Opinion Editorial

Why BC’s first mink farm COVID outbreak is a very bad sign

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

News of an outbreak of COVID-19 at a mink farm in BC’s Fraser Valley is yet another warning that we need to stop the industrial exploitation of animals.

The outbreak, declared by the BC government after eight people at the site tested positive for the virus, is the first in Canada, but similar outbreaks are occurring around the world.

Last month, Denmark ordered a cull of the country’s 17 million minks to prevent the infection carrying over to humans. A mutated strain of the virus found on several mink farms had infected 12 people. The Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Poland, Greece and several US states have reported SARS-CoV-22 in farmed minks.

Mink farms, like all factory farms, provide perfect conditions for viruses to spread and mutate because they confine large numbers of animals in cramped conditions. Farmed mink are kept in small, wire cages, denying them the ability to engage in natural behaviours. (Amendments to the code recently rescinded a commitment to provide bigger cages for mink by 2023.) As mink are semi-aquatic animals, lack of access to water for foraging makes the deprivation especially acute.

There are few laws governing the care and handling of farmed mink in Canada. Instead, there is a voluntary code of practice for the industry, with no independent enforcement. The code is overseen by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), a non-governmental body with heavy representation from industrial animal agriculture.

The lack of independent enforcement and inspection in the industry creates potential for animal suffering (beyond the stress of confinement that is considered acceptable in the code).

In 2015, the BC SPCA investigated a Fraser Valley mink farm and, according to media reports, found horrific conditions: “…row upon row, roughly 70,000 mink squirmed in cages the size of two shoe boxes as heaps of their own excrement mounted on the floor beneath them.

Many were missing limbs, digits and ears, and one animal — mysteriously paralyzed — had to be euthanized on site.” No charges were laid, as the operator was given an opportunity to “clean up his act.”

In 2018, an undercover investigation of an Ontario mink farm by animal advocates found unsanitary conditions, lack of veterinary care and lesions “all over” minks’ bodies. Charges were laid against the farmer.

While the exact circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak at the B.C. mink farm are still being investigated by Fraser Health, there is growing concern that mink farming presents a threat to human health. This includes the potential for a mutated virus from a farm to impact the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine.

As one scientist told the BBC: “Every time the virus spreads between animals it changes, and if it changes too much from the one that is circulating within humans at the moment, that might mean that any vaccine or treatment that will be produced soon might not work as well as it should do.”

All of this begs the question: Why do we allow an industry that already compromises animal welfare to now threaten human health, especially when it only exists to provide a luxury item for a small number of consumers?

Animal advocates have long called for an end to the fur industry on moral grounds, citing the undeniable suffering the animals endure in unnatural conditions. Now, those same conditions may be creating a threat to human welfare.

“It’s time fur farming came to an end. Before the Fraser Valley outbreak, animal advocates had been calling for the Canadian government to support a transition away from fur farming. It’s a call that deserves public support – to stop needless animal suffering and to prevent a needless risk to public health.”

Opinion Editorial

Broken promise means pigs will suffer in inhumane crates until 2029

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

The Canadian pig farming industry is breaking a promise to end the continuous use of inhumane “gestation stalls” that confine pregnant sows so tightly they are unable to turn around.

The industry committed in 2014, outlined in the industry’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, to end the continuous use of gestation stalls and to transition toward group housing (which provides space to allow pigs to move more freely) by 2024.

Pig farmers are now seeking to delay the transition until 2029, despite being given 10 years to make the change. The industry says it can’t meet its commitment by 2024 because of a lack of preparedness and financial issues.

The delay could be granted by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), the industry-dominated body that oversees codes of practice for the care and handling of pigs. If so, it will result in hundreds of thousands of pregnant pigs continuing to suffer in the cramped stalls.

The Retail Council of Canada, which represents major grocery retailers in the country, also supported the planned transition away from gestation stalls, saying in 2014 that it was committed to “sourcing pork products from sows raised in alternative housing practices as defined in the updated Codes by the end of 2022.” The council has not said whether it will stand by its commitment now that it appears the pork industry may renege on its commitment.

Animal welfare experts have described gestation stalls as extreme animal confinement equivalent to living in an airline seat.

Dr. Ian Duncan, Emeritus Chair in Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, has stated: “In my opinion, the practice of keeping sows in gestation crates for most of their pregnancy is one of the cruellest forms of confinement devised by humankind. Sows are intelligent, inquisitive animals who naturally spend their time rooting, foraging and exploring their environment. When kept in extensive conditions, sows engage in various behaviours and lead a rich social life. All of this is completely denied them by gestation crates and leads to enormous frustration.”

Polling has shown that 84% of Canadians support a complete phase-out of gestations stalls. The European Union and several states in the US have banned the stalls.

The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) has launched a campaign calling on the public to urge the pork industry and the Retail Council of Canada to stand by their commitments to transition to group housing.

“The pork industry and the retail council promised to end the cruel practice of extreme, long-term confinement,” said VHS campaign director Emily Pickett.

“Canadians need to hold them to account and let them know that they don’t want to see pigs continue to suffer in this way.”

Opinion Editorial

Pork industry should keep its promise to end inhumane practice

Article originally published in The Georgia Straight.

Life for pigs on Canada’s factory farms was set to change for the better thanks to a hard-won animal-welfare reform that would end the continuous confinement of pregnant sows in inhumane “gestation stalls”.

But Canadian pig farmers are saying, “Not so fast.”

The Canadian pig-farming industry made a commitment in 2014, as outlined in the industry’s Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, to end the continuous use of gestation stalls and to transition toward group housing (which allows pigs to move more freely) by 2024.

The stalls confine sows so tightly that they are unable to engage in natural behaviours or even turn around.

Now the industry is pushing to delay the phase-out of gestation crates to 2029, citing lack of preparedness and financial difficulties. Despite being given 10 years to make the transition, the industry says it’s incapable of meeting its commitment by 2024.

If the delay is granted by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), the industry-dominated body that oversees codes of practice for the care and handling of pigs, it will result in hundreds of thousands of pregnant pigs continuing to suffer in the cramped stalls.

In 2014, the Retail Council of Canada, which represents major grocery retailers in Canada, supported the planned transition away from gestation stalls, saying it was committed to “sourcing pork products from sows raised in alternative housing practices as defined in the updated Codes by the end of 2022”.

It’s now unclear whether the council will stand by its commitment.

Animal-welfare scientists, veterinarians, and other experts have described gestation stalls as extreme animal confinement and the equivalent to living in an airline seat.

Ian Duncan, emeritus chair in animal welfare at the University of Guelph, has stated: “In my opinion, the practice of keeping sows in gestation crates for most of their pregnancy is one of the cruelest forms of confinement devised by humankind. Sows are intelligent, inquisitive animals who naturally spend their time rooting, foraging, and exploring their environment. When kept in extensive conditions, sows engage in a wide variety of behaviour and lead a rich social life. All of this is completely denied them by gestation crates and leads to enormous frustration.”

And it seems the public agrees with that opinion. A 2013 Environics poll revealed that 84 percent of Canadians support a complete phase-out of gestations stalls.

The European Union announced a ban on sow stalls in 2013, allowing an 11-year phase-out period and exemptions for the first four weeks of a sow’s pregnancy. Currently, 10 states, including Florida, Ohio, and Arizona, have voter-approved statutes that ban gestation crates on commercial farms.

The pork industry in Canada essentially made a promise to end the cruel practice of extreme long-term confinement. Perhaps they think Canadians will not hold them to that promise as they quietly kick their ethical responsibilities into the future, hoping no one will notice. But such a calculation will only erode trust in the industry.

A 2018 Canadian Centre for Food Integrity survey showed that only 31 percent of respondents agree that Canadian meat is derived humanely from farm animals, and 61 percent are unsure. Public trust, accountability, and transparency in our food system is important to Canadians, and the pork industry must uphold its commitment to consumers to end the use of gestation stalls by 2024. It made a promise and it should keep it.

The public can comment on the National Farm Animal Care Council’s proposed amendments to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs here. The deadline is November 19.

Opinion Editorial

Canada needs to take the threat of disease from wildlife seriously

Article originally published in The Province.

Despite calls from experts to take action against the global wildlife trade, which scientists believe is a likely source of COVID-19, the response from national governments has been muted and mixed, with virtual silence from Canada. That’s a shame, as there is plenty Canada could do to improve our own safeguards against diseases from imported wildlife.

Whatever the precise source of COVID-19 might be, the science has been clear for years that zoonotic disease (disease transmitted from animals to humans) from wildlife is a serious threat, accounting for at least 70 per cent of all emerging diseases. And that threat is not just from the much-discussed wet markets in Asia. It’s from a legal global trade worth US$300 billion and an illegal trade worth US$23 billion, both of which involve and affect Canada. Yet there are questions about the coherence and effectiveness of Canada’s defences against disease from imported wildlife.

Currently, responsibility for keeping Canadians safe from foreign zoonotic diseases is spread across several government agencies, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which are in turn networked with a myriad of other bodies, such as the Canadian Animal Health Surveillance System and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

A 2016 study criticized this system, stating: “Canada lacks a coherent and effective regulatory framework to address emerging zoonotic diseases,” arguing that “there are gaps in disease surveillance, wildlife health concerns are not given due priority, risk assessment processes do not explicitly consider the impact of human action on wildlife health, and there is insufficient collaboration between government sectors.”

There also appear to be loopholes in the CFIA’s system for controlling which animals are allowed into the country. For example, the agency does not inspect reptiles (except turtles and tortoises) imported into Canada. As its website states, “there is no Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requirement to obtain an import permit, nor a health certificate. Under normal circumstances, there are no border inspections. Imports are permitted from any country, for any use, to any destination in Canada.”

Yet, reptiles are known to carry zoonotic diseases. Snakes were an early suspect in the research into the source of COVID-19, although they’ve since been ruled out.

The CFIA also says rodents (with some exceptions) can be imported into Canada without an import permit, health certificate, or inspection. So, for example, someone could import capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, into Canada, despite the fact they are known to carry dangerous ticks and have been known to shed coronaviruses. They are also sold online as pets.

The CFIA’s surveillance system is reactive rather than preventative, relying on prior intelligence indicating that a specific animal is a disease carrier. The system’s weakness was demonstrated when Canada prohibited pet Gambian rats from entering the country four months after they caused an outbreak of Monkeypox in the United States in 2003. Before the outbreak became manifest, the CFIA would have allowed the rats into Canada. Use of the precautionary principle, in the form of a ban on exotic pet imports, would be a far better safeguard.

Another concern is the lack of resources Canada devotes to fighting the illegal wildlife trade, one of a number of tasks given to the federal Wildlife Enforcement Directorate. According to a 2017 article in Canadian Geographic, the directorate had only 75 field officers nationwide. The article quotes the head of the directorate on the continued rise in wildlife crime: “And when you couple that with downward trends in government spending, that means more work for us and fewer resources to do it.” A 2017 survey of the directorate’s employees found that 65 per cent felt the quality of their work suffered because of “having to do the same or more work, but with fewer resources.”

Clearly, Canada must take the threat of disease from the wildlife trade more seriously. It needs a coherent regulatory framework to address the threat from zoonotic diseases. It needs to ban the import of wild and exotic animals and it needs to devote more resources to stop wildlife smuggling.

In July 2003, the medical journal The Lancet described the wild animal trade as “a disaster ignored” and called for its end. The warning went unheeded and that disaster is now upon us. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Opinion Editorial

COVID-19 exposes another dark side of Canada’s meat industry

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

COVID-19 has created a crisis for the meat industry, with workers falling ill, slaughterhouses shutting down, and fears of meat shortages emerging. The virus has also exposed the industry’s deep flaws, including an ethical vacuum at its core.

Disturbing reports that meat companies failed to protect employees and allowed them to work while sick with the virus offer the most likely explanation for COVID-19 outbreaks in meat plants across North America.

In BC, Vancouver Coastal Health was critical of one Vancouver plant’s safety measures after 28 workers tested positive for the virus, finding that “the plans that were in place were inadequate or were not appropriately executed.” Outbreaks have since occurred in three more local poultry operations.

In Alberta, a slaughterhouse operated by meat giant Cargill is now the largest single-site outbreak of coronavirus in Canada, with more than 900 cases. The company is facing criticism that it failed to put in place appropriate physical distancing measures and provide personal protective equipment to its employees. Meat industry workers in several US states have protested against slaughterhouses staying open over safety fears. There have also been outbreaks in meat plants in Ontario and Quebec.

The meat and livestock industry’s apparent lack of concern for the welfare of its employees is no surprise to animal advocates who have long decried the appalling treatment of animals in intensive agriculture. Despite an endless parade of undercover investigations and media exposés revealing cruel practices and animal suffering, the industry has resisted change. Instead, it has lobbied for “Ag-gag” laws to keep its operations hidden from public view.

The industry’s exploitation of animals and workers has been ruthlessly efficient, providing cheap meat while squeezing every last penny of profit from its industrialized feeding, confining, transporting and slaughtering of billions of cows, pigs and chickens. That same concentration on profit and efficiency has also squeezed the humanity out of the industry. It is no wonder that renowned historian and author Yuval Noah Harari has described industrial animal agriculture as one of the worst crimes in history.

But it doesn’t end there. Beyond the cruelty of factory farming are the equally well-documented harms it inflicts on the environment and our health.

The United Nations Environment Agency has said “meat production is known to be a major contributor to climate change and environmental destruction…” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues to call for a reduction in global meat consumption to protect the planet. A 2019 study by the World Resources Institute found that: “For every food calorie generated, animal-based foods — and ruminant meats in particular — require many times more feed and land inputs, and emit far more greenhouse gases, than plant-based foods.”  And, in the irony of ironies, factory farming risks causing future pandemics — just like the one currently shutting down its slaughterhouses — by confining thousands of stressed, genetically-uniform animals into crowded barns.

Despite endless debates in the media about meat consumption and health, major studies continue to show links between meat consumption and higher risks of heart diseasecancer, and diabetes.

With modern animal agriculture clearly unsustainable, it is no accident that the plant-based protein industry has grown in recent years.  Now, the coronavirus crisis may have provided it with an opportunity to demonstrate its advantages, with US sales of plant-based meat substitutes recently jumping 200%.

Those advantages are significant. There is strong evidence that a plant-based diet is healthy, beneficial to the environment, and, of course, good for animals. And, because it is more automated and less reliant on labour, the plant-based protein industry is less vulnerable to staff shortages caused by the pandemic.

The development of plant-based protein offers the world a chance to turn away from an industry that has demonstrated little concern for the welfare of animals, the planet or the people it employs. With the coronavirus exposing the vulnerability of this unsustainable sector, it calls into question our individual food choices. If we can eat well without cruelty, slaughter, environmental degradation and needless risks to our health, why wouldn’t we?

Opinion Editorial

We can’t afford to ignore the deadly wildlife trade

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

While the world is understandably preoccupied with the disastrous consequences of COVID-19, the global wildlife trade – the likely cause of the pandemic – is getting less attention. Scientists have raised concerns about the issue for years, but they were ignored. It’s an inescapable fact: we were warned.

Back in 2004, the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) published a report titled A Disaster Ignored? The report, a review of scientific studies concerning the risks of disease from the wildlife trade, concluded: “There is a strong consensus of scientific opinion that the international movement of animals through the global trade in wild and exotic species poses a significant threat of spreading infectious disease to humans and other animals, both domestic and wild.”

Sixteen years later that scientific consensus is even stronger. It is estimated that at least 70% of emerging infectious diseases originate in wildlife. Yet, as COVID-19 has tragically proven, the opportunities to prevent a disaster have indeed been ignored.

While the precise source of COVID-19 has yet to be established, scientists who study zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans) believe it originated from wildlife sold at a wet market in Wuhan, where the pandemic began.

Unregulated wet markets, where wild and domestic animals are slaughtered and sold on the spot in unsanitary conditions, are common in Asia and much of the developing world. They are supplied by the global wildlife trade (both legal and illegal), which also involves the sale of exotic pets and animal parts for use in so-called traditional medicines or in-fashion items (skins, ivory).

Scientists, conservationists and animal welfare groups have long called for the wildlife trade to be banned or at least restricted and for stronger enforcement of legislation against the trade. Their reasons are clear: the trade spreads zoonotic disease, drives species toward extinction, and is extremely cruel.

VHS, which has long campaigned against the sale and keeping of exotic pets, recently launched a petition calling on the BC government to strengthen regulation of the trade and ownership of wild animals in the province. The petition urges the government to review its regulations to ensure species that could pose a risk of spreading zoonotic disease be prohibited. VHS has also joined with more than 200 conservation and animal welfare organizations in signing an open letter to the World Health Organization, urging action against the wildlife trade.

Action to curtail the wildlife trade is needed at every level – globally, locally, and nationally. There have been calls for Canada to do more on the issue, including a suggestion by former federal minister James Moore that “Canada should table a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for the immediate closure of the deadly and irresponsible wild animal and wet markets in China; enforced by international inspections and economic sanctions for non-compliance.”

The federal government can take this critical opportunity to work with the international community to curtail the wildlife trade, devote more enforcement resources to stopping the illegal import of wildlife into Canada, and develop a coordinated plan among relevant federal agencies and the provinces to eliminate or restrict the sale and ownership of exotic and wild animals. The Vancouver Humane Society is working alongside World Animal Protection Canada and other groups to press the government to do just that.

The scientific evidence is clear: unless we end the wildlife trade, we will see species disappear, millions of animals will suffer, and there will be more pandemics in the future. These are all disasters we cannot afford to ignore.

Opinion Editorial

GM Canada should stop sponsoring the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

The death of six horses in last year’s Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race may have marked a turning point in public support for the event, with even die-hard chuckwagon fans calling for change.

The key question, however, is whether corporate sponsors of the race will continue to support an event that attracts negative headlines and public outrage virtually every year.

More than 70 horses have died in the event since 1986 and none of the much-publicized safety initiatives, rule changes, and reforms announced by the Stampede has made any difference.

The horses keep on dying.

Yet, on March 19, Calgary will again host the annual GMC Rangeland Derby canvas auction, in which companies will bid to advertise on the tarps covering the chuckwagons that will compete in July’s races at the Stampede.

The bidding companies tend to be local, with many involved in construction or the oil and gas industry. With relatively strong local support for chuckwagon racing, the companies are unlikely to face consumer pressure to distance themselves from the event, despite the annual horse carnage.

But General Motors Canada, which is the title sponsor for the chuckwagon race, is a national and international brand. While associating that brand with the macho “half-mile of hell” might have made sense 30 year ago, does it still?

There have been clear signs that society is growing uncomfortable with the use of animals in entertainment: Ringling Bros. Circus has gone out of business, SeaWorld no longer features orca whale shows, and Canada has banned whale and dolphin captivity. And, according to a 2019 poll by Research Co., a majority of Canadians (59%) are opposed to rodeos.

Meanwhile, General Motors seems to be adopting a more progressive brand. In 2017, the company announced that “General Motors believes the future is all-electric,” ending its century-long relationship with gasoline and diesel. In addition, GM has launched a major “diversity and inclusion” initiative to increase the number of women and minorities it employs. If that’s a brand that’s looking to the future and aiming to broaden its appeal, where do chuckwagon races and dead horses fit?

Yet GM Canada continues to sponsor not only the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race, but also a number of other races organized by the World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA). Although media attention has focused on horse deaths at the Stampede, horses have also been killed at WPCA races in several prairie towns, including one in Medicine Hat in 2017, two in Bonnyville in 2012, and four in Grand Prairie in 2009.

Perhaps GM Canada believes the rugged machismo of chuckwagon racing will still resonate with some of its customers, making it worth associating with the event. But, brand values aside, there remains an ethical question: How can the company support an event that every year puts animals at undue risk of injury and death just to amuse a crowd?

While the Calgary Stampede and its supporters have ignored the arguments made by animal advocates against the chuckwagon race for decades, it is harder to ignore independent academic research that examines animal welfare in the race.

A 2017 study of the Stampede’s chuckwagon race by Professor Kevin Young at the University of Calgary concluded that “there are obvious and acknowledged examples of harm/abuse toward the animals involved.”

Professor Young also addressed the Stampede’s program of safety and rule changes, describing it as being “as much about marketing and public image as it is about animal safety, especially in the face of ongoing harm to horses.”

The study simply confirms what facts and common sense tells us: The chuckwagon race kills and injures horses for the sake of entertainment and the Stampede has failed to stop it.

There are good branding and marketing reasons for GM Canada to reconsider its sponsorship of chuckwagon racing, but the ethical case is even stronger.

They should do the right thing and stop supporting this gruesome spectacle.

Opinion Editorial

The Greater Vancouver Zoo must chart a new course

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

To watch the Siberian tiger at the Greater Vancouver Zoo pace back and forth along the fence of her enclosure is to witness to one of the most common experiences of zoo animals: boredom.

The pacing is recognized by animal behaviourists as a “stereotypy”, which has been described as a functionless behaviour pattern that “captive animals may develop as a response to physical restraint, lack of stimulation, or inescapable fear or frustration.”

Giraffes at the zoo can also been seen exhibiting stereotypic behaviour. In their case it’s chewing and licking metal bars, likely indicating frustration with not being able to forage naturally.

The central problem here is obvious: it’s captivity. While some animals adapt to it better than others, a walk around the zoo will find many animals looking lethargic, sometimes motionless, as they languish in enclosures with little to do and nowhere to go.

While ending animal captivity is the only real answer to the problem, giving the animals more space and something to do would at least alleviate some of the tedium they endure. But according to a new report, the Greater Vancouver Zoo is even failing to do that adequately.

The report, commissioned by the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) from researchers at Zoocheck, argues that the zoo hasn’t invested enough in behavioural or environmental enrichment for the animals—a problem identified by the two groups in previous reports in 2003 and 2008. Enrichment involves providing challenging and stimulating activities, environments, and objects for zoo animals. It can include habitat design, increased food variety, and foraging opportunities.

The report also found that a number of the zoo’s animal exhibits don’t provide enough space. Reptiles are kept in small terrariums, with no ability to engage in natural roaming behaviours. Several birds, including owls and hawks, are in undersized cages, denying them little or no opportunity to fly.

Recommendations in the report include developing a comprehensive enrichment program; increasing the size of enclosures; and moving animals to other facilities if they are not suited to the Lower Mainland’s climate or if the zoo cannot satisfy their physical, psychological, and social needs.

Such measures would improve the welfare of the zoo’s animals but the complexity of their natural habitats—which they have evolved to thrive in—can never be adequately replicated. The question remains: how can we justify holding animals captive when it compromises their welfare?

Zoos argue that they are all about conservation and education. Indeed, the Greater Vancouver Zoo participates in conservation projects involving butterflies, frogs and turtles, but the vast majority of its animals are there for show. They will never be returned to the wild.

There is little evidence to show that zoos have educational value. Damian Aspinall, the owner of two U.K. wildlife parks, estimates that 99 percent of visitors who come to his parks come for an enjoyable day out, but just one percent get newly enthusiastic about conservation. He has called for zoos, including his own, to be phased out in the next two decades.

The Greater Vancouver Zoo needs to fundamentally change direction. It can start by alleviating the crushing boredom so many of its animals endure. A comprehensive program of behavioural and environmental enrichment will help.

In the longer term, the zoo should move toward being a sanctuary for native species and abandon its current model, one that condemns animals to a lifetime of captivity just to provide humans with a day out.

Opinion Editorial

Why the CFL’s Grey Cup rodeo is a huge marketing blunder

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

The Canadian Football League’s decision to hold a rodeo as part of this year’s Grey Cup festivities is a marketing blunder that not only ignores public concerns about animal welfare but also tarnishes the CFL’s brand by linking it to rodeo’s narrow cultural appeal.

Sure, rodeo is popular in Calgary, this year’s Grey Cup host, but polling shows a majority of Canadians (63%) are opposed to rodeo, with opposition higher in B.C. (66%), Ontario (68%) and Quebec (70%).

Six horses died at this year’s Calgary Stampede, sparking a public outcry and increasing the animal death toll at the Stampede to more than 100 since 1986.

Not only are most Canadians opposed to rodeos, but so are virtually all animal welfare organizations. Humane Canada, which represents most SPCAs and humane societies in the country, has stated that it is “opposed in principle to rodeo and is working towards the ultimate abolition of this activity.” The same is true outside Canada, with the national SPCAs of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa taking positions against rodeos. Even the Calgary Humane Society says that it “fundamentally opposes high risk rodeo events.”

There is good reason to be concerned about the treatment of rodeo animals. The bucking bulls and horses that are slated to appear at the Grey Cup rodeo will be deliberately subjected to fear and stress to make them perform.  Flank straps will be cinched tight around their hindquarters to induce bucking as they are coerced into the arena with unwanted riders on their backs, using spurs to grip the animals’ hides.

The bucking is a prey animal’s response to a perceived predator attack, as it seeks to dislodge the rider and stop the stress caused by the flank strap. In bulls, aggression is triggered, as can be seen when they sometimes charge bucked-off riders on the ground.

All of this amounts to tormenting animals for the sake of human amusement. It’s the equivalent of poking a stick at a caged tiger or bear at a zoo and calling their reactions entertainment. It’s unethical, uncivilized and un-Canadian.

The CFL might also want to consider how rodeo’s image fits with an iconic Canadian event like the Grey Cup or with the league’s own brand and values.

In recent years, there has been discussion about declining interest in the CFL, especially in the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver markets, where populations are increasingly diverse.  To its credit, the league launched a “Diversity is Strength” campaign in 2017, recognizing Canada’s changing values and demographics.

But the CFL’s efforts to broaden its appeal pale in comparison to the outreach and marketing of the National Basketball Association and, especially, of the Toronto Raptors.  The recent bold decision by the Raptors to launch new line of team-branded hijabs, part of a broader effort to be more inclusive to fans of all cultures, is an instructive example.

But rodeo, which the CFL is now making part of its most high-profile event, has an image that comes nowhere near the modern, diverse Canada that the Raptors have successfully tapped into. To be blunt, rodeo reflects the values of 1950s America more than those of 21st Century Canada.

Rodeo’s image has also been marked by controversy. In 2013, a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair infamously donned a Barack Obama mask, taunting a bull as an announcer on loudspeaker shouted “We’re going to stomp Obama now” to a cheering crowd.  A tourist attending the event likened the atmosphere to a “Klan rally.”

Calf roping at Chilliwack Rodeo

Last year, an anti-rodeo protest in Chilliwack, B.C. was cancelled because of threats of violence and a counter-demonstration by the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group. In 2013, a rodeo fan at B.C.’s Cloverdale Rodeo was caught on video engaging in a racist rant.

In 2015, the Calgary Stampede had to crack down on the sale of Confederate flag belt buckles and licence plates. Disappointed vendors said the Confederate flag design was a “good seller.”

Headlines about such incidents only add to the negative brand values engendered by animal welfare controversies that plague rodeos.

Canadians value compassion, kindness and empathy – toward animals and people. When Canadian figure skater Keegan Messing recently unfurled the flag of Japan to honour his competitor at a medal award ceremony, he made headlines while making his country proud. What other nation celebrates its patriotism by valuing others? That’s the culture Canada’s sports leagues would be wise to incorporate into their brands.

The Canadian Football League, if it really thinks diversity is strength, should follow the NBA’s example and reach out to a broad audience that represents Canada’s future. The last thing it should be doing is associating itself with events that represent our inhumanity to animals and that harken back to a narrow culture that most Canadians have little interest in.

Opinion Editorial

How new VR experience can create empathy for farmed animals

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

At the Vancouver Vegan Festival held at Creekside Park, we launched a new form of animal advocacy and outreach through virtual reality. We’re excited to partner with Animal Equality to offer their iAnimal 360 virtual experience to Metro Vancouver.

For the first time, you can see what they see, as you take the place of either a chicken, cow, or pig as you experience their entire farmed lifecycle in a matter of minutes in a narrated 360° video. Filmed with the consent and approval of modern farms and slaughter facilities who are proud of what they do, you can see what the average day looks like through the eyes of an animal, rather than focusing on the most graphic footage we could find, or relying on hidden cameras. We believe that simply showing you what happens as the animal would see it is powerful enough to stir compassion in even the hardest heart.

The feedback we received was amazing. There were questions (“and this is legal?” “and this is normal?”), there were tears, and there was no one who left looking at farmed animals, or their manicured meat products, the same way.

The iAnimal 360 virtual experience (Vancouver Humane Society)

I’m not someone who’s easily impressed. I didn’t get excited about Avatar in 3D or the Tupac hologram. But the experience of immersion that VR can give us is almost incomparable to film or gaming as we know them today. It can open up new possibilities in the way it’s able to transport you seemingly out of your own body. I’ve tested out virtual rollercoasters that make your stomach drop, I’ve swum with pre-recorded sharks and dolphins, and they’re all pretty incredible. 

In the history of ideas “the virtual” is more complicated than the usual pop culture sense of the term. We usually think of “the virtual” as “the fictional” or “the illusory,” something that appears real but isn’t. Philosophers have used the term more broadly though to mean “the possible” or “the potential” (I actually wrote about this in a philosophical dictionary released a few years ago) and it’s this broader, more experimental notion of “the virtual” that really interests me.

Chilliwack Rodeo / Vancouver Humane Society

It’s no wonder that even rodeos and circuses are playing with the ideas of virtual animals and experiences. We’ve talked in our office about the possibilities that virtual reality and animal holograms could bring to antiquated institutions such as zoos and aquaria. You can even experience something like an existence in one of these facilities through a virtual prison experience. I can only imagine what an iAnimal take on modern zoos would feel like, putting you in a boring box for unending observation in an alien environment, surrounded by other animals you couldn’t possibly understand. You’d be able to take off the headset if you felt claustrophobic or anxious —  a luxury the animals don’t get.

Of course, we don’t have to have sophisticated camera equipment or advanced technology to empathize with these animals. Ethicists have put themselves in the place of the animal for thousands of years through thought experiments and observation, and come to the realization that their pain is difficult or impossible to justify given our own capacity for physical, psychological, and emotional suffering and knowledge of other animals.

The moral question of whether we are justified in killing and eating other animals for our survival is hard enough before you factor in the thought and planning that goes in to modern farming, the cunning it takes to commodify animals in order to think of them in terms of pounds and energy cost rather than as individuals with bodily autonomy and emotional awareness. We would never invent such a brutal system today, it would never make it past market research. Paul McCartney once said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls then everyone would become vegetarian. I don’t think that’s entirely right, but I don’t think it’s possible to justify what happens to any animal on modern farms if you’re capable of seeing them, if even for only a moment, as animal selves with feelings and wants. 

No, other animals aren’t people, but who decided that only people count for anything? Killing another person is wrong, whether it’s the law or not. Is it sometimes justifiable? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it “good” or “right.” Are we justified in killing animals for food? Maybe sometimes. Everyone seems obsessed with some Castaway scenario where they’re forced to eat their only friend (a pig usually) in order to survive. Would I eat a pig to survive? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it “good” or “right.” (Besides, the modern Western world gives us a reality that is the exact opposite of the aforementioned island: we live on an island with an abundance of choices that don’t require animals to suffer and yet we as a society demand more meat and cheese!) 

I also don’t buy in to the idea of purity politics though; ethics are about character and doing the best thing in the given situation, not about calculating how to extract the most utility out of a situation or blindly following a moral code. The best thing to do in a given situation may be to defend myself from someone, or to eat an animal in order to survive so I can once again continue living up to my own ethic. 

Just like the iAnimal videos, what we ask of our supporters and the greater community is to put yourself in the situation of the animal. What is good for them? What is for the “greater good” knowing that human beings starve every day while we feed soy and corn to cows in one of the most inefficient ways to generate food energy? What is moral, and what is justifiable, given that we throw away such huge quantities of food, while continuing to produce more animal products than we know what to do with?

Ethics and politics are lived, not calculated, and as we get better and know better, we should always aim to do better. This is obvious when it comes to other people, and should be obvious to anyone capable of imagining being in the situation of suffering, regardless of species. Is it “better” to kill a rat than a dog? It might be more justifiable, but when the question is of morality, it’s not so easy to answer. Do we want to live in a world where decisions about what’s easy or okay to kill go unquestioned? The answer should be a resounding “No,” but we don’t even get to ask the question. It’s unthinkable to some people, like trying to question the air that we breathe. Shouldn’t we be concerned at this mass failure of imagination? Of generations of people so divorced from the fact that they’re paying to breed and raise animals to be killed weeks later out of pure habit and convenience? Let’s at least give the animals we eat the five minutes it takes to see the world from their eyes. We owe them that much. There’s something truly powerful in a person’s capacity for empathy, something we share with many other animals, even if we often forget.