is an overview of each legal indicator, its current status in Canada, and why it matters:
Absent indicators (in other words, these items have not been introduced in Canada):
- The roles and responsibilities for animal welfare enforcement are clear, consistent, and harmonized across provincial governments.
This indicator is important because a harmonized (rather than patchwork) law enforcement approach across different regions results in inconsistent enforcement standards, public confusion, and failure to act when jurisdictions are ambiguous.
- Crime reporting and tracking systems include animal abuse.
Research reveals a strong correlation between violence toward humans and animals. In cases of animal abuse, various forms of human abuse (such as inter-partner violence, assault, and sexual abuse) are often present, as well. This phenomenon was named the “Violence Link” by the ASPCA. It’s important to track all cases of abuse in one integrated system to detect patterns and reduce risk for humans and animals.
- The federal government has an animal welfare advisory body with diverse representation and knowledge from multiple stakeholders, including NGOs, Indigenous organizations, animal welfare science, bioethics, and veterinary medicine.
An independent advisory body can provide critical expertise as well as representation of animal interests. Several countries have such advisory groups in place with some even requiring consultation prior to making decisions that impact animals.
- The federal government has a central ministry or working group for coordination on animal welfare issues.
A lack of centralization creates risks of inconsistency, lack of coordination, and inaction. As evidenced by other central groups within Canada and animal welfare bodies in other countries, these groups also ensure that animals receive attention within the government.
Indicators with too little data to assess:
- Budgets are allotted for enforcing animal abuse laws.
The majority of organizations that enforce laws protecting animals are funded solely or mostly by donations from the public. The local agencies that do receive government funding rarely track budgets and have low funds. Limited resources result in prioritizing reactive cases (such as responding to complaints) rather than proactive cases (such as conducting surprise agricultural visits). Low funding is also a major concern because it means that government agencies are not prepared to enforce the laws that the public expects to be upheld.
- Tracking the proportion of animal abuse charges that result in prosecution.
Tracking prosecution is a helpful indicator of how seriously cases are treated. If laws exist and cases are opened but not prosecuted, it signals a lack of commitment to animal protection. In Canada, prosecution metrics are not tracked at the federal level and only rarely on the provincial level. Of the three provinces that keep records, approximately three-quarters of charges laid were pursued in court.
Indicators that exist in Canada but require more progress:
- Laws in Canada recognize animal sentience.
Recognizing animal sentience is important because it makes the case for the value of protecting animals for their own sake rather than the value they bring to humans. Animal sentience is recognized legally in more than 30 countries. In Canada, it is sometimes noted at the local level but remains almost entirely unrecognized in federal legislation, despite broad scientific evidence.
- Provinces clearly define how to prosecute animal cases, including hiring resource counsel who specialize in animal law.
This indicator matters because provinces with adequate resources and guidance can produce consistency in how cases are persecuted. Currently, a small number of provinces provide formal or informal guidance with far more clarity and expertise needed.
- There are consistent definitions in provincial animal protection laws.
Shared definitions and standards result in greater consistency, efficiency, and clarity of action. For example, it is essential to have legal definitions of “distress” and “neglect” as well as standards for care, warrantless entry, power to seize, and duty of veterinarians to report distress. Most provinces have some definitions but more clarity and consistency is required.
- Laws address violence toward humans and animals in a coordinated fashion.
This indicator speaks to the need for integrating animal representation in laws that protect humans, given the presence of the Violence Link. A small number of laws in Canada do this (for example including animal harm in the definition of “family violence”), though even these laws only take animals into consideration given their role as a person’s “property.”
- Prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officers receive training on animal welfare and the Violence Link.
Knowledge of the Violence Link is critical to address violence holistically for the sake of human and animal safety. Currently, the presence and quality of training programs vary widely across provinces and justice stakeholders.
Indicators trending in the right direction:
- Level of prosecutor, judge, and law enforcement officer participation in training programs.
No training program is useful without participation. On this front, Humane Canada found promising evidence of interest and involvement in available learning programs. There has been a significant and growing number of prosecutors and officers attending relevant conferences and webinars as well as subscribing to animal abuse and behavior newsletters.
While it is disappointing to see that only one of 12 legal indicators was deemed to be present in this review, the mere existence of these indicators creates a positive pressure to close the gaps. Humane Canada’s vision for a humane nation can serve as a guide for animal advocates across the world who can either apply or adapt it for local use. With clear criteria in place, advocates can develop targeted strategies, track progress, and report results. After all, how can we bring others along in our pursuit of a more just world for people and animals if we do not clearly articulate how that world will look?