To Protect Animals, We Need Better Law Enforcement More Than We Need Better Laws

Canadian animal protection laws are routinely criticized for being weak, and certainly there is plenty of room for improvement. However, the reality is that both provincial and federal law ostensibly prohibit harming animals, with few exceptions.

Why, then, are so many animals brutally suffering under our legal regime?

For starters, our animal protection laws are phrased broadly. Broad laws theoretically could lead to vigorous enforcement, but in Canada they don't. Instead, law enforcement is overly cautious, leaving industries to self-police.

This creates a catch-22: our laws are not being enforced because their lack of detail has resulted in prosecutorial inertia. But because the laws are not being enforced, we have next-to-no case law to guide prosecution.

The structure of our political system dictates that, in the absence of legislative clarity, it is the judiciary that is tasked with interpreting laws. But in order for the judiciary to interpret animal protection laws, the executive--represented by law enforcement--is supposed to bring those laws, in the form of prosecutions, before the courts for adjudication.

This isn't happening. Instead, we're left with a void of under-enforcement and confusion over what the law is. The situation has become so bizarre that, instead of bringing charges, our provincial law enforcement bodies issue policy statements opposing certain activities for being too cruel to animals and even ask the public not to support them.

Chickens, orcas, elephants, mink, and other commercially used animals are glaringly absent from our case law. So are the standard industry practices that cause the bulk of suffering endured by animals under human care. As time goes by, the notion that certain activities are immune from prosecution becomes entrenched as if it were fact.

Another issue is that nobody is proactively investigating possible animal protection law violations the way we do with other serious social concerns. Law enforcement bodies rely on complaints from the public to act. For this system to work, animal abuse and neglect have to be visible. But the vast majority of suffering that takes place in Canada--to animals used for food--takes place behind closed doors of windowless warehouses on private property. Unsurprisingly, the only witnesses are unwilling to turn in their co-workers or employers, let alone themselves.

Moreover, provincial law enforcement bodies typically use what they call an "education-before-enforcement" model to secure compliance with the law. Essentially, if someone is harming an animal in a way that is considered unlawful, law enforcement will usually first ask the offender to comply with the law. Only if the offender fails to do so will charges be pursued.

The shortcomings with this gentle approach should be obvious. We are expected to know and to follow the law. In most regulated industries, breaking the law results in sanctions. And we don't generally treat criminals like toddlers, asking them to please obey the law next time, or there will be consequences.

Provincial law in most provinces is clear that causing animals to unreasonably be in distress is unlawful, period. It's hard to credibly argue that practices like confining egg-laying hens to cramped wire cages for their entire lives, using physical abuse to force elephants to perform circus tricks, or competing to slam terrified calves to the ground for an entertainment spectacle we call "rodeo" don't subject animals to unreasonable distress.

After all, neither the legislature nor the judiciary have ever deemed these practices legally permissible. The industries that employ these inhumane practices have simply been operating under what appears to be an "ask for forgiveness rather than permission" ethic. They've been getting away with it, too.

We should not be satisfied with waiting around for industries that profit from harming animals to voluntarily phase out events for being too cruel. Our laws purport to protect animals--all animals. Those laws ought to be enforced.