Cruelty laws can be enforced without jeopardizing farms

New proposals put forth as potential amendments to Canada’s animal cruelty laws could have serious implications for producers and the livestock industry.

Those who suggest removing animals from the property section of the Criminal Code and those who propose changing definitions for when neglect constitutes a prosecuting offence should not go unchallenged.

We are not talking about changes to laws that protect animals from purposeful abuse, such as those videotaped in a British Columbia dairy barn last year. Most people who handle livestock would have no issues with strong, reasonable national animal cruelty laws.

Presently, most livestock groups are governed by codes of practice, many of which have been adopted as laws on provincial levels.

While important, those standards do not replace the need for new national legislation, which can provide more widespread leadership and ensure equal welfare expectations across the country.

Two private members bills are now wending through Parliament. Although they stand little chance of success, they are adding to the debate and so cannot be ignored. Both contain phrasing that could help prevent producers from being unfairly harassed.

However, there is also wording in one of them, Bill C-610, that would make it an offence for “failing to provide suitable food, water, air, shelter and care.”

No intent, or wilful neglect, is mentioned. Any neglect is bad, of course, but this presents a problem.

Most animal neglect cases arise when other stress factors come into play. In cases where marital problems, financial difficulties or mental health issues are identified as root causes, a more deft touch is required. Heavier fines and jail time will have no effect.

What will help are programs to raise awareness and combat the stigma that surrounds mental health issues such as depression. Ready access to social support mechanisms is also key.

Properly funded livestock response units are also needed.

Humane societies have struggled to provide this service, but have lacked appropriate support. It requires a team steeped in farming traditions with the educational background and experience necessary to protect animals from unnecessary suffering, while also being sensitive to particular situations and accounting for generally accepted farming practices.

A separate proposal suggested by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies is for animals to be moved out of the property section of the Criminal Code.

Clearly, animals are not property in the same way that a farm truck is. Or put another way, as animal behaviouralist Temple Grandin said in a 2002 paper, “there is a fundamental difference between cows and screwdrivers.”

She outlines a case for welfare protections based on nervous system and brain complexity. Basic life, such as viruses, bacteria, oysters and worms, are probably too primitive to suffer and so don’t require protection.

Animals at another level might feel pain and fear, while those possessing the most complex brains and nervous systems should have additional protections to ensure adequate socialization, interaction and an enriching environment.

This requires more research and clear standards but also an acceptance that animals are indeed property. We have the legal right to buy them, sell them, slaughter them and eat them.

However, we can still ensure their rights and proper care through laws and other protections.

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