Podcast: Who ensures cruelty laws are followed?

We’ve discussed the laws and regulations in place to protect animals, and the gaps in those regulations that cause animals to suffer. This month we learn: what processes are in place to ensure the regulations are being met?

In the final episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal cruelty, the VHS’s Chantelle Archambault and Amy Morris discuss the processes in place to enfore laws and regulations intended to protect animals from suffering.

Since the time of recording, Animal Justice has released disturbing footage of regulations being violated at a B.C. slaughterhouse called Meadow Valley Meats, which is responsible for brands marketed as “local”, “humane”, and coming from “family farms”. Please take urgent action to call for changes to protect animals from terrible suffering in slaughterhouses in BC and across Canada.

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Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

The difference between abuse and neglect

Chantelle: As part of our series on animal cruelty, we’ve been going over the laws and regulations that are in place to protect animals from suffering, as well as the gaps in those laws and accepted practices in various areas that humans interact with or exploit non-human animals.

We’ve not yet touched on how those laws and regulations are enforced, and that’s what we’ll be covering today.

So to start out with, I’d like to clarify some of the types of cases we’ll be referring to today. When we talk about animal cruelty enforcement, there are:

  • Cases where the suffering is institutional, such as abuse cases for farmed animals;
  • Cases where there’s been purposeful, sadistic abuse of animals by an individual;
  • Cases classified as animal neglect where the person responsible for the animals often had a lack of knowledge or a lack of resources.

I’ll go through a couple examples for some context, but please mind that the details of these cases are disturbing, and we recommend having a plan in place for self-care.

Institutional animal cruelty

One case of institutional cruelty came up in 2017 when Mercy for Animals obtained undercover footage of spent laying hens being cruelly handled and thrown into crates at a farm in Abbotsford. The two companies responsible, Elite Farms in B.C. and an Ontario poultry processor called Sofina Foods Inc., pled guilty to two charges of animal cruelty.

They were only sentenced to a fine of $300,000 and three years probation. Elite Farms was given 10 years to pay the fine because they hadn’t been caught violating regulations before; Sofina foods was given six months because they were a repeat offender. That fine is a drop in the bucket for these massive corporations. There were no limits on them keeping animals, even though the abuse was horrific and on such a massive scale. They simply needed to update their training policies.

Amy: And something to note, since we’re going to be talking about enforcement, there’s both the observation and the gathering of evidence; and then that’s the point where it gets to the court system.

The reason that all of this even got to the court system is that it was observed through undercover footage recorded by an employee who had to bear witness to a significant amount of animal suffering to capture these clips. Having watched them, I’ll say, it disturbed me for a really long time.

This only happened because someone worked to get employed in a low paying job undercover. I can’t imagine how many farms this is happening on where we just don’t have any recorded footage of it.

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely.

Unfortunately, what we end up seeing is that the most widespread suffering is in fact caused by institution level abuse, and yet when those cases do come out, they tend to get very light sentences and the corporations involved can continue to keep animals. Typically, there’s a few employees who are blamed and fired to make the issue seem like it was an individual issue rather than part of a larger institutional problem, even when the company was aware of the abuse.

In this case, there were various news sources reporting either five or six employees fired, including one supervisor, and both the whistleblower and the supervisor who was fired say that they reported the treatment of the chickens and nothing was done until the video footage was leaked publicly.

Individual animal abuse

Chantelle: For an example of individual animal abuse, another really upsetting case that was in the media about a decade ago was the case of Captain the dog in Vancouver.

The person who was supposed to be caring for Captain was Brian Whitlock, and he brutally harmed and killed him. Captain’s body was found in a dumpster. He was emaciated and had signs of severe physical abuse. That’s an example of truly sadistic behavior toward an animal.

Brian was sentenced to a lifetime ban on owning animals, but only a 60-day jail term and three years’ probation. I think that’s a testament to how little animals’ lives are valued.

And then when he got out, he eventually went on to murder his mother just a year later.

That’s a really extreme and tragic case, but it does show the violence link – people who harm animals are often the same people who harm humans.

Amy: Certainly these cases of intentional abuse just don’t see the degree of sentencing that connects to that level of violence or the likelihood of violence that’s happening to others in that person’s life.

Individual animal neglect

Amy: Individual animal abuse cases are fairly infrequent. Most of the cases that end up getting reported to enforcement agencies tend to have to do with different types of neglect. Those vary from hoarding to animals in extreme heat and cold, but can also include animals that aren’t being treated for veterinary conditions.

These cases are certainly more nuanced and complex because the people don’t necessarily have intent and they may be facing financial barriers as well as systemic marginalization that’s leading to them not being able to care for the animals in their care. They require a more nuanced kind of approach to enforcement.

Chantelle: Yes, that’s certainly the case. When we see the term animal cruelty in the media related to individuals, the public response tends to advocate for the harshest sentence possible across the board, but different cases need different treatment.

For instance, jail time would be more appropriate for a case of someone who’s deliberately abusing animals, whereas maybe a restorative justice approach would be a better option for someone who had a lack of knowledge or a lack of resources to meet their animals’ needs.

Amy: Two factors that can play a really significant role in those neglect cases are:

  • Normalization: seeing something get gradually worse every day so it seems normal;
  • Minimization: feeling like something isn’t so bad because other factors may be worse in someone’s life.

The way to address that way of thinking is really about providing a person an opportunity to learn and see things differently, rather than punishing them, which just ends up inducing shame and really doesn’t change their behavior when they inevitably have animals in their lives later on.

We can get into seeing a cycle of this situation repeating because it hasn’t been adequately addressed.

Puppy mills, kitten mills, and breeding

Amy: When it comes to enforcement, both the law enforcement piece and the court system, and proactive monitoring, they really differ significantly by species and by province.

I’ll use an example puppy and kitten mills.

  • In New Brunswick, there’s been legislation in place that regulates dog and cat breeding since 2010. These regular inspections are funded by fees that the businesses themselves have to pay. There’s a regulatory system in place for ensuring that the people who are breeding animals are taking good care of those animals.
  • Prince Edward Island has something similar regulating pet establishments.
  • Provinces like Manitoba and British Columbia at one point in time enacted clauses that allow for regulation to happen of this industry, but it was never activated, which means there’s no actual protections for animals beyond the laws that already apply to all animals. Those laws are only enforced based on complaints. The laws are quite broad and that allows for vastly different interpretations

Industry specific regulations that are proactively enforced are meaningful because they have prescriptive requirements for the minimum ways animals should be cared for.

Without those minimum requirements, it’s left up to the interpretation of the individuals who are interpreting the law. That could be the breeder themselves; that could be the law enforcement person looking at a complaint. They interpret the law based on their personal upbringing, their values, maybe the amount of effort required to make an assessment, maybe the amount of resources that the organization has that’s doing the enforcement.

There’s endless examples, but one that I like to use is a standard that requires water be available at all times. A standard like that is easy to identify if it’s being met. You can say, yes, it’s being met, or no, there’s a violation. And then if there’s a violation, you can say, you need to do this specific thing.

But if there’s no standard in place and there’s no water on display for an animal, a person could argue that they provide water once a day and that’s sufficient to meet the animal’s needs. And then if there was a case, it would be left up to the court to decide if it’s okay or not for animals to have water just once a day. This includes really costly endeavors getting to the point of the court system. It involves gathering evidence and producing experts to testify to the minimum accepted amount of water an animal needs, as well as to prove that the animal was in fact dehydrated.

If you think about your average RCMP officer or enforcement officer from an animal welfare organization, they’re not trained medical practitioners. They’re not equipped to gather evidence in the field that would say whether animal is dehydrated or not; aside from giving the animal a bowl of water and seeing what happens.

By the time they leave and come back with a warrant to seize an animal that they believe is dehydrated to bring to a vet to assess for dehydration, the operator would have provided the animal water; because they would have essentially predicted that this was all going to happen.

And then suddenly, the person comes back with a warrant and they go, oh no, I’ve provided water. So this kind of pattern can happen over and over for years where an enforcement officer shows up, no water’s being provided, and then suddenly a week later, the enforcement officer comes back, water’s there.

And that can happen for all species of animals that are kept for profit, where there’s no standards for good animal welfare being proactively audited for. I use this one example of water, but you can think it applies to the housing, it applies to pretty much any way animals are cared for and kept.

Chantelle: Definitely. And ultimately this means that people can breed and sell cats and dogs with no requirements or monitoring. That leads to animals being sold with heritable diseases – diseases that they can pass on to their offspring if they have any – and treatable illnesses. When these types of cases are reported, there’s little that can be done because the person selling the animal often doesn’t provide the purchasers with an address or they provide a false address.

In some states in the United States, there are “lemon laws” that help protect the buyer and ensure that the person selling the animal is looking out for their well-being. But unfortunately, nothing like that has been instituted in Canada.

Amy: It’s pretty frustrating, particularly with the number of calls that come into SPCAs and humane societies about these kinds of cases where someone bought an animal from a rescue or a breeder and then they ended up very sick or they ended up having a disease.

Farmed animals

Amy: In general, when it comes to industries that raise animals for product or sale, including farmed animals and puppy and kitten breeders, if we speak about the province of B.C., the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act does allow for access during ordinary business hours to enter any premises other than a dwelling where animals are kept for sale or exhibition for the purpose of determining whether any animal is in distress on the premises.

The RCMP can enforce the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, but they end up referring people back to the BC SPCA who will only be going to these kinds of facilities if someone calls in and says there’s something wrong there.

Chantelle: That brings us to talk about animals who are farmed for food and clothing.

On-Farm monitoring varies by province. As we alluded to earlier, different provinces have different types of enforcement agencies.

  • In Ontario, animal cruelty investigations are a governmental responsibility, and the inspectors are appointed through the provincial government.
  • In Manitoba, investigations are conducted by one of the province’s animal protection officers, and they include employed and contracted staff.
  • In British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick, protection of farmed animals is enforced by the SPCA.

Amy: In B.C., cruelty investigations are performed by the BC SPCA when a cruelty complaint is made.

There’s no active monitoring programs on farms led by any kind of third party.

Third party monitoring is the idea that an independent entity is responsible for making assessments as to the well-being of animals. It’s tricky to accomplish the idea of an “independent entity” because they have to not have any kind of bias.

So let’s say the government is either conducting inspections or they’re contracting an entity to conduct inspections. The government could give directions to them of how strict or loose to be with the assessments based on the government’s own interest in maintaining public trust of their abilities to enforce the laws.

If farm industry groups themselves try to contract an “independent” entity, that entity is beholden to the desires of those groups.

One way it could work is for an entity like the SPCA, who has no specific interest in public trust and does have a specific interest in animal welfare, to manage an agency that does the monitoring. But the information for the audits wouldn’t be publicly available because they’re a private entity.

The best case scenario is an agreement between industry, government, nonprofit or SPCA, and an independent contractor that would allow audits to occur and the results to be made publicly available. The reason this isn’t happening now is that this kind of system doesn’t work in favor of the farmed animal industry or government.

Chantelle: Absolutely. Just a little background on what’s going on now. Last year, the BC SPCA announced that they would be conducting 12 spot checks of farms per year with a veterinarian and also an SPCA officer and a Ministry of Agriculture staffer as a pilot project. After they announced this, they were met with industry backlash and from the BC Cattleman’s Association in particular.

I think that’s really interesting to note, given that more people are increasingly wanting transparency about what happens to animals on farms, and that includes people who purchase and consume animal products. I believe that should leave those consumers wary about what the industry has to hide.

Amy: And certainly there’s so much opportunity to find a middle ground. And what we’re seeing is an unwillingness to find a middle ground and a solid commitment to having no eyes on farms.

Chantelle: Yeah, definitely.

“Ag gag” laws

Chantelle: Several provinces have what’s known among animal advocates as ag gag laws, which specifically prevent non-approved individuals from going onto farm properties and seeing or documenting what happens; for instance, journalists investigating cruelty claims on a farm.

In other provinces, public awareness of what happens on farms is limited by general trespassing laws, which effectively make it illegal for advocates or journalists to capture footage of cruelty.

Any footage that’s obtained illegally, which is basically all footage, is non-admissible in court, even if there’s blatant evidence of cruelty and animal suffering.

Amy: I find this so wild, that government and industry essentially collude in great length to hide from the public what’s happening on farms.

For example, in B.C., a group of advocates sat in on Excelsior hog farm in Abbotsford and took photos of sick injured and dead pigs, and four of those advocates were put on trial for exposing suffering on that farm.

But because further evidence couldn’t be obtained legally, no action has been taken against the farm at this time. That’s pretty shocking because the footage that was recorded undercover is accessible, and it’s horrific to watch. It’s honestly some of the most disturbing footage that I’ve come across of pigs.

That footage was provided to an enforcement entity and yet when they go on site, they don’t find any violations of the law because their presence is expected and things have been cleaned up. So then they can’t gather evidence to pursue charges, even though it’s obvious from the footage that the animals were suffering in really egregious ways.

Chantelle: Absolutely. That’s why so many animal advocates, including the VHS, have been calling for mandatory video monitoring on farms, which would deter the industry from being able to hide animal suffering.

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Farmed animal transport and auctions

Amy: It’s such a hard topic to talk about, but we can’t talk about farmed animals on farms without thinking about farmed animals in other contexts.

Maybe life on a farm is okay, maybe it’s not. But there’s other aspects like transport, going to auction facilities and slaughter that have really big impacts on farmed animals’ lives.

When it comes to the enforcement of transport and slaughter, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for responding to complaints.

They typically respond with fines, even for egregious suffering, and they don’t refer cases for legal proceedings that would involve any kind of jail penalties. So they just continually use what they call “Administrative Monetary Penalties“.

They do have veterinarians that are attending at slaughter facilities, typically where animals are unloaded or slaughtered; but despite animals, dying and being found dead during the transport process or having limbs torn off, really awful things, no animal cruelty charges are being recommended by these veterinarians.

I’ll also speak a little bit about auctions. Anecdotally, if you talk to anyone who’s been to an auction, they’ll tell you it’s a place where you can observe significant animal distress. And sometimes what’s considered critical distress, where an animal is essentially close to death and really in an acute state. They don’t have any kind of monitoring in place.

We hear these accounts of animals arriving or being sold in really poor states, to the degree that they should never have been transported; but there’s no one who’s attending these events, tracking the sellers, going back to their facilities, checking them out, recommending charges of animal cruelty.

Essentially, no one wants to go to them because they know how bad it is. So it’s this huge gap in the enforcement of animal cruelty, legislation.

Changing attitudes & behaviours

Amy: I want to pause here and say that thinking and talking about animal protection and law enforcement can be pretty depressing. The systems are not set up to protect animals. While legislation does play a role, the most important thing is the volume of the public who are demanding better care for animals.

And so the unfortunate reality we’re seeing is that the average Canadian consumer doesn’t regard for animal welfare when it comes to the products they’re buying.

To change laws and policies, to get this proactive monitoring that we’re talking about with cameras in slaughter facilities, as well as funding for enforcement, big changes are needed in the attitudes of the public to actually push the government to prioritize these issues.

Without public support, politicians tend to see these issues essentially as niche.

And so when we meet with provincial government politicians and bureaucrats about issues that require better laws and proactive monitoring, whether that is sled dogs or animals in captivity or farmed animals, the most common response we get back is that it’s just not a priority. They’re not hearing from enough people and they’re not being swayed. So these issues seem to drop to the bottom of the pile

In their eyes, there’s an opportunity cost; if they keep things the way they are, nothing happens. And so they’re not facing some of those kind of incentives to make a different decision.

Chantelle: And that’s the most challenging part of advocating for animal well-being. The biggest and the most important thing we can do to improve enforcement is really to be active citizens, both with our peers and with politicians at the local, provincial, and federal level. Coming from a place of compassion and understanding, if every person is able to connect with and motivate five others to care about the value of animals and their capacity to suffer, we can really start to see real change.

Amy: Absolutely.

Next episode

This concludes our series on animal cruelty. Join us next week as we begin a new series on animal well-being with the topic “Is my pet happy?”


Podcast: Live horse exports

Every few weeks, shipments of gentle draft horses are packed three or four to a crate and loaded onto planes for the long, stressful journey overseas for slaughter.

Horses shipped for slaughter can go 28 hours without food, water, or rest; they can fall during takeoff or landing; and receiving countries have no obligation to report back to Canada on the conditions of horses once they arrive. Organizations and advocates both here in Canada and abroad have shared opposition to live horse export, import, and slaughter. To tell us more about the live horse export industry, the VHS is honoured to welcome a leader in this advocacy work, Sinikka Crosland.

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Executive Director of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition

Sinikka is the Executive Director of The Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, a registered non-profit society dedicated to the protection of horses since 2004.

Note: Horse meat is eaten in Canada and various countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. While today’s discussion mentions Japan as the main importer of live horses from Canada, we want to focus on Canada’s role in this issue and share how we can end our contribution to the pain and suffering of animals. This written discussion has been edited for length.

Becoming an advocate for horses

Photo: Canadian Horse Defence Coalition

Chantelle: This month we’ll be discussing the live horse export industry and the work being done to stop it. Organizations and advocates both here in Canada and abroad have shared opposition to live horse exports, imports, and slaughter.

To tell us more about this industry and share about the welfare concerns for these horses, we’re honored to welcome leader on the Canadian side of this advocacy work, Sinikka Crosland. Sinikka is the Executive Director of the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition, a registered nonprofit society dedicated to the protection of horses since 2004.

Sinikka, thank you so much for being here today.

Sinikka: Thank you for having me.

Amy: Can you share about your history advocating for horses?

Sinikka: Sure; it can go back a long way, back to childhood. I loved horses and all animals.

I remember being in grade four, and I loved to write. I would write horse stories every day and hand them in to my teacher.

And then finally she said to me, “Can you please not write any horse stories for the whole month of April? Write other things. I love your writing.”

And so it was hard to do, but that’s exactly what I did. I then devoted my month of April to writing about dogs and cats and foxes and cows and pigs and everything else.

So then back to May 1st, I started writing about horses again. I was one of those little kids who just had a fascination for horses. I love all animals. Horses are not my favorite animal by any means because I love them all.

So then from childhood, on it went. When I had started a family already, I got into horse rescue. And this was through a neighborhood group when we lived in West Bank, B.C. We got involved in rescuing horses there and being involved in some other rescues at the time.

And then the PMU (pregnant mare urine) industry came along, where pregnant mares are hooked up to urine collecting devices, collecting estrogen for postmenopausal women.

The foals are the byproduct of that industry. So we discovered that there are a lot of foals out there on the market. We started to go to auctions bid against the meat buyers, and we’d find homes for the foals.

That industry kind of tanked after a while. It’s still out there, but it’s not as prevalent. But there are lots and lots of horses out there needing homes; and I just carried on working on that level.

And so eventually, Canadian Horse Defense Coalition was formed in about 2004. We became a registered nonprofit and things grew to a national level, with even celebrity involvement in recent years.

Amy: That’s amazing.

Chantelle: Yeah. That’s really amazing and we’re really grateful for you to be sharing your expertise today, and I’m sure our audience is as well.

What is the live horse export industry?

Photo: Canadian Horse Defence Coalition

Chantelle: When we talk about the live horse export industry, this is a part of the animal use industry that sort of dwells in the shadows. I think a lot of Canadians aren’t aware that this goes on. Could you give a little bit of background for folks who don’t know what the live horse export industry is and how it works?

Sinikka: The live horse export industry is the process of shipping young draft horses, about between one and a half to three years old, to Japan for slaughter for human consumption.

If people don’t know what draft horses are, the Belgians and Percherons are 16 to 17 hands high, which is somewhere around 64 to 68 inches at the shoulder, and they weigh up to 2000 pounds. So these are big horses.

Canada sends these horses for a delicacy called basashi, which is like a horse sushi, sliced thinly, often served with garlic and soy sauce and served in high-end restaurants. These are very expensive dishes for people to buy.

Chantelle: Thanks so much for that background.

Where do horses shipped for slaughter come from?

Photo: Canadian Horse Defence Coalition

Chantelle: A lot of people think of horses as companion animals, so hearing that horses are being raised and shipped for food can be confusing when folks first hear about it.

Could you help clear up some of that confusion and talk about how horses come to be in this industry?

Sinikka: The horses are basically purpose bred for this industry. There are only a handful of breeders/feedlot operators who do this business in Canada.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency website says that the horses must originate in Canada. But through access to information, we found out that has changed. So horses from the United States can now cross the border if they have been raised for this purpose and come across to Canada to be shipped from here.

It’s something certainly that our American allies would be interested in hearing about too, that their horses are also coming up to Canada to then be shipped for slaughter.

Amy: I’m curious, does the US have laws about the horses being shipped or is it just a convenience thing that they’re coming into Canada to be shipped?

Sinikka: Right now in the United States, there is no domestic horse slaughter going on. But the feedlot operators down there are quite happy to ship them across the border to Canada and even to Mexico for slaughter elsewhere.

Horses suffer when shipped on long journeys to slaughter

Photo: Canadian Horse Defence Coalition

Amy: What are some of the welfare concerns for these horses who are being shipped for slaughter?

Sinikka: The welfare concerns are many.

It starts with the feed lot, the way that they’re born onto the feed lot.

If something goes wrong and a horse needs veterinary care, farrier care with bad hooves and that type of thing, basically in a feedlot, it’s nonexistent. These problems that can happen are often ignored.

There’s no weather protection in many feed lots, so foals that are born in the winter or early spring can freeze to death.

So you have the feedlot problems and you’ve got the transport problems. Now we’re looking at long distance transport from the United States. That’s another problem where horses are crammed into trucks and shipped from the United States.

And then once they get here, they come to a quarantine feedlot in Canada where horses are kept in pre-export isolation for 45 days. The horses from the United States have to be kept an additional six months. The feedlot situation, as I’ve mentioned, is horrible, and that’s extra time that they must be kept in that situation.

So then at the end of that time that they’re the pre-export isolation, they’re taken to be transported to one of three airports in Canada: Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg is where they’re flown out.

There they are put into small wooden crates. They can often stand for a long time on the tarmac waiting for the crates to be ready to be put onto the plane. Three to four large draft horses are crammed into a single crate.

There’s often a problem with headroom because these are tall horses. Their heads can come in contact with the netting at the top. And this is totally a violation of the Health of Animals regulations that their heads come into contact with, with the netting at the top.

So then they have this journey, which can take anywhere from 10 to 13, 14 hours. They can’t lie down, but they do sometimes fall down. And then you have a downed horse in a crate with other horses.

There’s no way of anyone being able to help a horse in distress. You can imagine if you have 30 crates in an aircraft, usually what they send is between 90 and 120 horses per shipment. So there you have them all crammed in there, and how can they be helped?

There have been horses that have been dead on arrival or wounded, injured, that type of thing.

They reach Japan, they’re unloaded at that end, and they still have the journey to the feedlot at that point. Right now in Canada, the regulation is 28 hours they’re allowed to go without food, water, and rest. And that’s from the beginning when they leave the feedlot here to the time that they arrive.

28 hours is a long time, but if there are any delays—which we have seen through access of information that there have been delays—then that period of time can go beyond 30 or more hours.

The other issue is once they arrive, we have no jurisdiction over there anymore. They’re at the mercy of the laws and policies at the other end

Amy: It sounds like there’s a number of aspects of their welfare that get compromised throughout that whole process.

Next steps to end the live horse export industry

Photo: Canadian Horse Defence Coalition

Amy: The federal government committed to ending this industry and their campaign platform and the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Minister of Agriculture that was sent in December 2021. So what would you like to see as the next steps to end this industry?

Sinikka: I would really like to see the Prime Minister put pressure on the agriculture Minister to do as he ordered. It’s not a case of, “Here, have a look at this and see what you think about it.” It’s, “I want you to end this,” and yet there has been nothing but delay after delay. The excuses just go on and on. It appears to me that this is a low priority for them.

I would like to see more pressure put on the government. This can come a variety of ways, through more public awareness, more media involvement.

Now that we know there’s a connection to the United States horses coming from there, it would be very handy to have American media cover this and put pressure on the Canadian government.

How you can help horses

Photo: Canadian Horse Defence Coalition

Chantelle: Something we always ask is what steps the folks listening at home can take to help.

Right now, we know there’s a really important window of opportunity to take action on this issue. Could you share with listeners how folks at home can advocate for an end to the live horse export industry?

Sinikka: There are quite a few things that people can do. Right now there’s an active petition, Petition E-4190, sponsored by MP Alistair MacGregor and initiated by singer, songwriter, animal lover, Jann Arden.

If people go to, it’s her website and she’s working hard to raise awareness. There are steps that people can take there: they can write to their MP; they can sign that petition.

People can talk to their MPs too, they can make appointments to go in and visit with their MPs, or write them letters, or phone them up. Tell them that this was a promise that this industry should be stopped.

They can write letters to editors of their local papers. This is a way of letting people in the community know who may not even have heard of this industry, and who will hear about it and be quite appalled by it. That would be a way of encouraging other people to go to Jann’s website and find out how to sign the petition.

And with all this pressure being put on the government, we can see that that would really help.

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. This is a really important opportunity to make a change right now for animals who are suffering and to advocate directly to your decision makers. So thank you so much for sharing that information Sinikka.

And as we’ve mentioned before, a shift toward plant-based foods is needed worldwide to decrease the demand for industrial animal agriculture. So you can make a difference standing up for animals every time you sit down to choose a meal.

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Photo: Canadian Horse Defence Coalition

Chantelle: As always, we know this is a really heavy topic for folks listening, but it’s so valuable for people to learn and share about it so that we can all work together and make a difference for these animals. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Sinikka.

Sinikka: You’re very welcome. I appreciate being here and spreading the word.

Chantelle: We really appreciate having you, and for those of you listening, we hope you’ll join us next month as we wrap up our series on animal cruelty with a discussion on how all these laws we’ve been talking about are enforced. We’ll see you next time.

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Podcast: Adapting to the holidays as a vegan

It’s the holiday season, and many celebrations at this time of year focus on food!

More and more people are adding compassion to their festive meals by opting out of animal-based products and ingredients. In this special episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault discuss their experiences adapting to the holidays after going vegan.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Preparing for a plant-based holiday

Chantelle: It’s the holiday season, so we wanted to talk about our experience adapting to the holidays after going vegan and maybe inspire others who are thinking of trying a plant-based holiday for the first time, or who are thinking of new plant-based ways of celebrating.

Read more: 10 tips for starting a plant-based diet

So let’s jump right in. How was your experience adapting to the holidays after going vegan?

Amy: Making my own food or if I have a holiday where I’m just spending it with vegan friends, that’s easy.

But the times that I first encountered holidays with extended family were pretty tricky to navigate. I really had to think through what my strategy was going to be in advance.

The first thing that I did was to set some clear expectations with my close family to say, it’s important for me to have food available for me at this event, and I really want to appreciate that food. So there’s different ways to do that. Essentially, I’m happy to go to the grocery store and buy things for myself, and this was at someone else’s house, so prepare my own food either before and bring it over or, or if there’s space for me to prepare it at the house.

And by doing that, I think I really set myself up for success because I wasn’t depending on others to accommodate my needs.

It also created the space for them to offer up to prepare some dishes that I could eat.

I’ve seen that play out a few different ways. At one holiday celebration, there was a meal that got provided for me, and it was very interesting because essentially I was expected to eat it and take it home with me because that’s how much my family was not interested in even thinking about a plant-based diet.

I think that speaks to the adaptation that can be required, but also the importance of opening it up to conversation.

Sharing the love

Chantelle: Absolutely.

I was actually really fortunate. I think my experience is a little bit different because I have not spent any holidays with extended family since going vegan, so it’s been pretty insular for me. My immediate family is very accommodating, which I’m really lucky about.

I think the best part for me has been, bringing my baked goods and being able to share them. People were very welcoming about it, even if they were hesitant at first.

Amy: I love that. I definitely have done that as well.

With another family that I spent holidays with, the approach that I took was, I will make dishes to share. I brought all the ingredients over, or in some cases, prepared some things in advance, so there were two types of stuffing.

And what was nice about that is everyone was sort of motivated by the idea of there being like novelty and different things to try, and so everyone was willing to try the dishes that I brought.

I think that was a good testament to the fact that plant-based eating can be a transition for people. Making dishes that you know, you know are going to be tasty and sharing that is a really nice way to have people start to shift the way they think about what plant-based food tastes like.

Read more: Adapting meals to be plant-based

Plant-based holiday favourites

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. And plant-based stuffing is delicious.

Amy: Oh yes. In terms of what I put into it, I like to use a good bread, like a vegan sourdough or whole grain, then mix that up with sweet potato and some potato and carrots, lots of herbs and rosemary, you can put cranberries in it and things like that.

It almost comes out like a roast.

Chantelle: That sounds so lovely. It has that holiday feel and it speaks to how much our celebrations tend to revolve around food and how much this is an opportunity to share our own plant-based recipes with others who are vegan and are also not vegan and thinking of adding more plant-based foods into their diets.

What’s your favorite plant-based holiday treat?

Amy: I’ve experimented so much with a lot of different things. I think the foods that I have a lot of fun making are things that maybe you would traditionally put dairy in.

Making something like a pumpkin pie is so much tastier than even a store-bought one that would maybe have dairy, and serving it with coconut whipped cream made with a whipped cream dispenser. The novelty of the experience as well of having really fresh coconut whipped cream makes the pumpkin pie that much more delicious.

Chantelle: That sounds fantastic. Coconut whipped cream is also amazing.

Amy: How about yourself?

Chantelle: I really liked adapting my childhood recipes to be plant-based.

When I was younger, we used to make Sweet Marie bars, which are rice crisp cereal, peanut butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and I’ve now replaced the butter with vegan margarine and put a plant-based chocolate on top. And that is so delicious.

I also make chocolate coconut macaroons. They’re so good.

For me it’s about finding those nostalgic flavors, and adapting them has been actually super easy. I wrote an article for our PlantUniversity platform about replacing animal-based ingredients with plant-based ingredients in a way that is very simple and sustainable.

Read more: Tips for vegan baking

Tips for a first-time vegan holiday

Amy: What advice would you give to someone having their first vegan holiday?

Chantelle: I would say find plant-based versions of the foods you already love.

There are more and more products available to find those plant-based versions of foods you love.

If you’re cooking homemade, it’s so much easier. So for instance, that stuffing you made sounds incredible. You can make roast veggies. There’s so many versions of a seitan roast online that you can find and incorporate those nostalgic flavors.

I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I think the best part is that you can also celebrate what you’re gaining; you’re adding all this love and care and compassion into your meal.

Read more: Tips for a plant-based holiday

What advice would you give?

Amy: I think there’s so much that gets complicated around holidays. I know that when we talk about holiday, it looks very different for every person. You might be spending it alone. You might be spending it with a huge group of people.

I would say overall, be kind to yourself, set reasonable expectations so that you don’t get stressed out or frustrated.

Focus on what experience you want to have. If you want to be spending time making food and en enjoying making food, do that. And you know, whether it’s you eating it or you sharing it, have it be that the experience itself is part of the joy. Maybe trying a new recipe or adapting one.

On the other hand, if it’s stressful to try to think about all of that, and maybe even like, you know, you feel you’re missing some of the dishes that you’re going to be surrounded by, find some kind of treat or something like that, that makes you feel good. That way you can still have that feeling of celebration in your own way.

Read more: Vegan winter desserts

Podcast: Animals used in research, teaching, and testing

What do you picture when you think of animals in science?

Perhaps you picture a researcher in the field studying the migratory patterns of wildlife. Perhaps you see a veterinary student learning to administer vaccines to a dog. Perhaps you picture a rabbit in a lab, eyes reddened and irritated from toxicity testing. In Canada there are many different uses of animals in research, teaching, and testing, ranging from noninvasive methods to some of the worst suffering animals endure. In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal cruelty, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault discuss the various ways animals are used in science, protections in place for these animals, and how you can help.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Overview of animals used in research, teaching, and testing

A pig leaning against the bars of a cage in a research facility.
Roger Kingbird / We Animals Media

Chantelle: To start out, Amy, could you give us an overview of some of the uses of animals in science in Canada?

Amy: Animals are used in research, teaching and testing. Usually we talk about these as a group. I’ll start by talking about the ways animals are used in research. I want to preface this discussion recognizing that people come from a variety of backgrounds. We know there’s been human medical innovation that has involved animals in the process of how we’ve gotten to where we are today.

But we at Vancouver Humane Society are of the mind, based on all the available information we have, that we’re at a place now in society where innovation can move past animal use and research, teaching, and testing, and really be even more effective.

For a long time, we’ve had the three R’s, which have been advocated for for many years, which are replacement, refinement and reduction, as it relates to this area of research, teaching, and testing. But although these are spoken about, it still seems to be common practice for institutions and people involved in them to do what’s always been done rather than to consider innovation. The sad reality of this is that it’s costing billions of dollars, and more importantly, millions of animal lives unnecessarily.

Categories of animal-based science

A purpose-bred beagle leaning against the bars of a kennel at a veterinary school
Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Amy: We’ll highlight alternatives later on in the podcast, but I just want to start off with some facts about where things are right now. We know animal use can range from research with the intent to improve animal wellbeing to medical research for human benefit.

Universities have research divisions that include animals. These range from mild experiments, sometimes for the benefit of the animals, to extremely invasive experiments. And this research is managed through what are called animal care committees, where a group of individuals meet to decide whether and how the research can proceed. All these universities report their research data to an entity called the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC).

We’ll talk more about them later, but essentially, more than three and a half million animals were used by institutions that were accredited by the CCAC in 2021. It’s a huge number of animals.

That breaks down into five different categories.

We have studies of a fundamental nature in science relating to essential structures or functions, which is kind of a, a broad category that’s more than 50% of all animals used by CCAC accredited institutions.

Chantelle: This is also called basic research and it’s designed to find out more about the fundamentals about things like animals’ behavior, biology, and physiology. It can range from studying migratory patterns of wild animals, to studying the heart rate of Steller sea lions in captivity, to studying the effects of caffeine consumption on the brains of mice.

So it’s really a wide range of experiments and research.

Amy: Absolutely. Then the other 50% break down into:

  • Studies for medical purposes, including veterinary medicine that relate to human or animal diseases or disorders;
  • Studies for regulatory testing of products for the protection of humans, animals, or the environment;
  • Studies for the development of products or appliances for human or veterinary medicine and education;
  • Training of individuals in post-secondary institutions and facilities. That could be something like training a veterinary student to administer a vaccine.

So it’s quite broad, the many uses of animals.

Categories of invasiveness in animal experiments

A rabbit poking their nose through the bars of a cage in a laboratory

And one other way that they can be categorized is the categories of invasiveness. The CCAC has broken these down into five categories, typically labeled A, B, C, D, E.

The first one is experiments on invertebrates or on live isolates. They just don’t track these animals at all. We have no idea how many invertebrates are being tested on, and what kinds of experiments are being done from there.
The next is experiments which cause little or no discomfort or stress to animals. These are broad terms and there’s different opinions on what little or no discomfort or stress looks like. 36% of animals used in 2021 fall into that category.
And then it gets more invasive where it’s minor stress or pain of a short duration. That’s 28% of animals used in 2021.
And then it goes towards animals who are experiencing moderate to severe distress or discomfort. That’s 33% of animals used in 2021. So when we’re looking at that 3 million number, that means at least a million animals are in that category.
The next one is procedures which cause severe pain near at or above the pain tolerance threshold of unanesthetized conscious animals. And that number’s fairly low, 3% of animals. But that actually represents 115,000 animals in 2021 that had to endure that level of suffering.

Chantelle: It’s already so concerning to hear that research is allowed to cause such a severe level of pain in animals, and again, I want to emphasize when we think about those types of testing, research, and teaching, we’re talking about huge numbers of animals being used and reported to the CCAC. It’s really enormous amounts of suffering going on.

In the most invasive experiments, the animals used most frequently were fishes, mice, and rats. Other animals used for testing include dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs; the same species many people consider to be part of their families who we know to be capable of love and complex social bonds, fear and pain.

Canadian Council on Animal Care

A breeder rat for a medical research and testing facility
Roger Kingbird / We Animals Media

Chantelle: Now that we have that context for how animals are used in science, Amy, could you run us through a little bit more about what the CCAC is? What are some of the processes and laws in place to protect the animals used in science? And what are the limitations on protections for animals?

Amy: The CCAC, as I mentioned, is the Canadian Council on Animal Care. This is essentially an entity that is a non-governmental, non-profit type organization.

They don’t have any regulatory authority. All the institutions that are working with them are doing it out of a desire to be accredited.

They provide minimum ethical standards and required guidelines for the use and care of animals. In science, it is a requirement to get a Certificate of GAP (Good Animal Practice) in Canada. If an institution is going to receive federal funding for animal based products, they’ll have to get that certification.

Institutions that import animals to a lab environment also need to be in good standing with the CCAC.

I spoke a little bit about animal care committees before. To provide more context about what those are, universities have these in place and the CCAC guidelines dictate who needs to be on those animal care committees. They’re made up of researchers, chair and members of the public. They don’t dictate how the member of the public needs to be identified.

And that’s such a broad term, right? Because a member of the public could have a variety of thoughts and opinions on how animals could and should be used.

Every university does it differently. Some might post the position publicly. A more common route is that the existing committee members be asked to reach out to their networks and try to find someone who might be willing to be involved. They can’t have a conflict of interest, so it can’t be a spouse; that needs to be arm’s length.

There is a time commitment to it and it is an unpaid volunteer position. The role is pretty extensive; they’re reviewing protocols, renewals for protocols, of how and when animals can be used. There’s also amendments sometimes to protocols; you get maybe one to three projects a month to review. People will do maybe a few years of this kind of role and then move on, and they need to find more people to get involved.

At UBC for example, there’s one committee for all animal care projects, and then they distribute different protocols out depending on the number of members that there are. The members of the public are one of several committee members. It’s a great way to get involved in advocating for animals in a meaningful way.

People can reach out to universities directly to find out more about their selection process. It’s also a way to really deeply get an understanding of what it looks like to have different research and teaching and testing in universities.

Chantelle: Absolutely.

And that being said about all those requirements, it’s not a legal requirement to have CCAC accreditation. So there’s private institutions that are not CCAC accredited that also conduct research.

That’s unregulated in Canada outside of the Criminal Code and provincial animal protection laws. I don’t know of any cases that have been put forward for animal cruelty charges in Canada related to animal use in research. Employees are typically in an uncomfortable power hierarchy, so they wouldn’t be likely to report poor conditions, even if they aren’t happy with the way animals are cared for or are treated. There’s also agreements about nondisclosure and confidentiality that would make it more difficult to advocate for animals that are being kept in research and testing institutions.

You can take a look at the list of CCAC institutions on their website, and you can see that most of those are universities.

Toxicity testing

Two rabbits in a lab
Roger Kingbird / We Animals Media

So now that we have a little bit of background on oversight and laws, we can delve a little deeper into what progress is being made to change the laws. One change on the table right now has to do with toxicity testing.

Amy: Yeah, this is a really interesting one because several years ago in 2015, Bill S-214 was introduced in parliament to legally phase out toxicity testing on cosmetic ingredients in Canada, so testing on animals for essentially cosmetic purposes.

It made it through Senate and then to the second reading of the House, which is very far along. It just needed one more reading to pass; and Parliament ended before it could receive that third reading. The reason that was even worse timing is that the bill already had support from all parties and from the cosmetics industry.

A letter that was submitted by Cosmetics Alliance Canada to the Senate and and to the House shared that animal testing to support the sale of cosmetics is no longer common in Canada.

This is for all intents and purposes something that just could easily pass and would prevent future uptake of testing on animals. We know now that this process is being restarted with a new bill, Bill S-5, that’s currently underway. Chantelle, could you share more about what’s happening with that?

Chantelle: Absolutely. It is really frustrating to see that that died during the election cycle. A little bit more background on toxicity testing. Toxicity testing tests the degree to which a substance affects an organism.

So for instance, the length of exposure of a substance like a new chemical, the route of exposure—whether it’s toxic through contact to the skin, inhalation, injection—and the concentration of a substance.

As you can imagine, it results in pretty severe suffering. It’s considered the most harmful use of animals in science. It commonly causes the most severe level of suffering and it impacts about 90,000 animals per year in Canada.

Testing the substances involves forced ingestion, forced inhalation, and skin and eye irritation. If animals don’t die as a result of the experiments, they’re typically killed afterwards. This is pretty horrific.

The US and the EU have already made commitments to phase out toxicity testing. The federal government in Canada made phasing out toxicity testing a campaign promise in the last election.

It is something that it makes sense as the next step in progress for animals in this area. Bill S-5 is an amendment to the Canadian Environmental Production Act (CEPA). That’s the law that governs how we assess chemicals and processes by which we test that substances won’t harm the environment and human health. Part of that process is toxicity testing, the testing to determine toxic effects of a certain substance; for instance, if a new ingredient was going to be used in a product.

Part of Bill S-5 aims to address toxicity testing on animals.

The previous bill died before being passed when the election cycle happened. This bill was reintroduced to Senate, and Senate made a lot of amendments that actually strengthened the protections.

Now it’s gone back to Parliament again where the standing Committee on Environment is going to review it. Animal Justice has been working with government officials to make amendments to the bill, working within the bounds of the law that’s on the table to make as much impact as possible for animals.

The goal right now is to make animal testing the very last resort when absolutely no alternatives are possible.

Amy: Something I think is really interesting about this is some other countries that have passed laws in this area are not allowing products that are made of components that are tested in other countries. That’s sort of the gold standard for a law like this, where you’re not just outsourcing the problem of testing on animals to another country. I’m really curious to see whether this bill ends up including some elements of that; whether it’s an end to that practice altogether or whether it allows for loopholes where the testing can just happen in another country.

Chantelle: That’s a good point. And there are a lot of alternatives that are available now that would make that unnecessary in most cases.

Alternatives to the use of animals in science

A researcher examining a slide under a microscope

Amy: Something that’s really important to consider when talking about alternatives; it’s not just the animal testing piece, but it’s also just thinking about the types of animals that are used.

There are live animals that are used. There are also animals that are purposely bred to be used for dissection in education.

There are a number of technological innovations that make it possible to learn about biology without intentionally producing animals to be killed for dissection or used for various forms of research, including testing.

The Society for Humane Science shares that although 79% of science teachers in British Columbia still do dissection with their students, non-animal alternatives to dissection have been shown to be just as effective or more effective in terms of how well they help students meet their learning goals, and they even save time and money. They have a great blog post with so many non-animal model alternatives that cover a wide variety of species.

Any teacher anywhere can use those resources and move to a place where dissection isn’t costing animal lives.

Chantelle: I can see how requiring dissection in some schools would actually be a deterrent for people who would be more prone to using animal-free methods. Anecdotally in my own life, I’ve seen people who have dropped out of the biology stream of science specifically because dissection was a requirement in their school. So it is interesting to see where the future will go and what kind of individuals that will draw into the field.

Effectiveness of non-animal models

A group of students surrounding laptops in a school library

Chantelle: Jumping back to testing methods, one of the main arguments I’ve heard in favor of animal testing is that it’s necessary for medical progress. There have been life changing medications developed in the past through methods that used animal research, like penicillin.

You’ll still hear people say, “I understand the harms that animal research causes, but I personally have a loved one with a life threatening condition, and we need to find a cure for that.”

In reality, those two perspectives, the one advocating for animal wellbeing and the one in favor of making progress for human medical treatments are becoming more and more aligned.

While there have been developments in the past using animal based methods, they’re few and far between, and now that process might actually be slowing medical progress.

Amy: Yeah, absolutely. The film Medical Illusion, produced by documentary filmmaker Gary Charbonneau, covers how ineffective animal use is and the different alternative technologies that are available.

It’s estimated that around 95% of drugs that are shown to be effective in animals failed to be effective in human clinical trials. That failure rate is enormous. You don’t accept that failure rate in any other area; yet somehow because it’s animal lives our society is discounting that.

In some cases, institutions are testing on animals for diseases that don’t even occur naturally in those non-human animals. They have to be artificially created in the animal creating an unrealistic disease process. And then that results in drug responses that are entirely different than that what would occur in a human.

The scientific experts in this film, Medical Illusion, advocate for investment in technologies such as more personalized medicine, such as tissue engineering, and bioprinting technologies such as 3D organ printing. The one that I think is really interesting is organs on a microchip.

I’m really excited for a future where these technologies are the go-to for all scientists.

Chantelle: Absolutely. And it’s so exciting to see that there’s also medical professionals advocating for the same thing. Dr. Charu Chandrasekera at the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods is doing a lot of great work in this area.

It would really benefit everyone to move away from animal testing. Of course, we know that the animals and those who care for them would benefit by not having testing required on animals, but also the institutions doing this research and the medical community as a whole.

When you consider the investment that goes into trying to make medical progress, each new medication represents a massive investment of time and money—10 years and more than a billion dollars on average that go to waste if a drug fails in a human clinical. That’s a huge investment trying to find necessary cures for life changing conditions and diseases, only to fail at the human clinical trial stage.

One example is more than 400 human trials have failed for Alzheimer’s. But Alzheimer’s has already been cured in mice because their biology is the basis for so much animal based research. Requiring animal testing means that treatments that could be effective for humans might be thrown out because they aren’t effective for animals that they aren’t even intended to be used on. Who knows how many medications that would’ve been life saving for humans have been missed because they weren’t safe for mice?

How you can help

A group of mice in a cage

Chantelle: We always like to talk about what our audience can do to advocate against animal testing. What are some ways that people can advocate against animal testing, research and education?

Purchase products not tested on animals

Amy: An easy thing to do is to purchase products that weren’t tested on animals.

To know for certain that a product’s ingredients were not tested on animals, and that there are no animal ingredients (such as gelatin) used as well, PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies program accredits more than 5,900 different companies. Their website is really helpful way to learn more about that program.

Leaping Bunny is another program that accredits companies. They only accredit based on companies that don’t test on animals, which means accredited products might still contain animal based ingredients. When making purchasing decisions, it’s important to review the ingredient list to ensure that no animal products like gelatin or coloring based on animal bodies is included in that product.

There’s some trade offs of these two programs in terms of how they accredit. Ethical Elephant created a graphic to help distinguish the pros and cons of those different programs.

Cruelty-free accreditation programs (image)

Chantelle: Absolutely. That’s a really actionable step that everyone can take every time you’re buying a product.

Support phasing out toxicity testing in Bill S-5

Chantelle: Another step is contacting your MP to support phasing out toxicity testing. Bill S-5 is in consideration at the House of Commons right now, and that could make a huge impact for some of the most severe suffering that happens for animals used in science.

You can visit this Animal Justice Academy video for more details about the bill and about toxicity testing in general. You don’t need to be an expert to speak with your MP; you can call or email them and just let them know that you want to talk about Bill S-5 on CEPA, and you want to ensure that they support reducing the unnecessary suffering of animals. Science is evolving; other countries have already made commitments to phase out toxicity testing. This is a really attainable goal that Canada can make to have a significant impact in the lives of animals.

Advocate for alternatives in education

Amy: Absolutely. And I think another really big way that we can have impacts are at different levels of educational institutions. This could be anywhere ranging from high schools where dissection is happening to universities where you could join an animal care committee.

If you’re someone who has the capacity to volunteer your time, joining an animal care committee is a way to make a tangible impact for animals. You can reach out to your local university, find out if they’re conducting research on animals and ask more about their selection process. Get involved in making sure that research is consistent with guidelines and regulations, and even more, recognizing that there’s a a place for someone to serve as an advocate for animals.

The other role, if you have kids or even if you don’t, is reaching out to high schools and finding out what programs are being used for dissection. See if you know you can meet with a biology teacher and share about the different alternative models and find out what the barriers are to them adopting those models. Certainly every single one of us can become an individual advocate in communities because those decisions are being made on a teacher by teacher basis.

Chantelle: Absolutely, and this is such a rapidly developing field that there’s so much space for impact on the short term and the long term for animals.

Contact your MLA about animals in captivity

Next episode

Now that we’ve gone over all these laws around animal cruelty over the past six months, we’re going to be wrapping up the year next month with a discussion on how the laws and regulations are enforced. Until then, if you’d like to share your thoughts on this topic or any other topics that we’ve discussed already, please reach out to the Vancouver Humane Society on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.


Podcast: Captivity laws and practices in Canada

Wild and exotic animals in captivity are confined to spaces thousands of times smaller than their natural home ranges.

Deprived of the ability to exhibit their natural behaviours, many can be seen pacing, licking the bars of their cage, huddling in corners, and languishing in boredom. In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal cruelty, animal advocate, award-winning writer, and Zoocheck founder Rob Laidlaw joins the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault to discuss the issues wild animals face in captivity and what can be done to help them.

Take quick action for animals in captivity

Note: This written interview has been edited for length.

Founder of Zoocheck

Rob has spent more than 40 years working to protect the interests and well-being of animals in Canada and around the world. He is a chartered biologist, founder of the wildlife protection organization Zoocheck, an award-winning author and a winner of the Frederick a MCG Grand Lifetime Achievement Award for substantial contributions to animal welfare in Canada.

History of animal advocacy

Amy: Could you share a little bit of your background working with the wildlife and what drew you to this?

Rob: It’s a bit of a long story, but I’ll try to give you the abbreviated version.

When I was a child in public school, I was always the kid that read every book in the library on animals, on conservation, on nature, and all related subject matter. That was sort of the first manifestation of my interest in animals. That dates back as far as I can remember.

I also did something else. I started writing letters. I’d read in some of these books and other materials about these organizations, most of them in Europe, like Beauty Without Cruelty and Compassion in World Farming; some of the groups that have been around for decades and decades. I would write away to them for information about animal issues. I did this for a number of years and continued reading. My interest in animals grew and grew and grew, and I’m also very interested in science.

Then I went to see The Animals Film, which was done by a producer out of New York City. It was the first time on film where you had basically a cataloging of images of what humans do to animals, and some of it was absolutely horrific stuff. And if you remember that, you know when that film started showing the internet wasn’t available, so you couldn’t just get on the internet and see all the stuff that you do today. Animals and farms and laboratories and circuses and all those things. This was all new to people and people actually vomited and left the theater that I saw this in. It had a really profound effect on people.

At the end of this film, they had a group called the Northern Animal Liberation League. It’s a UK group that assembled large groups of people, and they would take photos. That kind of action is in the news just recently here in Canada. I thought that was a very compelling call to action for me.

So when I left the theater, I thought, Okay, I know all this stuff. I’ve been writing about it. I’ve read all these books since I was a kid. I’ve got this good base of knowledge, but that doesn’t help. I’ve got to do something.

So I started looking around for something to do, and there were no advocacy groups, except a few very that had been around for many years where the discussion was at the level of, are we gonna have popcorn at the next fundraiser? It wasn’t about issues.

So I started doing my own investigations into animal abuse, not knowing where they would lead. I did a number of different things. I found a few people; we got a lot of exposes in the newspaper.

And then a fellow came up in the early eighties. He was somebody who had done very large mass events for the peace movement throughout the United States, and he had become interested in animals and he was setting up this organization for one purpose: to one year from that point where he held the first meeting in Toronto, to set up and carry out this very large protest for the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. And it was geared towards protesting the use of animals in certain kinds of psychological research.

We built that organization up in Toronto from nothing to 9,000 members in eight months. We had 300 people a month coming for meetings. We ended up doing rallies with 1,000 or 2,000 people.

In 1984, I came across a zoo in Ontario about two hours from Toronto. It was what you would now call a roadside zoo. I didn’t know those things existed, and I had actually bought the propaganda about zoos. I had a discomfort with them, but I thought generally speaking, they were positives. I didn’t know any better.

I visited this zoo and it was horrendous. The animals were living in excrement, literally a metre or two deep. They had been on it so long and they had compacted it into a concrete-like consistency. The cages looked like they had been banged up by a bunch of kids over the weekend who got scrap materials from the dump. It was a horror story.

I inquired at the admission booth when I left about one particular animal, which was a juvenile black bear that was chained by the neck in a small cage. And I said, “Why is that bear in that circumstance?” And they said, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s just temporary. He’s going down the road to another facility.” Well, I said, “Okay, great.” At least it’s temporary.

I visited the zoo he was going to after I left, and it was worse.

And I thought, I really have to do something about this. I don’t care how long it takes, I’m gonna do it.

I thought naively that what I saw at both those facilities were anomalous. Maybe it had been a situation where thousands of people went there, but everybody thought everybody else had complained when nobody had complained. It was that kind of maybe a weird scenario where it somehow, Didn’t get on the radar of the right people.

I was wrong. I found out that places like that were completely unregulated. Nobody knew what was in them. Nobody knew how many there were or anything else.

My initial estimate of trying to tackle this and deal with it was 18 months. It’s 38 years later now.

I never ever dreamed that it would go beyond roadside zoos in Ontario. Now there’s been projects right across the country in the United States, in Europe, Japan, Pakistan, lots of different activities and an expansion into other areas; particularly in Canada into wildlife management issues.

I’m very stubborn. You know, I’m not an Einstein. I don’t have the money of Bill Gates, but the one thing I think I do have in me is tenacity. I’m gonna stick with this until it’s done. And I can honestly say that from that point way back in the old days, that the landscape of wildlife in captivity issues in Canada is now profoundly different.

I’m not saying it’s all because of me or people I’ve been associated with, but we’ve been there the whole time and we’ve had a finger sort of in most of those pieces of the pie doing things and in helping to do things that are effective. So I think that it was probably a good thing to have that trait in me to never give up.

The other thing that goes along with it is I hate to lose. I remember in the early days many of the zoo people would say, “This won’t change. You’ll be gone long before anything ever changes.” And I thought, No, that’s not the case at all. You’ve got to go into these things believing you can win.

It’s been a long, interesting journey. I’ve met a lot of fantastic people, great activists, seeing what’s going on all over the world. I’m not stopping any time soon.

Animal captivity in Canada

Amy: You mentioned like a few different ways that you’ve encountered wildlife and worked on issues such as roadside zoos, and zoos and aquariums in general. What are some of the other ways that wildlife are kept in captivity in Canada and for what reasons?

Rob: Wildlife are kept for a variety of reasons, but there’s a few that that I encounter most frequently. There are other uses of wild animals that I don’t encounter that frequently.

  • Bait industry
  • Research
  • Circuses
  • Novelty acts
  • Public display
  • Exotic pets
  • Mobile zoos
  • Sanctuaries & rescues
  • Government facilities
  • Specialist exhibits

Bait industry

Rob: One example being the bait industry. You know, there is a huge number of animals that are wild species that are used in the bait industry for fishing.


Rob: There are wild animals that are in some laboratories and wild animals that are in a variety of activities, or businesses, or industries.


Rob: But where I encounter them the most is in entertainment.

By entertainment, I would include not only, traditional things that people would think of as entertainment, like circuses and novelty acts, but I would also include public display facilities as well. There’s a big chunk of wildlife that are held and used by entertainment institutions, businesses, and individuals.

Exotic pets

Rob: There are also very significant numbers keeping animals for personal amusement as exotic pets. A lot of people don’t realize that if they have a bird in their house or if they have a reptile in their house, that’s a wild animal. That’s not a domesticated animal. I would say the same for probably the vast majority of fishes as well.

If you include all the individuals that that represents, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and invertebrates, you have huge numbers of wild animals that are here in Canada.

We have a [wildlife trade] industry here in Canada that’s risen in the last 15 years or so quite considerably due to the fact that everybody can have a laptop. You can build a website in a couple of hours and you can acquire wild animals, whether large or small in a few hours as well, sometimes for next to nothing.

Mobile zoos

Rob: And that’s the educational programs in mobile zoos. That’s a whole industry that often has arisen from a hobby or somebody keeping animals for personal amusement into a part-time business. There are some full-time professional businesses that do this as well.

We didn’t see much of that 25 years ago. It hardly existed at all. But now, in Southern Ontario alone, we know of 85.

There’s more across the country. So that’s somewhere else where that we see wild animals in captivity.

Sanctuaries & rescues

Rob: There are other types of facilities that are not public display facilities, namely sanctuaries and rescue centers. There are a number of them that keep wildlife in captivity.

Government facilities

Rob: In Canada, there are some government facilities that keep seals and other animals, small numbers of them for various reasons.

Specialist exhibits

Rob: There are insect zoos in various parts of the country and a lot of these specialist types of exhibits.

When you look at what’s out there in Canada in terms of wild animals in captivity, it’s largely off the radar of most people and generally most policy makers too. But the numbers out there are not inconsequential. If you include exotic pets, there are probably millions of individuals out there that need help.

Needs of animals in captivity

African penguins huddle around the door of their small enclosure at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Amy: When you say help, what are the biggest challenges with housing wildlife and exotic wildlife, and what are some examples of animals in Canada that are suffering right now under the current laws that we have?

Rob: The first part of your question, what are the problems with with animals? What do they face? It’s difficult to pinpoint one problem because they exist on a continuum from rather minor to very serious.

Usually when you encounter an animal, it’s facing a lot of problems. But I tried to a number of years ago, figure out a way of articulating what animals need; to get people to understand when they’re looking at an animal, what’s deficient in that animal’s life, regardless of the context in which that animal is.

It was partially spurred on by me writing kids’ books. I had to go out and talk to children for the first time in my life. That started in 2009 and I had to be able to tell them, even if they were four or five years old, what do these animals need? What are they going through?

They understood that they needed food, water, shelter. You know, the basic biological needs, the things that they were doing, eating breakfast. They could relate to those things. Even if they were four or five years old, they would get it. But I thought, Okay, what about all those other quality of life areas that are vital to the health and welfare of animals?

I came up with four, and I think they’re scientifically defensible. What I ask people to do when they think of animals in captivity is, think of these four things, understanding, of course, that they need those other things that allow them to function biologically.

Those four things are:

  • Space
  • Freedom
  • Social context
  • Activity/stimulation


Rob: I think that when you look at animals in captivity, wildlife in captivity but also animals in other situations, whether it’s agriculture or laboratories or whatever you see, that they are typically inhabiting spaces that are orders of magnitude smaller than the smallest home ranges that species would ever experience in the wild.

So sometimes that can be hundreds, thousands, millions, or tens of millions of times smaller than what that animal would experience in the wild.

I’ll give you an example. If you look at polar bears, which are the widest ranging terrestrial carnivore on the planet, they can inhabit territories ranging up to about 599,000 square kilometres. Pretty much equivalent to the entire province of Manitoba. If they’re pack ice bears and the pack ice floats around, that’s basically the space the more nomadic individuals inhabit at the lower end of the scale.

The Beaufort Sea Coastal Bears, some of them have home ranges measuring about 2,000-2,400 square kilometres.

The biggest polar bear exhibit in the world is more than 4 million times smaller than the smallest known home for polar bears in the wild.

If you look right across the continuum of species, from mammals to birds, to reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates, all of them, you see that typically that animals are experiencing this massive, massive compression from what they should be in, into something that by comparison is microscopically small.

I think that space is an underrated aspect of captivity. A lot of people will say, “Well, if the space is is high quality or if you enrich the environment or this or that, then you can mitigate the lack of space.” But I say, No, you can’t, because once you reach a certain threshold, it doesn’t matter.

It’s like if you put somebody in an eight foot by 10 foot cell in a prison for the rest of their life. You can pretty up that cell as much as you want. You can put pictures on the walls, you can give them a tv, a new book every day, you can do lots of things. It’s going to make a difference, but at some point it doesn’t make a meaningful difference because the space is just too small.

That, I think, is the case for animals, that you reach a threshold beyond which enrichment and other things that you can do to try to alleviate what that animal is going through don’t make a meaningful difference.

Space, or lack of space, also creates social conflict in many animals. It leads to health issues in many animals. It leads to a whole variety of things that are detrimental to the health and welfare, both physical and psychological, of that animal. So I think space is something that should always be looked at. So many other problems stem from lack of space.

There’s three questions that you ask when you look at space.

  1. Number one, is there enough space for the animal to express normal movements and behaviors? So normal species-typical movements and behaviors. I guarantee you go into any zoo in Canada or pretty much any zoo in Canada, and you’re going to find examples where, no, they can’t do that.
  2. The second question you ask is, is there enough space for animals to feel safe and secure? And there are a variety of stressors on animals; that can be visitors watching them; it can be noise; it can be construction; it can be other animals within the enclosure. You can go in zoos and other situations across Canada where animals don’t have enough space to feel safe and secure. They’re either moving away, sticking their heads in corners away from the visitor viewing stations, or they’re acting out aggressively because they feel stressed. And there’s other manifestations of it depending on the species.
  3. The third question you ask is, what are the consequences of not providing enough space? And we see that manifested through the roof. You know, we see pacing behaviors and other stereotypical behaviors, and many people recognize them, but they may not see, you know, looping and other kinds of locomotory stereotypies, or they may not recognize oral stereotypies. There’s the whole suite of these kinds of aberrant behaviors that manifest in captivity, and they’re linked obviously to space and lack of complexity.

But there are all kinds of other things that animals experience that are detrimental. It can be obesity, it can be loss of fitness. Over generations, it can be loss of culture. There are so many detrimental consequences to animals when they don’t have enough space. And if you know what to look for, you can walk in anywhere and see what those consequences are.


Rob: The second one is freedom. I don’t mean we kick them all out into the wild and say, “Here you go, you’ve been in captivity your whole life, off you go. Have fun.”

What I mean is freedom of choice. And this is something that’s articulated and certainly in the academic literature, in the zoo world, that animals have to be given freedom of choice. We are included in there. It’s the way that we make a meaningful contribution to the quality of our own lives.

You know, we take away choice for people in prison. It’s a punishment. Or we give choice; often parents will do this with kids: if you’re good, we’re going to let you choose what to do.

Choice is very important. And when you look at animals, they’re just like us. They wake up in the morning and they make micro choices. Do I walk around that rock? Do I go up that hill? Do I go this way? They make thousands of these micro choices every day

And they make mid-level choices and they make very serious major choices. Like an elephant matriarch during a drought that is leading her family to water because she has that historical memory of the terrain and where water is seasonally. She’s deciding, Okay, I’m going to take my family this way because that’s giving us the best chance of survival.

These choices are how animals enhance the quality of their lives. So when they’re in captivity, you need to give them choice.

A lot of people talk about, well, we give them choice through enrichment. We give them puzzle feeders or this or that or the other thing. That’s all great. But I think that they look at providing choice through enrichment in the wrong way because the way I look at it is that if you need to artificially enrich an animal’s environment, then that automatically means that animal’s environment is deficient.

This ability to make choices is critically important to animals. And you can walk into zoos, you can walk into all kinds of other situations in Canada and see thousands, hundreds of thousands of animals that have very restricted abilities or opportunities to make choices, or in some cases, none at all.

Social context

Rob: The third is social context.

There’s a lot of animals that are not in the proper social context. You get animals that are alone when they should be with a partner, or a family, or a herd, or a troupe, or a pod, but they’re alone. That’s an insidious form of torture, especially if you’ve got animals that are hyper social like primates or parrots or other animals where they basically spend their entire lives in contact with others of their own kind.

Proper social context is important, and it’s just as important for animals that like to be alone, not to be in groups. It does work the other way. We’ve seen animals where there’s a lot of inter individual aggression.

Like Marineland here in Ontario has a bear exhibit that is about a half an acre in size. In the old days, three decades ago, they had more than 60 bears in this one exhibit. I think they’ve got 15 now, but that was an example where you’ve got way too many animals in there.

Ideally, you might have five bears in there. I’m being very generous, I would say not even one because it’s not big enough.


Rob: And finally, and I’ve alluded to it in terms of my comments about complexity of environment.

When I’m talking to young kids, I’ll get a kid up out of the audience to stand up. I say, “What do you do in the morning?” He goes, “Well, I get up and my clothes are there and I get dressed.” And I say, “And so for the rest of the day, you just sort of stand by the bed and wait until it’s time to go to bed. Is that what you do?” And they go, “No, no. I go and get breakfast, and I check my computer to see if my friends have contacted me and I watch tv. And then I walked to school.”

I’m illustrating the fact that even though these are young kids that are not able to go out in the world and do everything that they want to do, they are doing things. They wake up, they do things from the time they get out bed until the time they go to bed.

And when I compare that to animals, animals do that too. Even ones that are often considered sedentary animals, like some of the tortoises, they’re actually super active animals. Kids get it.

So that fourth thing that all animals need is activity and stimulation.

So the kids, I have them shout out at the end, Okay, what are the four things that I’ll need? Number one, space. Number two, freedom. Number three, family (I use that with kids as the social context). And then the last one is things to do.

Animals’ needs are not being met in Canada

Rob: So I think that when people go out and look at animals, whether it’s in the circus, the zoo, the pet store, in people’s homes, and pretty much everywhere else, think of those four things, space, freedom, social context, and stimulation and activity. And I think that if people are honest with themselves, most times they’ll find deficiencies.

And sometimes it’s horrendous. Just to give an idea, some of the more extreme things I’ve seen, I’ve seen animals that have frozen to death in zoos in the winter time. They’re frozen solid, lying in a shelter box.

I’ve seen animals fed restaurant waste and that’s it.

I’ve seen animals that have never been given potable water. It’s just filthy, disgusting water that they’re given.

I’ve seen animals that are in small cages that are furnished, but the furnishings haven’t been changed in decades. So they’re biologically and behaviorally useless for those animals. They have no relevance whatsoever.

I’ve seen animals that have been mishandled by people.

I’ve seen animals that have been mutilated, so they’ve been defanged or declawed or had other procedures done that are not in their best interest.

It goes on and on and on. What I often tell people is, “Think about the worst thing that you could think that could happen to an animal in Canada, in a zoo or in some other kind of context. I guarantee that what’s out there is a thousand times worse.”

I don’t want to paint totally apocalyptic vision of what’s out there. It’s not good. But there are rays of light out there too, and people that are doing good things. Even some people in the zoo community have good motivations and are trying to mitigate current concerns and improve things. And some of them would really like to see aspects of all of these industries move in a different direction.

Alternatives for animals in captivity

Chantelle: That was such a helpful discussion of all the things animals need. You mentioned some good examples as well. I want to circle back to that for a minute because we know there are unreleasable, orphaned and injured native wildlife.

Hopefully we’ll one day transition into a new phase where we’re not bringing new animals into permanent captivity for entertainment. But there will still be captive wildlife who are already in captivity.

What would that model look like in an ideal world? Is there a good and safe way to house those animals?

Rob: If there were to be a shift in the zoo industry, for instance, that meant that their live collection plans were changing, and believe it or not, some are, but if there were this sort of wholesale change in collection planning and they decided they had to move certain animals out, the reality is that there’s too many of them.

When most people talk about good homes, they typically think of sanctuaries. Those homes don’t exist for most species. And when you look at numbers that are out there, there’s not enough spaces. So what we’re faced with is a situation where if there is a massive change in the zoo industry or even in the mobiles industry or or other areas, we’re faced with all of these animals that have nowhere to go.

So how do we deal? I think that there’s a number of things we have to do.

Address current problems

Rob: We have to work with some people in those industries to get people on board with mitigating some of the more serious problems faced by animals that are currently kept. Many of them agree are problems.

Move to suitable homes where possible

Rob: You also do want to see if there are alternative options for at least some of those animals. Maybe it’s 2%, 5%, 10%, maybe it’s more. But there are opportunities for some animals to go elsewhere.

There are some animals that could be placed in sanctuaries.

There are some animals that could be placed in a different kind of zoo, a regional zoo that is focused on that particular species. There are specialist centres throughout North America. There are quite a number of large enclosure wolf and bear centres that conceivably could take some animals.

There are private individuals who maintain animals, not as pets, but for other purposes, usually conservation that keeps them at a standard that far exceeds most zoos.

There are new facilities opening up. In fact, I spoke about the newest whale sanctuary this morning. It was the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary in Iceland. There are people out there that are looking at these types of things for all kinds of animals.

There are opportunities we offer to move big cats. When zoos closed down, we did that last year. There was 15 lions and tigers. We said, “We understand that, you may have challenges in finding placement opportunities for these animals.” So we said we’ll move them because we have contacts in US sanctuaries. We’ve done that with other animals as well.


Rob: Another option that I think is worth exploring is repatriation of animals to the wild. And I know that in the past zoo people used to really sort of jump on that saying it’s ridiculous. But when you think about it, are not the release programs that zoos either promulgate or support doing the same thing? They’re taking animals from captivity and trying to release them into the wild for conservation purposes. There’s nothing that says you can’t do that for welfare purposes, and there has been a long history of it.

This morning when I was talking about whales and dolphins, I mentioned the Into the Blue project, which was more than two decades ago, and other releases that seemed to work out quite well. There have been long term captive elephants released successfully back to the wild. There have benn lions and tigers that have never had the pads of their feet touch grass that have been released.

There are huge challenges in doing it, and it’s not an option for every animal, but I think that repatriation, if not to truly wild settings, to sort of game reserve type settings might be an option for animals.

I have a children’s book called Five Elephants, and I talk about this elephant called Thandora that lived for 18 years in the South African. The other elephant she was with died. The zoo decided they had to do the right thing and they repatriated Thandora to a 18,000 acre reserve. It wasn’t the true wild; Thandora couldn’t migrate. But it was a vast amount of space with all of the other indigenous wildlife and opportunities for Thandora to do what she wanted.

So I think there are probably a lot more of those kinds of opportunities for animals than most people think.


Rob: The fourth option is euthanasia. I know people don’t like to hear that, but that is a reality. If there are no other options, if you can’t improve and enhance the conditions of that animal in the zoo or wherever it is, or if you can’t repatriate it, or if all those options have been exhausted, then the right thing to do as euthanasia because, at least in my view, I find it inconceivable that anyone could walk away and leave an animal in some of the circumstances I’ve seen where it’s fighting every day against the cold to survive, to get enough calories to maintain its body weight, that it’s in a situation of mind-numbing boredom for days or weeks or months or years, basically a living death.

I don’t think that’s an ethical thing to do to leave animals in those situations. So I think euthanasia should always be sort of in the back there as well, when all other options have been exhausted.

But I think there are things that can be done.

Just to sort of bring it back the first one though, because these other options, placement opportunities, repatriation, it may involve good numbers of animals. It may not.

Preventing future suffering

Rob: But the real sad fact of the matter is that we’ve got to do the best we can where animals are now: prevent their breeding, prevent their importation, make sure that we stop the problem with this group of animals and we don’t just let it continue on into the future.

That, to me as an advocate for animals, is what I try to keep in mind all the time. That we do the best we can for these animals that are here. But maybe we can’t help them or maybe we can’t help them the way that we want.

But we have to have our eyes on the goal, which is: let’s stop the process that put all these animals into that position in the first place. That is the first priority when we’re approaching these kinds of things.

Let’s stop the system. Let’s make that systemic change. Let’s not just deal with the fallout or the symptoms.

Exotic animal laws in Canada

Amy: That’s a good transition into the talking about laws. What kind of laws are in place for wildlife, whether they be imported or already in captivity, and what ideas do you have for new laws or improving existing?

Rob: Well, in Canada, we have this reputation as being a law abiding nation. I think that in some respects that’s true, but in other respects it’s not.

When it comes to animals, we’re not really big on laws for animals in Canada with regard to imports. There is sort of a loose network of laws.

Federal laws around exotic animals

Rob: You have regulations that govern the import of, for example, turtles or some primates through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. A lot of people might be surprised with that because their primary mandate is to deal with food safety; but they issue permits for the importation of certain kinds of animals that people keep as pets and for other reasons.

So you’ve got that, you’ve got the Migratory Birds Convention Act, but what most people look at when they look federally at laws regarding animals and the import of particularly wild animals is the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), a convention that Canada is a signatory to.

So in order to deliver Canadian obligations under cites, they have a federal act called the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act. It delivers on our CITES obligations and controls the import of CITES listed species.

Now, CITES listed species are those species that are endangered or could be endangered by trade. So if it’s pollution or something else, CITES may not kick in. You’ve got a limited number of species that are covered by CITES, so that has some implications for the importation of certain animals. Although, as with most treaties and and laws, there are exemptions.

Provincial laws around exotic animals

Rob: But most of the responsibility for dealing with captive wildlife has been delegated to the provinces.

In Ontario, we have our Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act, and those inspectors will look at zoos and they’re supposed to be working on regulations for zoos because it is a provincial responsibility.

In British Columbia, you have the Controlled Alien Species Regulation under the Wildlife Act because kept the wildlife is a provincial jurisdiction.

So what we have in Canada is this mishmash of laws, some commonalities, a lot of inconsistencies from province to province and in the territories.

Municipal laws around exotic animals

Rob: There is then also a lower level being the municipal level, or sometimes regional governments deal with this too.

When you look at those bylaws, there are some commonalities right across the country, but there’s tremendous inconsistencies because the people who are writing them generally don’t have the necessary expertise to actually write them. And I don’t mean in terms of the legalese and laying out procedures for enforcement. I’m talking about the animals themselves and the needs of the animals. What should they require? If they go into standards for housing and things like that, they don’t have the expertise.

I know so many animal control officials that actually work on these issues, and they look at the prohibited lists or positive lists of animals, and I’ve had many of them say to me, I have no idea what all these mean. You’ve got all these municipalities and all these people who lack the necessary training to develop the laws that affect these animals.

Criminal Code of Canada

Rob: The only other things that I haven’t mentioned are the Criminal Code of Canada, but that’s not really, in most cases, a useful tool for trying to deal with animal cruelty. It’s not set up as something to be beneficial to animals. The criminal code is identifying behavior that is inappropriate to society.

Most people feel that some behaviors like dragging your dog behind your car until your dog’s dead are just not acceptable. That’s more what the Criminal Code would deal with, rather than with any kind of institutional or commercial mass cruelties, whether it’s zoos or the meat industry.

It’s really challenging when there is this mishmash of laws to try to do something. We’ve had enormous challenges over the years in trying to get these laws noticed, get them interpreted in a reasonable scientific way, and then getting them enforced.

We always say that half the battle is getting a law in place and the next half of the battle is getting it enforced. That really been the case here in Canada. But it’s a mess.

In India when you look at wildlife and captivity and public display facilities, they have the Central Zoo Authority. Public display facilities and zoos comes through them. In the UK you have the Zoo Licensing Act, and in other jurisdictions you have other things that just say, Okay, this is the agency that deals with this issue and these are the standards and these are the rules.

We don’t have anything like that in Canada.

That’s why we have people who have big cats in Alberta that are not supposed to be there, and then they’re found out, they drive over to Ontario, they end up in a municipality where there’s a bylaw against that. So they move to the next municipality and then the next, and you know, we have all this inter provincial movement and within provinces as well, because our laws are such a mess.

That’s why I’m hopeful about the Jane Goodall Act because that I think would move the needle in the right direction quite.

Chantelle: It’s become a theme with our podcast is that it’s such a patchwork whenever there’s animal laws in Canada, whether it’s provincial or federal or municipal.

Who is left out in exotic animal laws?

Rob: I should mention one other thing that’s an important point. Most of our laws don’t help all the animals. So if you look at municipal bylaws, many of them have a prohibited list.

Your local municipal bylaw might say can’t have that tiger. So you might be in trouble if you have it. Or if you haven’t got it, you’re thinking of getting it, then it may make you think, I’m not going to get this because this is going to be a big problem. My municipality doesn’t allow it.

But when you look at municipal bylaws across the country, and when you look at many provincial laws as well, you notice something very peculiar.

And that is that they are mammal centric; that there are very few birds, very few reptiles, typically no amphibians, and typically no invertebrates listed yet. When you look at the numbers of species, there’s about 6,000 species of mammals, but there’s more than 10,000 species of birds, 12,000 species of reptiles, 8,000 species of amphibians, 30,000 documented species of fish, and who knows how many invertebrates.

Most of the animals that exist today, many that could end up in a commercial operation in someone’s home as a pet, in a circus or in a zoo. They don’t even show up in these laws. That is a massive deficit.

Most people think that if you have an anti cruelty law or if you have a law controlling exotic animals, it’s all good, but it only deals with a very small number of animals, a very small number of species. It does not represent the diversity that exists out there in the world, or that exists in the industries and people that exploit these animals.

There are over 7,000 species documented in live wildlife trade, much of it for the pet trade. That’s a huge number. Most of those are not represented in any laws.

It’s a very challenging situation here in Canada.

I’ll just finish that answer by saying with regard to zoos, every province in Canada has something. It’s either a policy or something in regulation or a law that addresses some aspect of it. A lot of them are not very good, but it’s something.

In Ontario, we have nothing. Anybody can go out and buy spitting cobras and black mambas and tigers and zebras and aardvarks and whatever else. You want to think up and open a zoo, and there’s no license required. You don’t need any expertise. You don’t need any mentoring. You don’t need any professional affiliations. You don’t need any relevant experience.

There’s no mandated standards for caging for any kind of animal, and there’s no convenient way for the province or anybody else to close the zoo. So the worst in the country is here in Ontario in terms of controls or regulation of this sector of animals.

What you can do to help animals in captivity

Chantelle: Before we wrap up, what would you suggest that our listeners can do to advocate for wildlife in captivity?

Rob: Well, number one, get political. We have a very tiny number of people in this country that are getting political for animals.

The reality is the big changes that we all want to see happen will come politically. We can work on a lot of things and make things happen, but those big societal changes that we want to see have to come through politics.

And I would say to people that if you’ve got an interest in trying to help any issue, it could be animals, it could be poverty relief, it could be affordable housing, the environment. You’ve got an issue that you’re concerned about.

Understand how the systems that govern your life work. Anybody can learn how the system works, and that to me is the first step in understanding what you can do about it.

And everybody has different capacity. Some people may be able to drop everything in their life andbe a full-time activist doing this 24 hours a day. Other people, maybe not so much. Maybe they’re restricted to one hour a week.

But I think the first step once you’ve identified an issue is understanding the system and how what you want done could actually happen within the context of that system.

I can tell you absolutely 100% certainty people can actually change things. And I use ourselves as an example. A lot of the things that that we’ve tackled over the years we’ve started at from the ground up against opposition with very deep pockets and we win.

We have a pro-democracy advocate here in Ontario. He would say, “If you don’t know the rules of the game, you can’t play.”

This is something that we’re moving into. We’re going to be putting together very soon, uh, an advocacy program so that people have more information about how they learn, what they should learn, and how they can affect change.

Because honestly, people can do it. You can really do it.

Contact your MLA about animals in captivity

Next episode

Watch out for the next episode of The Informed Animal Ally on November 28 about animals used in research.


Podcast: Wildlife cruelty laws and rodent poisons

Wild animals think, feel, play, grow together, have families, and help maintain a healthy and harmonious environment; yet many human activities put wildlife at unnecessary risk of suffering.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal cruelty, Wild Animal Welfare Specialist Erin Ryan from the BC SPCA joins the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault to discuss wildlife stewardship, feeding, poisons, and more.

Note: This written interview has been edited for length.

Wild Animal Welfare Specialist

Erin is a member of the Syilx nation and holds a BSc in applied biology and an MSc in Applied Animal Biology from the University of British Columbia. She works as a Wild Animal Welfare Specialist with the BC SPCA’s Science and Policy division, focusing on wildlife welfare, including urban wildlife and rodent control.

Wildlife and Indigenous ways of knowing

A caribou looks at the camera.

Amy: Could you share a little bit of your background working with wildlife and what drew you to this work?

Erin: I think a big influence to the work that I’m doing now is my grandfather [who was a biologist and the first indigenous MP]. Even though many people remember him as a politician, he really thought of himself as a scientist.

I remember growing up, in the forested gully of their backyard, learning all about the plants and animals that grew all around us. And of course, a lot of our approaches to how we handled wildlife encounters in that backyard are kind of what I’m advocating for people to do today.

Amy: Your family has had a really interesting history of bringing an Indigenous perspective into federal decision making. Can you share some of your learnings on the relationship between wildlife and Indigenous communities as it relates to Indigenous laws and ways of knowing?

Erin: I think the main difference that I’ve seen, looking at my world of wild animal welfare, is so many of our laws and systems are built into this perspective of wildlife management; that is our job to manage the populations and to manage the environment. Whereas the values that were instilled in me from a young age and a lot of traditional Indigenous values are more about stewardship.

If we’re good stewards of the land, good stewards of the animals, we are taking care of them, but they’re also taking care of us. There’s much more this sense of reciprocity and that we’re sharing this system together. We don’t have dominion over the animals and need to control the environment.

Amy: Yeah. That’s certainly something that I think there’s a lot of space for moving towards and having more of in the world that we live in.

I’m curious. I know there’s been some consultation from the B.C. provincial government that resulted in a bill, Bill 14. And a big part of that brings into legislation, more collaboration and acknowledgement of Indigenous communities’ role in maintaining our wild populations. So I’m curious to hear if you have any thoughts on that.

Erin: So what this bill is essentially doing is the short term amendments to the Wildlife Act. Of course, the Wildlife Act is maybe one of those canonical pieces of legislation that were originally built on a very Western perspective about how we need to manage and control animals and legislate and enforce.

At the time the Wildlife Act was initially built, our government wasn’t thinking anything towards reconciliation or towards incorporating Indigenous perspectives. And I think seeing these changes really reflects that changing relationship and seeing more of government to government work. What it kind of allows for is it gives Indigenous title and right more sovereignty, the right to govern themselves as they always have since time immemorial.

It also incorporates systems for incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing, and not just relying on traditional Western science to dictate how we approach wildlife management in the province.

Amy: I think everything that I’ve heard and learned about sustainability of wildlife is that the focus needs to be on observing, of paying attention and taking time and not making sudden decisions that could affect a whole ecosystem based on, you know, one test or one experiment. So from your perspective, how does Indigenous wildlife stewardship compare with colonial laws?

Erin: Again, I think it’s much more that perspective of stewardship versus management. So there is a lot of this inherent traditional knowledge that goes to our approaches with wildlife.

And I think even before there was a word within Western science for the One Health, One Welfare approach, that was largely how Indigenous people lived. It was knowing that the way the health of the land was interconnected to the health of the animals and to the health of the people and that we all share the system.

If one of us suffers, we all suffer. But if we take good care of each other, then we all can thrive.

“If one of us suffers, we all suffer. But if we take good care of each other, then we all can thrive.”
Erin Ryan on The Informed Animal Ally

Wildlife protection laws in Canada, British Columbia, and municipalities

A Douglas squirrel climbs a tree.

Chantelle: Backing up a little bit, we’ve been talking about colonial laws and you mentioned the Wildlife Act. When it comes to colonial laws, we have the three levels of legislation to consider: federal, provincial, and municipal. Could you give a little bit of background for our listeners on what protections are in place for wildlife at those three levels?

Erin: For sure. So at the federal level, this largely looks at species that are particularly endangered or considered at risk or perhaps part of threatened habitats. It also provides protection to animals in protected areas like national parks or national nature reserves and things like that. One of the primary pieces of federal legislation that I deal with is the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act. Because it tends to be that all these migratory birds are not just present, as we know, in one locality or one province; they tend to move throughout the landscape.

At the provincial level, we see the B.C. Wildlife Act, and that helps to fill in some of the gaps of how wildlife is managed at a provincial level. So this piece of legislation and at the provincial level is where we see things like hunting and trapping regulations; we see species limits, bag limits; it defines allowable hunting regions. It also prescribes a few more pieces of legislation for things like wildlife feeding. So the B.C. Wildlife Act prohibits the feeding of dangerous wildlife like bears and wolves and cougars, but it does leave a big gap for other animals.

And this is where municipal law can come in. So although some of those bigger, broader changes aren’t necessarily jurisdiction of the municipality, it is still really important that municipal bylaws can fill in, even more, some of those gaps.

So if we take a look at wildlife feeding, municipalities have the power to say it’s a ticketable offense to feed wildlife, and that can include all types of animals, whether it’s raccoons or squirrels or geese in parks, in ways that are unhealthy and harmful. And unfortunately, even though it might feel good or catch a nice photo, we know that wildlife feeding rarely results in a good outcome and the people who suffer are the animals.

Laws around spirit bears in B.C.

A spirit bear looks at the camera from in the woods.

Amy: I was wondering, for me as a person reviewing legislation, it can be really overwhelming sometimes to think about the thousands, maybe tens of thousands of species that there are, and the way that the law tries to make different categories and rules around not just individual species, but geographic areas. And I thought if we could take a couple individual species of animals and maybe chat through. How it looks; what laws apply; and what some outcomes are for individual animals.

One that comes to mind for many people is the spirit bear, or the white variation of the black bear, and how laws have been developed to protect that bear. I’m curious what you know about that.

Erin: I have heard that there have been some changes incorporating Indigenous laws. So I know that although the province sets black bear hunting levels across different regions and different seasons, there are some Indigenous nations that have their own laws about which types of traps are appropriate, what their hunting season is. And I think what we’re seeing is those are starting to align. And there have been pushes, for example, in changes to black bear hunting limits in order to try and protect spirit bears, because we know that this is a genetic minority and something that has incredible cultural and spiritual significance to a lot of people.

Amy: And I guess some areas just no hunting can occur at all for black bears. Is that right?

Erin: Indeed. In some areas.

Laws around wolves in B.C.

A wolf lies down in a forest. Wolves have been culled in B.C. since 2015.

Amy: That’s kind of a happy story, right? Seeing change and seeing more protection.

I’m wondering if we could talk a little bit about wolves, certainly not as happy of a story.

Many people know, but just in case there are some who don’t: in B.C., there is a wolf cull that has ongoing has been ongoing since 2015, where quite a large volume of wolves are being culled. Essentially killed by helicopter and other means by the province and it’s being paid for with tax dollars. And I’m curious about if you have any knowledge around how the law has come to be, that that’s allowed. What makes it okay to kill these animals in large numbers?

Erin: I think the biggest piece is that it’s become a directive from the provincial government. So whatever restrictions have been in place can potentially change. I know there was a case taken forward. Pacific Wild actually tried to bring forward a legal case that the killing methods of shooting these wolves aerially from helicopters was against the B.C. Wildlife Act.

It is challenging because it highlights some of the really horrible methods that are actually legal. So at this point in time, the use of baiting and poisons and aerial shooting are all completely within the bounds of the law.

I think we can look at this project and definitely disagree. The science all points toward habitat disturbance being the primary factor to caribou decline, which then allows wolves to access the landscape. But in that same sense of wildlife management versus wildlife stewardship, if we’re trying to manage, we’re not going to be able to shoot our way out of this problem.

We have recent evidence showing that habitat restoration of these disturbed areas can restore the landscape and can protect caribou. And if you look at what your tax dollars are paying for, really I would prefer to see my tax dollars invested in habitat restoration.

Amy: It seems to me like that would be the case of most people.

Erin: Indeed. There’s a high percentage of British Colombians, and my mentor, Dr. Dubois did some research on this area, that 95% of British Columbians didn’t agree with killing one species to save another, even if they were endangered.

Laws around pigeons in B.C.

A pigeon stands on a concrete bench in a city block.

Amy: Wow. So maybe moving on to another species.

There are a number of animals that we share our environment with that were brought to where we live. Pigeons are one that we now consider wild because they don’t want to be handled. They don’t necessarily want to be close to us anymore, but they’re all around us, especially in city environments.

And so what are the rules around pigeons and animals like that who aren’t necessarily from our area originally? Are there laws about them?

Erin: I’m so glad you chose pigeons, because I love to talk about pigeons. They’re a particularly interesting case species. So there’s such a divide in our legislation about the way we treat these animals versus the exact context and circumstances of how they came to the environment, how they exist in the environment, their effects.

But pigeons are listed in what’s called Schedule C of the B.C. Wildlife Act. And some other animals included in there, up until recently, included crows, which are native species, brown headed cowbirds, also a native species. These two have recently been moved to Schedule B. But it also includes things like bullfrogs and nutria and feral pigs and all kinds of different animals. And you can see that none of these have quite the same story as the others.

Pigeons, for example, have followed humans to so many corners of the earth. Pigeons in North America arrived really with the first settlers and have become so integrated into the environment that even if we tried, I don’t think we could ever realistically remove pigeons from the landscape. And they’ve been here for hundreds of years.

So it seems hardly fair to be treating them the same way when they’re not having that demonstrable negative impact on the environment. Versus if we look at another Schedule C species like bullfrogs, they are surprisingly voracious predators. They will eat anything that fits into their mouth, even things like ducklings. So there is still hope that we can remove the bullfrog from the landscape. And we know that they have a negative impact on the environment. They were introduced to B.C. much more recently. And yet the same legislation applies to pigeons as it does to bullfrogs.

Amy: And so does Schedule C mean that pigeons aren’t offered the same protections as other wildlife?

Erin: Exactly. So under the Schedule C species, these animals can be killed at any time of year in any number with no limits.

Limits on animal welfare legislation

An orca jumps out of the water.

Amy: Are there limits to the welfare of that process? You know, what laws come into play when you talk about what’s humane?

Erin: The tricky part is that for so long, our legislation has been focused on cruelty and prevention of cruelty.

A lot of the protections that are in place are the bare minimum protection from cruelty. So at the federal level, animals are protected under the Criminal Code, which doesn’t allow animals to be willfully in distress. “Willful” is hard to prove, but this would be, you know, in the worst circumstances where we’ve seen people, for example, maliciously harming an animal.

Animals are also protected under the provincial Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. So this is the Act in which the BC SPCA has its enforcement powers to enforce cruelty legislation and bring those to Crown Council. Another tricky part with this one is that these acts generally exclude what’s considered “industry best practices”.

So for example, we know that with farm animals, a lot of circumstances that we see are not considered high welfare, but they are considered industry best practices. And for that reason, a lot of cruelty legislation wouldn’t apply.

How do rodenticides harm wildlife?

A barn owl sits in a fallen log. Owls are impacted by secondary poisoning from rodenticides.

Amy: I think that’s a really good transition actually into our next area. Because when we talk about provincial legislation and municipal bylaws, one topic that has recently been making headlines is the topic of rodenticides, or rodent poisons, because of the danger they pose to wild animals and pets.

There have recently been some changes to legislation around rodenticides, which we’ll get into later. But first, could you touch on why these poisons are so controversial and a hazard to wildlife?

Erin: Yeah. So a lot of the legislation and sort of the big momentum changes happening right now is regulating the use of what’s called second generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs).

An anticoagulant is a poison which thins the blood. So it leads to bleeding and hemorrhaging. And usually death happens when the animals simply bleed out. So in sort of the early 1940s, 1950s, we developed what’s called first generation anticoagulants.

Over time, animals developed resistance to these products and there was sort of a lower toxicity. So it could take a few times of them ingesting this product before it would have its effect. For example, warfarin, we see a lot of resistance to this product. And for that reason, we looked towards developing second generation anticoagulants.

So these products were designed to be much more toxic so that rodents could be poisoned after just a single feeding. However, that also meant they’re much more toxic in the environment and they persist much more in the environment.

Animals experience what’s called direct poisoning or secondary poisoning.

Direct poisoning is what we see happening to the mice and rats. So they’re actually eating the poison and they’re experiencing the effects of the poison.

Secondary poisoning is when an animal like an owl, an eagle, a hawk, eats a poisoned rodent carcass. And when they eat enough of that, they themselves experience this sort of secondary toxicity as it builds up in their system. And unfortunately, they experience the same suffering and the same effects.

We’ve noticed pretty profound levels of poisoning. And that concern for wildlife is largely what has driven legislative changes right now. There are also non anticoagulant rodenticides, and these are poisons that work in all kinds of different ways. So for example, there is a neurotoxin bromethalin, which causes effects of the central nervous system. It causes respiratory distress and it’s also one of those rodenticides that has no antidote.

Rodent poison laws in British Columbia

A mouse sits on a small branch.

Chantelle: That was a really helpful background on what rodenticides are. Thank you. There’s been some changes around the laws, as you mentioned. And now there’s a partial ban on the second generation anticoagulant rodenticides. Could you give some details on what that partial ban entails?

Erin: So, as you mentioned, the ban is just a temporary order that affects only the second generation. So that means the first generation anticoagulants are still legal for use. And it means that the non anticoagulant rodenticides are also still legal for use, including these neurotoxins.

And the reason they targeted SGARs is to really tackle the angle of wildlife poisoning and to try and prevent that. So there’s a temporary Minister’s order in place. Although there are still some exemptions for essential services. And the hope is that there will be updates to the legislation when the order expires next year.

And I am hopeful for what’s coming out of the legislation. It’s really inspiring to see the Minister’s ordered last year. It’s not something I expected to see for a long, long time.

Amy: Yeah. It seems as if there’s some real awareness of the public value that other animals have. Maybe rats don’t have public value to the government and many entities, although they have value to us.

But that value in owls and other species, that there’s enough value that the government is recognizing that they’re willing to put financial resources into even developing policy. In so many cases, even if people care about something, the government doesn’t put resources into looking into it, just because they don’t have maybe the same severity of seeing the public perception as being important.

And in this case, it seems they’ve gone forward and said, yes, we do care about public perception and public experience. There are still some gaps in the legislation, but also continued reports from wildlife rescues and veterinarians where poisons are still being used and animals are still suffering.

Do any cases come to mind of confirmed or suspected rodenticide poisoning in wildlife?

Erin: I think one of the things that’s important to remember is that these poisonings often go undetected. So, for example, with wildlife rehabilitation centers, these are often not-for-profit charitable organizations that don’t have a lot of money to invest in poison testing. And this does take money and it takes time.

It can often go undetected because if an owl, for example, is experiencing secondary poisoning, even if the poison doesn’t kill them, or isn’t the obvious cause of death, it does make them more likely to be involved with things like vehicle collisions. And so when they present, it may appear that this owl was hit by a car and that’s the cause of death, not realizing that maybe what we should be looking for is also a rodenticide test.

It’s hard to know what we don’t know. And there have been a number of scientific studies showing a shockingly high percentage of carcasses that tested positive for residue. Whether or not that was the cause of death, it’s still in their system.

And certainly, the members of the public who have found poisoned wildlife have been huge in making this effort. You know, there was one report from the same area where they found more than four owls that had died by rodenticide poisoning. And those cases really speak to the public.

They know what they’re seeing is wrong and they want to take action.

Chantelle: That’s a really good point about the difficulty tracking how many animals are being poisoned by rodenticides if we’re not testing them. Because we know policy change is more attainable when it’s backed by accurate and consistent data. So that’s probably why these reports haven’t yet resulted in a comprehensive ban on all rodenticides.

And the four owls that you mentioned that were found in the same area, which were found in North Saanich, were found around an area that has several farms, where second generation anticoagulants are still allowed.

Calling for change in local elections

A gosling walks out of the lake in front of a family of geese.

Chantelle: We have the municipal elections coming up and that’s a great opportunity to advocate for more animal-friendly bylaw commitments. Would you be able to talk a little bit about what authority municipal governments have to limit the use of rodenticides or make other laws to protect wild animals like with fireworks?

Erin: So, as we discussed earlier, municipalities really have that ability to fill in gaps that are left behind by either provincial or federal legislation. For rodenticides, we’ve actually seen that municipalities have made a huge difference in motive for the province to come down with that legislation.

So I think it’s nearly 30 municipalities now have banned all rodenticides or restricted rodenticides on their municipal property. So even though they can’t ban rodenticide use completely in the city, they can say what is allowed on their property.

And that has a huge impact, because this isn’t just one building. It includes all of their operational offices. It might include community centers, sports centers, and all kinds of different venues. So it covers quite a bit of ground. And it also brings the issue of awareness to the public eye. And I think for the provincial government, it showed that municipalities were willing to work on this, that they weren’t going to get pushback if they tried move forward with this legislation.

Amy: Then I guess there’s also some good bylaws that could be put in place for preventing wildlife feeding. Now is the time to ask either candidates, or if you’re listening to this later, elected folks to consider putting a bylaw in place around wildlife feeding or about banning fireworks or fireworks with sound.

And certainly outside of B.C., there is a municipal cycle that goes on as well. So any time is a good time to ask for change. As we know, it sometimes takes quite a while to get change in place when it comes to public policy, so best to get started sooner rather than later.

So we’ve spoken pretty in depth about the current legislation and gaps. What would you say still needs to be done to protect wildlife?

Erin: You brought up an excellent point with wildlife feeding. That’s definitely an issue that’s top of mind for us as we come into municipal elections. And this is just one of many ways that they can step in and fill a gap.

Where the province regulates the feeding of dangerous wildlife like bears and coyotes, it doesn’t regulate things that the municipal level can. So for example, the City of Vancouver has one of the more comprehensive bylaws we’ve seen prohibiting wildlife feeding, and that includes all species. Previously, there was a bylaw in place for Vancouver parks, but this now applies to the entire city of Vancouver.

Amy: That’s huge.

Erin: It is huge. And the BC SPCA has some examples of model bylaws that are available on our website. We’ve just updated our new model bylaw tool so that municipalities can actually go and look at examples of bylaws that we reviewed and we believe how the animal’s best interests in mind.

Advocate for change in your local election

Amy: It certainly seems like having one municipality take action on something helps for other municipalities to follow suit. You know, have you worked on any cases where a municipality was the first to adopt something? Curious about how that happened if you have experience with that.

Erin: For sure. I think for me top of mind, when it comes to rodenticides, was the District of North Vancouver. So they weren’t necessarily the first municipality in B.C. to pass legislation about rodenticides, but they certainly were sort of the biggest and the most vocal and they certainly developed the most comprehensive policy.

So the District of North Vancouver has also helped inspire other communities. And they can say, “Well, if a big municipality like the District of North Vancouver can do it, so can we.”

Because they also have this comprehensive policy that serves as a model for other municipalities and they don’t have to start from scratch. They already have something usable and comprehensive in place.

Amy: That certainly makes it easier to advocate. Do you have any advice for people who are in advocating for better laws for wildlife?

Erin: The most effective approach to try and make change is to talk to your elected officials. Because they want to make change that matters to their constituents, and if they don’t hear from you, they don’t know that it matters to you.

So the easiest thing you can do is email your City Councillors, Mayor and Council, email your MPs and MLAs, and let them know what animal issues are important to you and what you want to see. You can also even point them to our model bylaws and say, “I’d like to see something like this” or “This nearby district has this great bylaw. Is this something we could consider adopting?”

Laws around captive wild animals

Hana the tiger stares out the fence from a well-worn path at the Greater Vancouver Zoo.

Amy: As we segue into our next episode, we talked about fish welfare before, and then we’re moving on to laws around captive wild animals next month, taking a little bit of an in depth look at that aspect of wild animal welfare.

Do you have any thoughts to share on this topic? Are there ethical and non-ethical ways of keeping wildlife in captivity and is there room for improvement in the laws?

Erin: I think there’s certainly room for improvement. We talked a little bit about some of that cruelty legislation and how industry best practices or generally accepted best practices are excluded.

I think there is no denying that animals don’t have everything they need when we confine them in small spaces and put them up for public display. But unfortunately, if their nutritional needs are met and they’re not in neglect or distress, there’s not a lot legally that’s in place to protect them.

Amy: Yes, absolutely. I’m curious to see what can be done for stereotypical behavior.

Next episode

Watch out for the next episode of The Informed Animal Ally on October 25 about wild and exotic animals in captivity.


Podcast: “Dangerous dog” laws

Dogs have a meaningful place in many families across Canada; but what happens if a dog is deemed “dangerous”?

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal cruelty, animal law lawyer Rebeka Breder joins the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault to discuss “dangerous dog” laws, including how a dog is deemed “dangerous”, and what happens as a result.

Note: This written interview has been edited for length.

Rebeka Breder portrait

Animal Law Lawyer

Rebeka Breder practiced for more than a decade in a Vancouver law firm specializing in animal law and civil litigation before becoming a founding lawyer at Breder Law, Western Canada’s first law firm to focus exclusively on animal law. She is known as a trailblazer in developing Animal Law in Canada for over a decade. 

Municipal bylaws

A group of pitbull puppies run in the grass. Pitbulls are still considered a dangerous dog in some laws, evidence to the contrary.

Chantelle: Can you tell us a little bit about what dangerous dog laws are and your experience defending dogs who are deemed “dangerous”?

Rebeka: Yes, there are really two main areas. There’s the municipal bylaws and dealing with “dangerous” or “aggressive” dogs. And there are provincial laws that deal with the same issues.

So when it comes to the municipal level, which is at the city level, those types of cases often arise when people are out walking their dogs. And there are some kind of incident between the dog who’s being walked with another dog or the dog with another person. And those types of cases also range so much.

It could be anything from dogs kind of being dogs and playing in a dog park; and there’s a dog who is very possessive over his ball and another dog tries to take that ball away and then the dogs start fighting and one of the dogs gets injured.

Or a person trying to break up a fight between two dogs at a dog park and then the person gets injured.

Or let’s say a person is walking their reactive dog. And I’ll just pause here to say that there’s a very big difference between reactive dogs and truly aggressive dogs. So when you have reactive dogs on a leash walking in an on leash area—in other words, in areas where dogs are supposed to be leashed, like on a street—and then you have someone walking their dog not on leash and the dog that off-leash dog run up to the dog who’s leashed and then the reactive dog barks and reacts, and then the other off-leash dog gets aggressive and then there’s a fight that starts, then the question is, well, whose fault is it?

And very often I could tell you that whichever dog caused the injury, regardless of the circumstances, is more often than not considered guilty, even though the dog guardian who was walking their dog on leash didn’t do anything wrong. I had a recent case like that, so it’s kind of top of mind.

Or this one where there were puppies off leash in an area where they were supposed to be on leash, walking to an off-leash dog park. At some point, one of the puppies allegedly jumped and attacked a child. I’m going to focus on that as an example.

The woman got upset because her kid fell. My client’s dog was four months old and looks like a pitbull. The police ended up coming. The child was seen running around and not injured. So what ended up happening was that the woman complained to animal control, animal control then brought charges for bylaw infractions for dog off leash and a dog biting, attacking, and injuring.

There was a trial. What it came down to is whether what happened was a dog attack. If you’re found guilty of allowing your dog to bite attack or injure, then that causes complications for the dog guardian and the dogs, because that’s a huge strike against the dog on his or her file. If there’s another incident, it gives stronger grounds for the city to seize the dog and put the dog on death row.

So just going back for a moment to this case that I was talking about with the puppies playing, and it came down to whether in this context of play, if there was some contact between the puppy and the child, was it an attack?

We, first of all, argued that there was no contact, but if there was contact that it wasn’t an “attack”. Maybe the puppy jumped on the child because the puppy was on his way to get the ball, saw a kid, got excited, jumped on the child. The kid was 18 months old and didn’t have stability and fell, but it wasn’t an attack. The dog didn’t bite the child.

I was essentially making the argument that the whole purpose of these animal control bylaws is to prevent actual aggressive dogs from harming the public. It would be a huge mistake if courts started penalizing dogs in the context of play or penalizing dog guardians in the context of play, because that’s not what these bylaws are designed for.

Luckily, the court ended up agreeing, and so we have good case law now that talks about how an “attack” in the context of play is not an attack.

Now that said, I’m just gonna pause here to say, it still does not give dog guardians the right to let their dogs free wherever they want to. I’ve learned just from having a reactive dog myself a number of years ago, that out of respect for reactive dogs who don’t appreciate other dogs coming into their personal space, that we need to respect each other’s spaces.

So again, in a summary, in the municipal context, when we’re dealing with so-called aggressive dogs, usually it’s either fines or a combination of fines and a guilty plea where a dog is deemed to have bit attacked or injured a person. So that’s kind of in the municipal context.

Provincial laws

A dog in a kennel. Dogs seized due to dangerous dog laws can be held for months while waiting for a trial.

Rebeka: In the provincial context, there are barely any laws. There are two provincial pieces of legislation in B.C., the Community Charter and the Vancouver Charter. The community charter covers all cities in British Columbia, except for Vancouver. The Vancouver charter deals specifically with Vancouver.

And within both of those acts, there are only 10 to 11 provisions dealing with “dangerous dogs”. It’s certainly a far cry from having a complete code or rules dealing with these types of situations.

There’s a definition of what a dangerous dog is; it’s basically a three part test.

One is whether an animal control officer had reasonable grounds to believe that a dog will likely injure a person. Another one is whether the dog went off his or her own property and injured another animal. And then the other part of the test is whether the dog is likely to cause serious injury to another person.

Serious injury isn’t defined. There is no requirement that any qualified professionals are involved in this.

If an animal control officer believes that a dog meets a definition of dangerous, they do have the power to come and seize a dog and put the dog on death row. That said, and a lot of people don’t realize this, is that when animal control officers show up at someone’s door, they actually don’t have the right to just take your dog. They have to have a warrant; that is one of the provisions in the provincial legislation.

What happens more often than not, and I’ve seen it many times in my cases, they tell the dog guardian, you have to give your dog. People don’t know their rights, so they give their dog up to animal control. The dog ends up at the shelter for months, if not well over a year until the matter is actually heard in court.

Then it’s a whole trial process with witnesses, experts, with a judge. It’s a long, emotional, stressful, expensive process. And often it comes down to a “he said, she said” type of thing.

In these cases really fundamentally what would I focus on? The bulk of our case has to do with what a qualified animal behaviorist has to say.

And so the expert comes into court to explain what she believes really happened. And then just as importantly, if not more importantly, explains to the court what the management plan should be for this dog and whether the dog guardian is willing to follow this management plan.

What a management plan essentially is, is we put together a plan to make sure that an incident like that doesn’t happen again. And that would usually involve things like muzzling, if that’s what’s required, or a change in diet, to some temporary medication to help deal with anxiety, to property, making sure that there’s proper fencing, to dog training. That dog training is just as much for the dog guardian as it is for the dogs. And really keeping up with making sure that the welfare of the dog is good.

And in all of my cases, I could tell you that I’m yet to lose a dog in any of these cases. I really try to surround myself with individuals who know more than me in this area who could help the dog and the court to explain that this dog is, is not a threat to the community.

So you have these provincial laws, which as I said, there’s barely anything in there. There’s a definition of dangerous dog. There’s a requirement that you need a warrant. And then there’s a provision that allows an animal control officer to bring an application, to put a dog on death row. And other than that, there’s nothing else really of substance in there.

The judges in the past have allowed dogs, even though they have been designated as “dangerous”, to be returned on conditions, which in my cases was essentially the management plan put into the form of court order. So it was enforceable if the person breached any of those or breach of a court order, and then there, there could potentially be consequences. I can’t speak from experience what those consequences would be, because none of my clients have ever breached them as far as I know. So we never got to that point. It always worked.

And in 2019, all of that changed when the highest court in his province said these conditional orders are not allowed. If a dog is deemed dangerous, the dog has to be put down. Or if the dog is not an unacceptable risk to the public, then the dog is returned back to the dog guardian.

In the last couple of cases that I’ve been involved in that have gone to trial, we focused on the expert testimony and that the dog does not pose an unacceptable risk to the public. And we’re able to show that with the use of expert evidence.

In the eye of the beholder

A beware of dog sign on a personal property fence.

Amy: That was really helpful, Rebeka. And it brings to mind a couple tangents that we can chat about. The first one that brings to mind is the question of “livestock”. There’s a section in the Livestock Act on dogs causing injury or damage, that essentially states a person may kill a dog if the person finds the dog running at large and attacking or viciously pursuing livestock. You mentioned these definitions of terms.

So what is “viciously pursuing” and how can someone define that if they’re alone on their property, and they’re the only one observing it? It leaves it up to the layperson to make a decision as to whether or not they’re allowed to kill a dog.

Rebeka: Yes, exactly. That reminds me of another tangent, which is that the City of Vancouver is in the process of amending its animal control bylaws. There are a number of changes that are going to come into effect as of January 2023.

One of them has to do with the definition of an aggressive dog. Right now, and I’m paraphrasing, an aggressive dog in the City of Vancouver is essentially defined as a dog that has either bit, attacked, or seriously injured another dog or person, or has the propensity to do that.

The new definition is going to include some of that, but it is also going to include a dog that exhibits “aggressive behavior”. The way the City of Vancouver is defining aggressive behavior is any action by a dog that reasonably threatens a person or domestic animal and includes snarling growling, or pursuing a person or domestic animal in a hostile manner.

So there are number of issues there. First and foremost, it is so subjective. And I have already seen it in my cases where there’s someone who either doesn’t like dogs, or is scared of dogs, or is scared of pitbull type of dogs.

The dog runs up to the person who’s scared of that dog, not in an aggressive way, but just to say hi. You have two totally different perspectives on the dog’s behavior, coming from the dog guardian and the person who doesn’t like the dog. Then it’s up to animal control to investigate.

More often than not, they side with the alleged victim. And that’s going to go to court and cost dog guardians time, money, stress.

So that definition really concerns me, because it is so subjective. What does hostile manner mean? Again, it’s in the eyes of the beholder. What does pursue mean?

I could see that what the city’s really trying to do is nip the problem in the bud, so to speak very early on so that once truly aggressive behavior is detected. They’re trying to educate the public to deal with the issue. I’m worried that it’s going to have a countereffect and that in some cases, it will work, but in many cases, it won’t.

On that note the Vancouver definition, and any other definition that I’m aware of dealing with aggressive dogs or vicious dogs or dangerous dogs, does not require the involvement of a qualified professional in making that determination. So it’s essentially animal control officers who are enforcement officers, not animal behaviorists, yet they are put in positions where they are legally allowed to designate a dog as aggressive or dangerous, which could have very serious implications for the dogs and for their guardians.

Usually that means that the dog can no longer play off leash in dog parks, always has to be muzzled when in public areas, sometimes it requires a person to build an enclosure within their property. It just really limits the welfare and the freedom of the dog guardians as well as the dog owners.

“Aggressive behaviour” or communication?

A small dog snarling. Dogs may snarl to communicate discomfort.

Amy: Going back to your explanation of the definition where you’re talking about snarling. We have this ladder of animal behavior of communication signals. They start maybe looking away and different nervous behaviors towards. Maybe a quick flash of the teeth, maybe a little growl. And these behaviors are important because the dog is letting everyone else in the area know, “I’m uncomfortable”.

And so the problem with having laws that penalize some of these behaviors is that people start to punish their dogs or start to tell their dog, “No, don’t show your teeth.” And what that actually does is the opposite effect where suddenly a dog that’s communicating really well gets punished for that communication. Well, they might skip all of that communication and go to a bite, because they’ve been taught in the past that all of that other communication isn’t allowed.

And so it, it could have that adverse effect of people thinking they need to punish their dogs for clear communication and having an increase of bites. So that’s sort of the thing that I find so conflicting with some of these laws is that they have the psychological effect on people that it’s not okay for a dog to do.

Whereas if you spend every day paying attention to your dog’s signals, you learn that, okay, my dog gave a little growl because the other dog tried to steal her stick and she wanted some space and that’s a very healthy thing to do.

Rebeka: Yeah, exactly. I couldn’t agree more. And there’s also some dogs who bark, not because they’re being aggressive, but it’s just the way they communicate. They’re excited, it’s anything but aggressive.

On the flip side, dogs who are wagging their tails does not always mean that the dog’s happy. Wagging a tail could actually be part of the excitement package, where the dog’s arousal is going up, which actually could lead to aggression.

It also depends on the body language. You could literally see some dogs almost have a smile. When my little guy is happy and he’s running toward me, his face just lights up and he’s smiling and he’s wagging his tail and he’s happy.

But anyway, I just wanted to point out that there are, there are, um, there are those times when, when people wrongfully perceive a wagging of a tail as a good sign when actually the behavior is potentially on its way to becoming an aggressive behavior.

Breed specific legislation (BSL)

A dog wearing a muzzle, as required by some breed specific bylaws.

Amy: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the reason that municipalities are trying to go to these descriptions of aggressive behavior is because they’re maybe trying to move away from breed specific laws, which are worse.

And just to kind of talk a little bit more about breed specific laws, these can look different based on the community. In some cases, certain breeds are completely banned from a community and other cases they’re required to wear a muzzle. They’re often “specific” to a random assortment of breeds. Every municipality is different in what they choose to include or not include, but none of them are backed by data that shows consistent poor behavior in a specific type of breed.

Rebeka: Absolutely. And let me just say that in Canada, other than Ontario, no other province has a complete ban on pitbulls or bully breeds, so to speak. But there is breed specific legislation (BSL) throughout Canada, including British Columbia

On the positive side, Vancouver used to have BSL, but I believe back in 2005 Vancouver actually repealed that. And then after that, North Vancouver, Delta, Castlegar, Cumberland, Coquitlam, White Rock, Pitt Meadows, New Westminster.

The cities did that because they realized that it’s so hard to enforce those bylaws, because those bylaws usually say something like a pitbull or a dog with “characteristics” or “appearance” of a pitbull—what does that mean—must be muzzled, and must not be off leash in any areas. And secondly, we know the behavior of a dog does not depend on the breed.

If you ask any reputable animal behaviorist, they will tell you that it is just nonsensical and it just buys into the myth that pitbulls and dogs like that are more vicious or aggressive than others. And there are so many myths, including like that pitbulls’ jaws lock—that just doesn’t happen—or pitbulls can cause a lot of damage.

Well, actually there were peer reviewed scientific articles that compared to bite pressure of purebred pitbulls to other dogs, including German Shepherd and rottweilers, and actually found that other breeds have a stronger bite pressure than pitbulls.

I’m often asked, well then why do you always hear about pitbulls in the media? There are a number of reasons why that is, namely because it just catches people’s attention more.

But what I think is one of the bigger problems in this whole pitbull debate is that when the numbers of so-called pitbull attacks are reported, those are based on laypeople’s observations of the dog. So someone could say, that dog was a pitbull. And so it gets reported as a pitbull attack without really knowing whether the dog was actually a pitbull. And we know for a fact that in so many cases, the dog in question was actually not a pitbull.

There have been mistakes here in British Columbia. I remember a number of years ago in, in Fort St. John, in Yaletown, in Richmond. These are just three examples from top of mind where they were reported as pitbull attacks only later to be discovered that the dog in question was another breed that looked like a pitbull, but wasn’t.

Pitbulls end up getting this really bad rap, because really for every so-called pitbull attack, there are many, many, many more pitbulls who are living wonderful, happy, loving lives with good guardians.

Chantelle: A common thread in everything you’ve been saying is subjectivity. The behaviour and enforcement is all subjective. The snarling can not necessarily indicate aggression. And then the breeds are very subjective up to the individual doing the enforcement.

You mentioned a lot of municipalities that have removed their breed specific legislation. But for instance, one that still has it is Burnaby and they consider all dogs with predominant pitbull characteristics to be a vicious dog. And then the bylaw also allows vicious dogs that have been seized or impounded to be kept up to 21 days.

So dogs can be seized in or impounded for a number of reasons, as you mentioned before. If the dog is off leash, and that can be because the dog just escaped from home; if a dog visually looks like a pitbull to a specific person who reports it and is not muzzled in public.

Rebeka: It just reminded me. Close to 10 years ago, I attended the Burnaby City Council with representatives of another amazing organization, HugABull, a rescue organization for “bully” type breeds. We were trying to advocate for the repeal of BSL. And I remember making submissions to Council and the Mayor at that time.

But I remember getting really into a heated argument with the Mayor who was a very strong proponent of BSL.

I was a lawyer at the time, too. So you have a professional, who’s giving an opinion on why the laws are not enforceable and why they just don’t work. And you had other qualified professionals in dog behavior giving their reasons why BSL doesn’t work.

We were trying to present more factual based as opposed to emotional based reasons. And it just seemed like that’s what this issue often comes down to it just the way people feel about it, as opposed to actually looking at reliable peer reviewed science and on reliable facts that actually tell the real story.

It’s not about the pitbull breed. It’s about dog behavior. You cannot penalize a dog for being a certain breed.

Where do we go from here?

A dog smelling a person's hand in greeting.

Rebeka: In my mind, a really good legal framework would be part of the bigger picture which would include educating kids about dogs from a young age, and I think that would then hopefully translate to parents too.

Don’t let your little child just run up to any dog. When you approach a dog, how you approach? Let the dog sniff your hands first so that the dog can get to know you. Don’t crowd a dog.

Part of the bigger picture, I would love to see education as a key component to the development of a proper regulatory regime dealing with dogs.

And then what that proper regulatory regime would look like. It would include things like targeting known risk factors, such as requiring that dogs at a certain age be neutered or spayed subject to the opinion of a veterinarian. Because we do know that is a contributing factor; if dogs aren’t neutered or spayed, that could lead to aggression.

Having a requirement that investigations need to include interviews on both sides; both the dog guardian and the alleged victim.

A licensing regime to ensure that dogs are licensed so that if they get lost or if they get into trouble that the dog guardian and dog can be tracked.

Involving qualified animal behaviorists in this whole process to work together with dog guardians and dogs to ensure the dog’s welfare and ultimately the safety of the community too.

And an appeal process where if the city does find that a dog meets a definition of aggressive or dangerous or vicious, that there’s a way for that designation to be reviewed again after a certain amount of time.

Just some examples that come to mind.

Next episode

Watch out for the next episode of The Informed Animal Ally on September 27 discussing wildlife cruelty laws.

Did you enjoy this episode on dangerous dog laws?

For more background on regulations across Canada, check out Vancouver Humane Society’s first episode of The Informed Animal Ally exploring companion animal cruelty laws.

Companion animal cruelty laws

Podcast: Fish cruelty laws

Fishes think, play, form relationships, and feel pain; yet they are often overlooked both in animal cruelty legislation and in public discussions of animal cruelty.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal cruelty, Vancouver Humane Society Executive Director Amy Morris and Communications Director Chantelle Archambault discuss cruelty laws and practices related to fishes.

Note: Traditionally, “fishes” plural refers to the animals when there are multiple species. In this episode, the word is used to refer to any instance of multiple fish animals in recognition that each fish is an individual being.

Fish welfare legislation

A wild school of fishes in the ocean.

In general, fishes raised or caught for food are covered under the federal Fisheries Act in Canada. The act has been in place since 1868 to regulate fisheries and fish management, including protecting fishes and their habitats and preventing waterway pollution.

The law has gone through some amendments that weakened protections, but in 2019 it added new provisions that improved on the original Act. However, there is still a notable gap with regard to the welfare of fish.

The consideration for fish protection is mainly concerned with maintaining fish “stocks” as a resource, rather than protecting the welfare of fishes.

Many of the practices in “harvesting” fishes cause immense suffering. In fact, there don’t appear to be any laws that specifically outline the way fishes should be killed, which means there are no penalties for those who are fishing, or kill fishes, inhumanely.

Aquaculture (fish farming)

Aquaculture, or fish farming, is specifically included in amendments to the Fisheries Act.

Fish farms pose a major welfare problem for fishes, both those being farmed and those in surrounding waterways. Carnivorous farmed fishes like salmon, halibut, and tuna are fed diets made with fishmeal and fish oil made from smaller wild-caught fish. Open-net fish farms in particular are a major issue for surrounding fishes because they are placed in the water, allowing waste, disease, and chemicals to seep out into the surrounding ecosystem.

Fishes on farms are in kept in cramped, crowded conditions with no enrichment. According to a 2016 study by Royal Society Open Science, about a quarter of farmed fishes end up floating lifelessly at the top of their tanks, and they exhibit behaviours and brain chemistry that reflect stress and is reminiscent of the signs of depression that can be found in mammals.

Because so many fishes are stressed and in close quarters, they are very vulnerable to disease and parasites. Farms combat this by relying heavily on antibiotics. Not only can those antibiotics lead to drug-resistant infections in humans, but both the antibiotics and the parasites can make their way into surrounding water and impact wild fishes.

According to the First Nations Wild Salmon Alliance, the majority of First Nations in B.C. are opposed to open-net fish farms because of the impact of sea lice and viruses on wild fish. The federal government is currently working to phase out open-net fish farms in B.C. Bill C-258 passed the first reading in Parliament in March, which would amend “the Fisheries Act to prohibit finfish aquaculture for commercial purposes in Canadian fisheries waters off the Pacific Coast except when it is carried out in closed containment facilities”; essentially removing open net fish farms.

In BC, fish farms are managed under the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations.

Generally, like in B.C. and New Brunswick, specifics like “harvest” (slaughter) and habitat protection can be specified in the specific farm’s license rather than standardized in the regulations.

The National Farm Animal Care Council has a Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farmed Salmonids (salmon, trout, charr) as of 2021. One requirement in the Code is that “Methods of euthanasia, slaughter, and depopulation must be quick, cause minimal stress and pain, and result in rapid loss of consciousness followed by death without the fish regaining consciousness.” Electrical stunning is one of the allowed slaughter methods. The code acknowledges that the use of ice slurry (a combination of freezing and asphyxiation in non-oxygenated water mixed with ice) is not a quick or painless slaughter method, but it is still allowed for the next 2.5 years.

Industrial fishing

An industrial fishing net full of wild-caught fishes

Industrial fishing uses harmful methods that result in the mass deaths of fishes and bycatch (the accidental capture of non-target species like dolphins, sea turtles, and diving birds).

Two of the methods used in commercial fishing are:

Longlining: Boats use lines that can extend for up to 50 miles, with thousands of baited hooks branching off from the main line. In 2018, a fishing magazine reported that the Canadian government was supporting a shift to longlining, but the federal government released an action plan on reducing bycatch from longlining in 2019.

Bottom trawling: A large net with heavy weights is dragged across the seafloor, scooping up everything in its path and damaging sensitive marine habitats. Bottom trawling was banned in 2019 in Marine Protected Areas, which only make up about 6% of Canada’s marine areas.

Recreational fishing

Fish approaching lure in the water

Even when fishes are released after being caught, the use of hooks causes pain and tissue damage. The change in pressure from pulling up some fishes out of the deep water results in barotrauma. For example, rockfish can experience barotrauma. Rockfish have a specialized gas filled sack that they use to control buoyancy. When they are reeled up and brought to the surface, they can’t release the necessary gases and this blows up their eyes, stomach and vent. If the fishes are quickly returned by a descender, they can survive, but in many cases they are just thrown back and continue to suffer or die from their injuries. There are no laws to prevent this, likely because they would be very difficult to enforce.

According to research, 18% of released fishes die of injuries and another 22% of the surviving fishes have their vision permanently impaired.

Recreational fishing and hunting organizations have admitted that they work to block cruelty legislation which would protect animals further.

Are fishes considered “animals” in law?

A wild tropical fish

In law, definitions matter quite a bit. Sometimes terms aren’t defined because they are seen as obvious. B.C.’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act states, “This Act does not apply to wildlife, as defined in the Wildlife Act, that is not in captivity.” However, there is no definition of animal outlined in the act.

If an agency responsible for Prevention of Cruelty to animals received a complaint in regards to a fish in captivity, they would need to use the same criteria as they would with a dog to identify if the fish were in distress.

There are many thousands of animal species, and in some species it can be complicated to prove distress. In cases of fish, it would likely require a biologist who specializes in fish distress, and could require someone who is knowledgeable about a specific species. For example, in 2016, the BC SPCA investigated the death of a sturgeon after the fish was euthanized. The fish had come from a commercial farm and was seen floating along the top of the tank before being euthanized; sturgeon are naturally bottom feeders.

There do not appear to be any cases of animal cruelty to fishes in captivity that have made it to court. A case in the United States was dropped specifically because the definition of animal excluded fishes.

What you can do

The best way you can help decrease the demand for harmful fishing practices is by eating plant-based. Fishes are farmed in higher numbers than any other animal, so shifting away from animal products in your diet can save hundreds of fish lives every year. The greatest impact of cutting out fish-based foods from our diets comes from cutting out farmed fishes, because of the high-stress methods used throughout the fishes’ lives and their impact on wild fishes, followed by fishes caught in commercial fisheries.

Cutting out farmed meat and animal products also decreases the demand for industrial animal agriculture, which is a major source of water pollution from agricultural runoff. Agricultural runoff can lead to the overgrowth of algae, which then decomposes and depletes the water of oxygen. Fish, who cannot survive in oxygen-depleted water, either die or move elsewhere to compete for increasingly scarce territory and resources.

There’s also other small changes that everyone can make to protect fish habitats – fishes are heavily impacted by plastic pollution and rising water temperatures, so reducing your use of single-use plastics and decreasing your carbon emissions are ways you can help every day.

Advocating for an end to fishing subsidies by the government and for climate-friendly and plant-forward policies is a great way to effect systems-level change.

Learn more about fishes

Next episode

On August 30, the Vancouver Humane Society will be joined by animal law lawyer Rebeka Breder for a discussion on dangerous dog laws.


Podcast: Farmed animal cruelty laws

Industrial animal agriculture has been called the biggest animal welfare crisis on the planet, with more than 70 billion land animals killed for food each year.

The Sentience Institute estimates that 74% of farmed animals are currently on factory farms, which are characterized by large numbers of animals confined in cramped, barren and unnatural conditions. This episode of the Vancouver Humane Society’s podcast, The Informed Animal Ally, explores the practices and laws that impact the suffering of these animals throughout their lives.

Practices on farms

A farmer walks inside a poultry farm

The Canadian Criminal Code may apply to farmed animals—they include an offense for wilfully killing, maiming, wounding, poisoning animals—but only if there is no lawful excuse.

The National Farm Animal Care Council’s Codes of Practice outline the minimum generally accepted practices of animal management; practices within the codes would be considered a “lawful excuse” for causing suffering. In British Columbia, the Codes are incorporated into law as a means of defense for farmers even in cases when there is evidence of animal suffering.

Many practices we would consider essential to the welfare of animals are labelled in the Codes as “recommended practices” and not requirements. Even where there are requirements that help to protect welfare, there is no use of the codes for proactive enforcement by government.

Generally accepted practices can cause acute pain and prolonged suffering. For instance, the chicks of egg-laying hens are met with practices that cause immense suffering or death soon after birth.

  • Male chicks born from egg-laying hens are considered a byproduct because they do not grow as quickly as chickens bred for meat; they can be killed by being sent down a conveyor belt into a macerator, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags.
  • Female chicks are prepared to be raised for egg-laying by being debeaked; the tip of the top part of their beak is cut off with a hot blade or laser without anesthetic. This mutilation is done to prevent hens from pecking each other and themselves in stressful close quarters rather than giving the hens more space and freedom.

This is just one of many examples of animals receiving a punishment or painful prevention for an undesired behaviour, rather than addressing the poor conditions that cause the behaviour.

You can learn more about generally accepted practices on farms by registering for free at the Animal Justice Academy and watching The State of Animals Used in the Food Industry: In-Depth with Geoff Regier.


A pig seen through the bars of a transport truck

The Health of Animals Act regulates animal import and export, including transportation times.

There are very few farms with on-site slaughter facilities, which means most farmed animals must be transported before they are slaughtered.

The transport of animals is regulated federally by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), but the loading of the animals is considered provincial jurisdiction.

Allowed loading practices can cause serious harm to animals, as was evidenced in graphic footage captured on a B.C. egg farm. When animals arrive at the slaughter facility gravely injured or dead, no one is held accountable. Instead, the suffering can be deemed accidental because Codes of Practice were followed and CFIA veterinarians can deem it outside their jurisdiction because the harm happened before transport.

In February 2020, new transport requirements came into effect. Unfortunately, these laws had a negligible impact on the well-being of animals. The new regulations still lag behind other nations. Animals can be transported for long periods without food, water, or rest; they often arrive at slaughter facilities severely dehydrated, unable to stand, and surrounded by their own waste.


Even animals such as dairy cows and egg-laying hens, who are primarily used for the milk and eggs they produce while alive, are slaughtered at the end of their lives.

Slaughter is regulated federally through the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations. Though the federal government website claims to require “humane slaughter of food animals”, in reality animals are typically already stressed entering the facility and the slaughterhouse causes further fear and distress.

Laws require that animals are rendered unconscious before being bled. The methods through which this is done have varying degrees of effectiveness and varying degrees of pain. For instance, the gassing often used to render pigs unconscious causes distress. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and expert in animal behaviour and intelligence, says that “Pigs are at least as cognitively aware as a monkey,” and that their squeals in the slaughterhouse are “distress calls”.

A study published in 2017 found that slaughterhouse workers—often vulnerable migrant workers—experience higher levels of stress than the general population.

Auction of farmed animals

Auctions of farmed animals are typically regulated by the provincial animal cruelty laws; however, there is not usually anyone monitoring them.

Often, there are animals sold at auction who are not in good condition.

Auctions themselves are scary and overwhelming for farmed animals, as they are unfamiliar, loud, and involve a lot of uncomfortable and often cruel handling. Similarly to all other situations with little oversight, animal suffering is the norm.

Labelling of animal products

Very few terms used in the labelling of animal products are actually regulated.

All labels for animal meats where an animal production claim is made such as “organic”, “vegetable grain fed – no animal by-products” or “raised without antibiotics” must be registered with the CFIA.

“Nature” and “natural” are terms often misused on labels and in advertisements and have no meaning for animal well-being. “Organic” means that it follows the Canadian Organic Standards, which still allow painful procedures. However, advertising can be carefully written; is an animal raised by organic methods, or are they only fed an organic feed?

Terms that are not regulated include “grass-fed”, “grass-finished”, “free range”, and “free run”. Hens can be very crowded in barns of 25,000 that are free-range or free-run.

Subliminal messaging and imagery such as the use of the colour green, images of leaves and open pastures, and positive words such as “happy” can also influence the way consumers perceive the welfare of the animals. These are purely marketing tactics and do not reflect the state of the farms.

When it comes to nutrition claims, there are restrictions. However, many of the claims that are on animal products are not on plant products. For example, even though fruits and vegetables can give you much of the nutrition we require in our diets, there are often no labels on them at all because it isn’t legally required.

What you can do

If everyone on earth ate the average Canadian diet, we would need 1.3 earths for agricultural land alone. That huge demand is driving intensive agriculture to try to maximize the food output in the smallest possible space, leading to the most serious welfare concerns.

The best way to reduce the demand for animal agriculture is to start transitioning our consumption to more plant-based foods.

Every level of government and many other institutions like schools and businesses have climate commitments right now, and an important part of meeting those goals would be a shift away from animal agriculture and toward plant-forward policies and legislation.

For instance, the Canadian government currently subsidizes the private animal agriculture industry with millions of taxpayer dollars. Funding that currently props up the animal agriculture industry could be used to invest in sustainable plant-based agriculture and emerging technologies like lab-grown meat.

Governments can also help by improving animal protection laws to immediately address industrial animal agriculture, which produces more greenhouse gas emissions and uses intensive methods with some of the greatest animal welfare concerns.

If you’re interested in spreading the message about eating a plant-based diet, or if you’re thinking of trying more plant-based foods yourself, you can find recipes and tips on Vancouver Humane Society’s PlantUniversity platform.

Ag-gag laws

Ag-gag laws are anti-whistlerblower laws that apply within the agriculture industry. They can differ between provinces. They aim to prohibit the taking and sharing of footage of farm animal suffering, under the guise of biosecurity. However, ag-gag laws don’t have to be in place for law enforcement agencies to recommend charges against people who take undercover footage, or go onto farms for the sole purpose of exposing animal cruelty. Charges like “trespassing” and “mischief” are applied even when there are no ag-gag laws in place. A number of cases have been going to court in recent years.

To read industry’s perspective on these laws, check out this article from Canadian Poultry or this article from the Canadian Hog Journal.

To read animal advocates perspectives in more detail, you can read this article from the Animal Protection Party or this article from Animal Justice.

Right now, in B.C., 3 animal activists are facing charges for exposing suffering on a farm in Abbotsford, called the Excelsior 4.

Read op-ed on the Excelsior 4

Next episode

Keep an eye out on July 26 for the next episode of The Informed Animal Ally on fishes. Thank you for listening and thank you for reading.


Podcast: Companion animal cruelty laws

Millions of pet guardians across Canada consider our furry friends to be part of the family; but what happens when companion animals are the victims of cruelty?

The first episode of the Vancouver Humane Society’s podcast, The Informed Animal Ally, explores companion animal cruelty, laws, and advocacy. Listen as we dive into this topic, from gaps in federal legislation to how laws have harmed animals and their guardians.

Federal laws

A hand scratches a cat's chin

In the Canadian Criminal Code, companion animals are covered under the section “Wilful and Forbidden Acts in Respect of Certain Property“. The designation of companion animals as property in federal law has led to a patchwork of laws in which, for instance, different protections can exist for a domestic cat with a guardian compared to a feral cat. It also fails to address the intrinsic value of animals’ lives and well-being. Humane Canada is currently aiming to work with the Federal Minister of Justice to update the Criminal Code.

Specific animal cruelty cases that have set a precendent in Canada can be found through the NCPAC Case Law Database. Please note that the details in this database can be disturbing.

Canada does not currently recognize animal sentience at the federal level. A list of countries that have formally recognized non-human animal sentience can be found on Wikipedia.

Indigenous laws

A person pats a dog while sitting in the grass

Indigenous laws were applied on the land now known as Canada far before the existence of the colonial system. More about Indigenous law can be learned through the University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada course.

Generally speaking, Indigenous laws are concerned with maintaining and restoring harmony within and between human and non-human animal relationships. While specific laws differ based on the stories, history, ceremony, and worldview of each individual community, they are guided by the relationship between humans and the environment. They typically use restorative approaches that promote values including respect and consensus.

The interconnectedness of humans, animals, and the environment within the current Western tradition is considered under the One Welfare framework. This framework is not new; in fact, it is very similar to the values that have been held by Indigenous communities for thousands of years.

Historically, federal laws and practices have interfered with the freedoms of Indigenous communities to keep and care for companion animals. For instance, qimmiit (sled dogs) were an integral part of Inuit culture prior to being almost wiped out after the introduction of settlement life. Among the threats to the qimmiit was a cull by colonial authorities; hundreds of qimmiit were shot by the RCMP and other authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. For more information, see the Qikiqtani Truth Commission Final Report (PDF).

Provincial laws

A pit bull lounges on a bed

Each province and territory’s animal cruelty laws attempt to fill in the gaps left by the federal Criminal Code. Written legislation, case law, and interpretation vary between provinces and territories, creating inconsistent protections for animals across the country.

For instance, Quebec is the only province with a Civil Code, which is similar to the federal Criminal Code. Because the Civil Code enables more explicit written legislation, Quebec is the only province that officially recognizes animals as sentient beings in its written laws.

Alberta also set a precedent for recognizing animal sentience in a 2021 case regarding cruelty against a puppy named Cinnamon.

In British Columbia, companion animal protection is covered under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

A person walks a cat on a leash

Municipal laws

Municipal animal cruelty laws can allow for better community relations and animal care, but are often more open to interpretation, again leading to a patchwork approach.

Animal guardians living on a lower income are disproportionately affected by municipal laws and barriers, particularly fine-based systems, registration costs, and a lack of access to pet-friendly housing.

Where pet-friendly housing does exist, there are often further barriers to people living in poverty. For instance, some renters are required to spay and neuter their pets in order to find or keep their home—a procedure that can be prohibitively costly for pet guardians living on a low income.

The Vancouver Humane Society’s Helping Women and Pets in Crisis program aims to break down the barriers and support the pets of women who are seeking housing or maintaining their housing while caring for a pet in crisis.

Next episode

Keep an eye out on June 28 for the next episode of The Informed Animal Ally on farmed animals. Thank you for listening and thank you for reading.