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Comment: Animal rights increasingly being recognized by the courts

Ever since I was a girl growing up in Montreal, I have loved, and fought for the protection of, animals. Actually, love may be the wrong word.

We know that people have fought for the rights of women, African Americans and human rights generally. They did not usually say they fought for these rights because they loved women or African Americans. They fought for these rights because to deny these groups rights was simply wrong.

Similarly, I advocate the protection of animals in my legal work, not necessarily because I love animals, but because it is simply wrong to continue treating and using animals in a way that denies their inherent right to be free from harm caused by humans.

I went to law school in the early 2000s to fulfil my lifelong dream of helping animals through the law. At that time, so-called animal law did not exist as a recognized or established field in Canada. Today, animal law is a fast-growing and recognized area of legal practice.

Animal law is now taught at most law schools across the country, including at UBC (taught by me). Unlike when I was in law school, students now ask for an animal law course to be taught regularly. In fact, most Ivy League and other reputable law schools in the world also offer a course in animal law.

There is no question that western culture increasingly values the humane treatment of animals, and people treat their “fur babies” as family. This is a trend that I see throughout Canada and the world (including non-Western cultures). People now take animal issues so seriously (as they should) that they retain lawyers to resolve their issues.

I have a full-time practice in animal law that involves a broad range of issues, ranging from companion animals to wildlife.

For instance, at least 20 per cent of my practice involves the defence of dogs, namely those who are accused of a wrongdoing. B.C. needs to significantly improve the way it handles these cases, but we have seen some positive development in the law in recent years. Provincial court judges used to order dogs euthanized if they met the definition of “dangerous” under provincial law. However, as a result of a 2013 ruling in a Supreme Court that I brought (Smith v. Central Okanagan (Regional District)), the law now clearly allows dogs to be returned safely to their guardians, or to another person, on conditions. In other words, the law has evolved from more-or-less automatic euthanasia to recognizing the special place dogs have in people’s families.

I also deal with pet custody and ownership disputes, and condominium disputes where people are threatened to “dispose” of their pets. There will be more of these as people elect to have pets instead of children. I am pleased to say that here, too, B.C. courts are starting to recognize that animals are a special type of “property” that can no longer be treated akin to furniture. For instance, in one of my recent cases (Sagoo v. Murray), the court recognized that the best interests of the animal needs to be considered.

This is in contrast to a Newfoundland Court of Appeal decision that held that animals are just like any other property, whose interests do not need to be considered. In my view, the Newfoundland case was wrongly decided, and is contrary to the overall judicial trend of recognizing the importance of animals.

One of my bigger cases now is acting for the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition. We are suing the federal government for violating animal transportation laws. This is a groundbreaking case as it is the first time an animal protection organization has sued the government over the way it transports animals. People are surprised to learn that horses are being slaughtered in Canada, and perhaps even worse, they are being exported, by air, in crammed conditions, to Japan to be slaughtered for meat. Horses that may have been someone’s pet.

I am fortunate to have had the first broad-ranged and full-time animal law practice on the west coast of Canada. I have also been fortunate to be a founder and adjunct professor of the University of B.C.’s animal law course, as well as the founder of the first animal law section of the Canadian Bar Association, all with such great support.

This only confirms my view that animal law is an important and growing field, and one which you will increasingly hear more lawyers and the justice system take seriously. I am so grateful — and lucky — that I can pursue my long-held goal of fighting for, and defending, animals through the legal system.

Rebeka Breder is a Vancouver lawyer specializing in animal law and an adjunct professor of law at the University of B.C.

Published in the Vancouver Sun

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