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Rebeka Breder: Animals and the law—two steps forward, one step back


The cards have been sent, and the gifts have been wrapped. I am alone at home. My husband and daughter have joined the rest of the family without me, as I shut down my very busy year fighting for animals in court. I finally have a moment to write.

In considering the past decade, I see a growing trend of people caring about animals. You know times are changing when mainstream outlets, such as the Economist in 2019, declare it is the “Year of the Vegan”, or superstars, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, publicly endorse veganism. Or when celebrities, like Joaquin Phoenix, engage in, and support, animal rights activism. Or movies, like The Game Changers, become 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 be in a domestic dispute over pet custody, or in a case brought by an animal protection 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. Over the last decade, Canada has seen 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 animal law in Canada 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 close in loopholes dealing with bestiality, and tougher animal fighting provisions.

For years, animal advocates, including myself, have protested, attended city council meetings, made documentaries, and written to various government officials (including my writing of a legal opinion for the City of Port Moody, and in 2012, it became the first city in British Columbia to ban the sale of shark fin products followed by the City of Abbotsford later that year). The federal government finally listened.

Various cities are also passing better laws for animals, such as the recent ban on horse-drawn carriages in Montreal, or the upcoming ban on retail fireworks sales 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 has passed a ban on grizzly bear trophy hunting. After hearing from animal advocates, including the effective Tri-Cities Bear Aware group—of which I am a member—and the Get Bear Smart Society, Port Moody and other cities have increased their fines for irresponsible behaviour leading to bear deaths.

I have also seen some incredible wins in the courtroom, including in my cases. Courts have recognized that the best interests of animals must be considered in pet custody disputes. Judges have allowed dogs who've caused injury to be given a second chance at a better life and imposed lifetime bans on owning animals in animal cruelty cases. Courts have also recognized psychological (and not just physical) suffering in animals, while also using language such as “family member” to describe a pet.

In addition, courts have allowed 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 are 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’ve written, 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 British Columbia is considering the same. These laws will have a devastating effect on animals, by keeping intolerable 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, with the Christmas tree lights and Hanukkah candles twinkling, 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 municipal, 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. I have fought for the rights of animals since I was a little girl growing up in Montreal. To all those people and professors who told me that my passion will wane as I age, I say to you: not only are you terribly mistaken, but just watch me, and other animal activists and lawyers, continue to fight even more fiercely until all animals get the protection they deserve.

I wish you all a happy, healthy, and peaceful holiday season (especially considering that animals in Vancouver will not need to be afraid of so many fireworks blasting in 2021!).

Originally published in the Georgia Straight Dec 24th 2019

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