When Toronto Humane Society investigator Tre Smith learned this week that his licence had been temporarily suspended, pending review of an ugly confrontation with the owner of a dog whose life Mr. Smith had just saved, the incident underlined a murky no-man’s-land familiar to non-police law-enforcement officials.
And with Canada’s archaic animal-cruelty laws poised to leapfrog from the 19th century to the 21st, the altercation provides a snapshot of difficulties looming for the men and women who enforce those laws.
Nowhere more so than in Ontario, whose animal-welfare regulations are by every estimate the weakest in the country. The industrial and financial heart of the country is also behind most states in the US.
That could change. Provincial politicians of all stripes, including the governing Liberals, appear certain to raise animal rights in the election campaign this fall. A further sign of the times: A workshop at the Law Society of Upper Canada, a first, will examine the law and animal rights.
But the big change is likely to be in Ottawa, where two competing pieces of legislation are currently before the House of Commons. Both would amend the federal Criminal Code to make cruelty to domestic animals an indictable offence rather than a summary one.
And while tougher animal-cruelty laws are decades overdue in the view of Hugh Coghill, chief inspector for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, he wonders how the province’s more than 170 investigators can be expected to deal with offenders facing years in a penitentiary, rather than a small fine or – rarely – a brief spell behind bars.
“Indictable offences are arrestable offences,” Mr. Coghill said.
“That means an SPCA officer would theoretically have to arrest the individual, take him or her to the police station to be fingerprinted, photographed and entered into CPIC [Canadian Police Information Centre, the national database that records criminal charges and convictions].
“Well, we don’t provide handcuffs or handguns or nightsticks to our officers, and we don’t provide them with the training to arrest people. Nor does any SPCA or humane society across Canada.”
Laws in effect since 1892 decree that a Canadian can inflict on a pet the worst kind of suffering imaginable and incur no more than six months in jail, a $2,000 fine and a maximum two-year ban on owning animals.
Two bills are now before the Commons. One is Bill C-373, tabled by Liberal MP Mark Holland, which has passed its first reading and, along with severely toughening sanctions for abusing animals, aims to redefine them as sentient beings rather than objects.
The other initiative – Bill S-213, from Liberal Senator John Bryden – doesn’t go that far, and in the view of its critics would still leave gaping loopholes in the law. But because it has the Harper government’s backing and has now passed both the Senate and second reading in the Commons, Bill S-213 may be the one that takes effect.
Even with the way things are, he said, laying criminal charges for animal cruelty – 385 were laid province-wide last year – is expensive and cumbersome.
“The OSPCA act only gives us the power to write orders, it’s ineffective and it’s outdated,” said Tre Smith.
“We’d like to see the federal laws toughened but also the provincial ones so we can hit [miscreants] in the pocketbook right away.”
Even when orders are issued, one in four are contested via the Animal Care Review Board, a quasi-judicial government-appointed referee.
The society’s files bulge with numbers. Each year, more than 1,000 investigations are launched citywide, and each year most perpetrators receive no more than a warning. In the first quarter of this year, the society was able to lay just four criminal charges.
Our laws protect anyone who wants to abuse an animal.
Source: Timothy Appleby, The Globe and Mail, August 11, 2007
Meanwhile, at the provincial level, Bob Runciman (MPP – Leeds & Grenville) introduced a members’ bill in 2007 which would increase penalties for animal abuse to terms of up to 2 years, $60,000 in fines, and a lifetime ownership ban.
This was sadly among the items left wagging in the breeze when Premier Dalton McGuinty decided to end the legislative session 3-1/2 weeks ahead of schedule. Runciman’s bill took a back seat to the McGuinty crew’s overwhelming desire to get the hell out of Dodge and go blow some of that swag snagged the previous Christmas when they awarded themselves salary, RRSP and severance hikes totalling 31 per cent.
Runciman reintroduced the bill in December, 2007, and it is slated to be looked at in spring, 2008.
What Can You Do?
Tell the Ontario government and Premier McGuinty that tougher animal cruelty laws are long overdue.