Opinion Editorial

Ending some rodeo events could restore goodwill

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

The city of Chilliwack has made national headlines recently, but for all the wrong reasons.

In June, animal rights group Mercy for Animals released undercover video showing alleged abuse of chickens by employees of Chilliwack-based company Elite Farm Services at several poultry facilities. B.C. SPCA officials said the footage, which allegedly showed workers throwing and hitting chickens, simulating sexual acts with them and letting some injured birds slowly die on the ground, was “absolutely sickening.”

In May, several employees of dairy farm operator Chilliwack Cattle Sales were sentenced to jail for abusing cows in another shocking animal cruelty case. Undercover video showed employees punching and kicking cows and striking them with canes and chains.

It is unfortunate that, because of these cases, many people across the country may only know the name Chilliwack because of media coverage of animal cruelty.

But now the city finds itself embroiled in another animal welfare controversy, this time involving a dispute over the rodeo at the annual Chilliwack Fair. The Vancouver Humane Society, as part of its campaign against the rodeo, released photos from last year’s fair showing calves with ropes tight around their necks, tongues hanging out, as they are pulled off their feet and thrown to the ground. Steers are shown having their necks twisted until they are bent completely over. The humane society says the photos are evidence of inhumane treatment of the animals and is calling on the fair to eliminate calf-roping and steer-wrestling. The fair’s management has agreed to review the events and its board will vote in September on whether to cancel them for next year’s rodeo.

The issue of animal cruelty at rodeos is not new to B.C. In 2007, the Cloverdale Rodeo dropped calf-roping and several other events following the death of a calf and a long humane society campaign against the rodeo. In 2015, the Luxton Rodeo near Victoria folded, followed by the Abbotsford Rodeo in 2016, both after humane society campaigns.

It’s clear that on the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island at least, rodeos have lost public support. A 2015 survey by polling company Insights West found that 63 per cent of B.C. residents are opposed to rodeos. 

The Chilliwack Fair must weigh up all the arguments and evidence concerning animal welfare at rodeos, including the photographic evidence from last year’s rodeo. It should also take into account the public disquiet over the treatment of rodeo animals that has been so clearly demonstrated by the demise of other local rodeos.

The fair also has an opportunity to undo some of the damage done to Chilliwack’s reputation by those recent high-profile animal cruelty cases. By voting to end calf-roping and steer-wrestling, the fair’s board, would make a strong statement that Chilliwack cares about animal welfare and that it supports the evolution of rodeo toward a more humane form of entertainment. It could show that it supports the kind of family-friendly, non-controversial events that people in the Lower Mainland want, not outdated spectacles of animal abuse.

If, on the other hand, the board votes to retain the two controversial events, it will signal that it doesn’t care what happens to the animals and it doesn’t care what many compassionate Canadians feel about rodeos.

A recent editorial in a local Chilliwack newspaper advised the board to rely on more than emotional observations and “outside complaints” when it makes its decision in September. To take an insular, mind-your-own-business position would make the board, and by extension the community of Chilliwack, look out-of-touch, parochial and backward. Is that the face a 21st century community wants to show visitors, investors and the rest of the country?

The Chilliwack Fair needs to stand up for animals — and for the reputation of its city.

Opinion Editorial

They refused to run an ad about animal cruelty at the rodeo

Article originally published in the National Observer.

Earlier this year, a tiny community newspaper in Iowa won a Pulitzer Prize for taking on big agriculture companies over factory farm pollution.

The Storm Lake Times, which investigated the effects of nitrogen from farm drainage on drinking water in the state, was praised for its “editorials fuelled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

The family that owns the newspaper reportedly lost a few friends and a few advertisers, but never doubted they were doing the right thing.

“We’re here to challenge people’s assumptions and I think that’s what every good newspaper should do,” said one family member at the time.

It’s a great example of a community newspaper showing courage and tenacity in seeking the truth. Some newspapers still uphold the highest standards and values of a free press.

Then there’s the Williams Lake Tribune. In May, I tried to book a full-page ad in the Tribune on behalf of the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS), where I work as the communication director.

The ad, as I informed the Tribune’s publisher via email, would express VHS’s opposition to the Williams Lake Stampede rodeo, which took place between June 29 and July 2. The event may be lesser-known than the famous Calgary Stampede kicking off this weekend, but from the perspective of the VHS, it’s every bit as cruel.

Rejected by the corporate owner

After a couple of days of silence from the publisher, I emailed again and received this reply from an executive at Black Press, the Tribune’s corporate owner:

“In consultation with our lawyer we have determined that we are entitled to decline advertising in the circumstances. The Williams Lake Tribune is a sponsor of the Stampede because it is a significant community event that the paper supports. We appreciate that your society opposes the event and we respect your right to that opinion. You were wise to check with us before commissioning artwork and design.

“While we cannot say definitively that we will decline all possible advertising, we can say, from experience, that anti-Stampede type display advertising that suggests or argues gratuitous cruelty to animals by image or text is unlikely to be accepted by the Williams Lake Tribune at this time.”

Since the words “unlikely to be accepted” seemed to leave the door slightly open, I sent the executive the planned content of the ad to see if it would be acceptable. This included a photograph of the steer-wrestling event taken at last year’s Williams Lake Stampede, accompanied by text stating: “You know in your heart this is not right. Stop cruel rodeo events at the Williams Lake Stampede.”

The executive replied that this would not be accepted.

A matter of public interest

This is not the first time a Black Press newspaper has refused one of VHS’s anti-rodeo ads. In 2015, Abbotsford News rejected a full-page ad opposing the Abbotsford Rodeo (which was ultimately cancelled in 2016). No reason was given for the rejection.

It’s perfectly legal for a newspaper to refuse an ad for any number of reasons. The ad might be libelous or gratuitously offensive or misleading to readers. VHS’s ad did contain a graphic image of a steer being wrestled to ground, but it only showed what a rodeo-goer would typically see at the stampede — the very activity that the Williams Lake Tribune says it promotes and supports.

If the Tribune finds a photo of steer-wrestling offensive and unacceptable, how can it support the event?

It’s also perfectly normal for a newspaper not to agree with an ad it might carry. The Tribune could have made this clear with a disclaimer on the VHS ad or it could have run an editorial explaining its contrary position on rodeo.

But the Tribune chose instead to suppress a legitimate point of view on a matter of public interest. It didn’t trust its readers to make up their own minds about rodeo. Unlike The Storm Lake Times, it didn’t challenge assumptions, “like every good newspaper should do.”

The B.C. and Yukon Community Newspaper Association, of which the Williams Lake Tribune is a member, says part of its mission is to: “Improve standards in the practice of the profession of journalism, and to promote a high standard of conduct and professional ethics in the business of newspaper publishing.”

The Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics guidelines state that, “Defending the public’s interest includes promoting the free flow of information, exposing crime or wrongdoing, protecting public health and safety, and preventing the public from being misled.” (Italics added).

Clearly, ethics matter to journalists and to the public they serve. People still believe that a free press is vital to democracy, that diversity of opinion matters, that newspapers should be courageous defenders of free speech.

What isn’t clear is whether those things matter to the Williams Lake Tribune, which, to my knowledge, has not been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Opinion Editorial

Battery cage ban lacks enforcement tools

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

Ethical Canadian consumers might have been pleased to hear the recent announcement by the National Farm Animal Care Council that the infamous “battery cage” for laying hens is to be phased out.

But while the end of this cruel cage system is welcome, the council’s new codes of practice for hens are far from any guarantee of good animal welfare.

An obvious issue is that egg farmers still have until 2036 before all hens must be out of battery cages. So, for the time being, supermarket shelves will be full of eggs from long-suffering hens that have been crammed into small cages.

By 2036, all hens must be in either cage-free housing or in “enriched” cages. Enriched cages, while bigger than battery cages, still restrict natural behaviours like running, full wing-flapping and flying, and do not permit unrestrained perching and dust-bathing. Even in an enriched cage system that meets the new code requirements, many of the welfare problems inherent in battery cages remain. In short, a cage is a cage. That is why an enriched cage would still not meet the standards required by the B.C. SPCA Certified Program, a third-party animal welfare certification system. Farmers who do opt for enriched caging will be committing to a major investment, guaranteeing these cages will continue to compromise animal welfare for decades.

But perhaps the most serious shortcoming in the new codes relates to inspection and enforcement. The National Farm Animal Care Council itself defines the codes of practice as “nationally developed guidelines” for the care and handling of farm animals. Guidelines are not regulations or laws. The codes refer to “requirements” that farmers “may” be compelled by industry associations to comply with and these requirements “may” be enforceable under federal and provincial legislation.

The codes also list a number of “recommended practices,” which are even less meaningful than code requirements, as they merely “encourage adoption of practices for continual improvement in animal welfare outcomes.” But no one is going to make a farm implement such practices, as the codes state that “…failure to implement them does not imply that acceptable standards of animal care are not met.” In other words, good practice is optional.

In fact, no independent, third-party body inspects egg farms to ensure the requirements under the codes are being met (unless they have signed up to a separate certification program like the B.C. SPCA’s or Certified Organic). It’s still the egg industry policing the egg industry, whatever spin is put on it.

So where does this leave the compassionate consumer who cares about animal welfare? For people who buy eggs, the least inhumane choice remains eggs that are certified organic, which are guaranteed to be cage-free and have the highest welfare standards. Consumers who continue to reject eggs from any cage system will send a strong market signal to parts of the egg industry that may be pinning their hopes on developing enriched cages under the new codes.

The most humane choice for consumers is, of course, to eliminate egg purchases altogether and transition to a plant-based diet. This has become a more feasible and popular option, as an increasing number of plant-based protein sources have rendered eggs unnecessary to a healthy diet. Reduced demand for eggs still means not only fewer hens in cages, but also fewer unwanted male chicks destroyed (by an industry that needs only hens) and fewer “spent hens” being shipped off to slaughter at the end of their lives.

While the end of the battery cage is a welcome victory for those who have long condemned its obvious cruelty, it’s not yet an end to the animal suffering inherent in the egg industry.

Opinion Editorial

Animals used in TV and film production need protection

Article originally published in The Province.

The shocking video of a terrified dog being forced into a pool of churning water on the set for the Hollywood movie A Dog’s Purpose has put the spotlight on the use of animals in film and television production. It’s an issue acutely relevant in B.C., as the provincial government appears willing to allow local productions to use animals from suppliers facing animal cruelty allegations.

In 2016, the producers of the CBS television show Zoo, which was being filmed in Vancouver, was reportedly planning to use animals from Ontario’s controversial Bowmanville Zoo until pressure from the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) convinced CBS to cancel the plan.

PETA had confronted CBS with a shocking viral video showing the zoo’s owner, Michael Hackenberger, allegedly whipping a tiger. Bowmanville Zoo has since closed down and Hackenberger is currently facing animal cruelty charges.

Documents obtained by the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request have revealed that the B.C. government granted a permit to Hackenberger to supply animals to be used in the making of Zoo, despite strong objections from the BC SPCA, which pointed out that Hackenberger was the subject of an animal cruelty investigation by Ontario SPCA.

The B.C. SPCA also informed government officials that the facility where the animals were to be housed on arrival in B.C. had also been the subject of animal cruelty investigations. (The name of the facility has been redacted from the FOI documents.)

Despite these objections and widespread media coverage of the tiger-whipping video, the B.C. government granted Hackenberger a permit to supply 18 animals, including tigers, lions, leopards and baboons to Zoo’s producers. While CBS was shamed by PETA into cancelling the shipment, the provincial government, oblivious to the ethical alarm bells, was happy to see the animals shipped across the country from one captive animal facility facing cruelty allegations to another.

CBS is currently filming another season of Zoo in Vancouver. It is not known if they are using live animals in the production.

These revelations hardly inspire confidence in the provincial government when it comes to protecting animals used in B.C. film and television productions. The same could be said of the industry itself, which took no role in determining whether the animals from Bowmanville should be used or not.

The industry has relied in the past on the presence of representatives of the American Humane Association (AHA) on production sets. But as the BC SPCA pointed out in its objections to Zoo’s plans, the AHA has no legal jurisdiction for animal welfare in Canada.

It’s worth noting that the AHA had a staff member on the set of A Dog’s Purpose, when the dog was thrown in the pool. Perhaps more troubling, the AHA was the subject of a damning 2013 exposé by the Hollywood Reporter, which alleged that the association underreported incidents of animal abuse on television and movie sets. Similar allegations were made in a Los Angeles Times story in 2001. Can the AHA really be relied on to ensure “no animals were harmed” in the productions it monitors?

Even if the safety and welfare of animals can be effectively monitored during production, what happens when the cameras are turned off? Too often, it means that lions, tigers and other exotic animals are returned to their cages at the animal rental agencies to languish until the next job. B.C. is home to several such agencies, which are not subject to regular inspection.

While no one is suggesting banning domestic animals such as cats, dogs and horses from our screens, the entertainment industry needs to guarantee their safety and well-being. But with advances in Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) it is no longer necessary to use captive wild or exotic animals to make movies and television shows. They should be retired to sanctuaries along with any other captive exotic animal that is not part of a genuine conservation program.

When it comes to compromising animal welfare for the sake of entertainment, it’s time to say “cut.”

Opinion Editorial

Trouble in Canada’s dairy industry is good news for cows

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

Canada’s dairy industry is in trouble and that could be good news for cows.  Between 1996 and 2015, per-capita consumption of milk in Canada decreased by 21.5 percent, with similar declines in the United States and Europe.

A key reason for the trend is the rise in market share of dairy alternatives—soy, nut, and other plant-based milks—that consumers are turning to in droves. The American dairy industry, in an obvious move to hobble this competition, is trying to get Congress to help outlaw the use of the word milk in marketing any of the nondairy products. Clearly, the industry is running scared.

And it’s no wonder. Revelations of poor animal welfare and evidence of the environment-damaging practices in the industry have been compounded by scientific studies undermining the health claims for dairy products.

Here in B.C., the horrific animal abuse exposed in 2014 at Chilliwack Cattle Sales, Canada’s biggest dairy operation, shocked consumers. The company, which pleaded guilty and paid a total of S300,000 in fines, was characterized as a bad apple by the B.C. Dairy Association, which stated: “We strongly believe this to not be the norm.”

While it’s impossible to know whether or not such deliberate cruelty has occurred at other B.C. dairy farms, inspection reports from the B.C. Milk Marketing Board found that one in four farms in the province failed to comply with the provincial animal-welfare Code of Practice. During an 18-month period starting in January, 2015, the inspections revealed cases of overcrowding, lame or soiled cattle, tails torn off by machinery, branding and dehorning of calves without pain medication, and other examples of poor welfare.

Beyond criminal cruelty and industry-code violations, animal welfare is routinely compromised through standard practices in dairy farming. Contrary to the images used in dairy-product marketing, most cows are denied access to pasture and are kept indoors. Yet research done at the University of B.C. has found that, guess what, cows like to go outside. Further UBC research suggests the public thinks cows should be allowed outside. But most B.C. dairy cows spend their lives confined indoors.

Another inherent issue is the separation of dairy calves from their mothers. Yet another UBC research study found that the calves experience “a negative emotional state” following the separation. The researcher, Prof. Dan Weary, has stated: “We can’t say that separation is just some instantaneous event that may be painful but doesn’t bother the animal….It does bother the animal. It bothers them enough that their mood state changes for at least a couple days.”

Again, a subsequent study found that consumers don’t like the practice, as Weary summarized: “People are dissatisfied with this idea that we’re doing something which seems very unnatural—taking a baby away from its mother in the first few hours of its life—and that we need to have awful good reasons for doing that.”

In short, just about everything in modern dairy farming raises animal-welfare concerns and the public finds it disturbing. 

Consumers may overlook these issues as necessary evils because they believe dairy products to be essential to human health. But that perception is being rapidly debunked by the latest medical research. One major study found that “higher consumption of milk in women and men is not accompanied by a lower risk of fracture and instead may be associated with a higher rate of death.”

On top off all this, the dairy industry is a significant contributor to climate change, producing about four percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The industry also requires vast amounts of water and has created significant pollution in North AmericaChina, and elsewhere.

Some of the new dairy-free products, such as almond milk, can be resource-intensive but not on the same scale as dairy milk. Newer milks—such as Ripple in the U.S. and Vancouver’s own Veggemo—are made with plentiful peas, giving them a relatively high protein content and an environmentally benign reputation. 

If such alternatives continue to improve and multiply, they are likely to increase their market share at the expense of the dairy industry. If so, it could not only be good news for the cows but also for our health and the environment.