Podcast: Is rodeo obsolete?

Most people are opposed to calf roping.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault are joined by guest Samantha Fuller to discuss how animals are impacted by rodeo, public response to rodeo events, and the future of rodeo.

Call for a rodeo bylaw in your community

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Indigenous Biologist

Samantha graduated from the University of British Columbia last year where she studied and researched animal biology. Her research focused on improving the welfare of laboratory rodents, investigating attitudes toward rodeo events, and the use of animal welfare science in Indigenous wildlife stewardship. She is currently an Indigenous biologist, working with environmental science to and collaborating with Indigenous communities on their land stewardship program projects.

Welfare concerns in rodeo

Calf roping event at The Calgary Stampede. Jo-Anne McArthur \ We Animals Media.

Rodeos are stressful for animals

Chantelle: Recently you conducted work researching animal welfare concerns around rodeos. The Vancouver Humane Society has also been advocating to end the inhumane use of animals and rodeos since the organization was founded in 1986. Could you speak a little bit to how rodeo events impact animals and why that issue is important?

Samantha: There’s some evidence that suggests that the methods used in rodeos can be a source of stress for the animals involved. There’s also some concerns with specific events around the safety for both the animals and the human participants.

Amy: Can you share a little bit more about those stressors in rodeo that have come up in your research and how they impact animals?

Samantha: Stress can be measured in animals using either behaviour or physiology.

In calf roping, stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine have been seen to rise in the events. This will happen while being loading into chutes or during the roping event.

Bulls have shown escape and agnostic behaviours toward handlers, which can indicate fear distress.

Unfortunately, there’s few studies investigating specific rodeo events. But looking at other areas, we can assume there are other stressors based by the animals. For instance, transportation is a known stressor for beef and dairy cattle, and also different types of horse racing can be a source of physical stress for causing injury for the animals involved.

Training vs. provoking a fear response

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. You talked about fear responses in the bulls. We’ve spoken about that before on the show as well with fight, flight and freeze responses, and it’s something we can see when people use aversive training techniques.

Amy, this is something you spoke more in depth about when we did our animal training episode back in April. What would you say are some of the differences between the way that someone would train a dog and the way that animals are trained to “perform” in rodeo?

Amy: Yeah, it’s really interesting when we think about animals that are being trained with, let’s say, positive reinforcement. They’re provided an opportunity to offer the behavior that we want from them, and then they’re rewarded with something that they really like, something they love, something that makes them feel good, the moment that they show that behaviour.

For example, if a dog is walking and you make a loud noise, which let’s say is neutral stimuli that they haven’t been exposed to before, they turn their head because they heard the noise. Then they get that reward, that really good thing, and so then in the future, they’re more likely to turn their head when they hear that sound.

That’s kind of the basis of positive reinforcement. Horses can be trained this way too. Cows, even fish have been shown to be capable of learning using positive reinforcement.

But then we look at other training styles, and maybe not always training, but punishment can be used by people that add something unpleasant to decrease the behavior.

For example, a flank strap that’s really tight decreases an animal’s desire to stand still and makes them move in such a way is to try to remove that strap. One of the ways an observer can see that the strap is causing the animal to respond to it is that as soon as the time is up in rodeo, the people who are managing the rodeo animals remove the flank strap, which then leads the animal to calm down.

Much of what happens in rodeo has little to do with training. It has a lot more to do with triggering fear responses. Animals that are waiting to be released from the chute—so situations like steer wrestling and tie-down roping—may be hit or have their tails twisted while they’re in the chute. Something that makes them uncomfortable so that when the gate opens, they run out full speed.

It can also happen sometimes that animals will freeze in place and not want to leave the chute. That’s their response.

Animals used for rodeo are prey animals, so it isn’t common to see a fight response. You tend to see fleeing or freezing.

However, we know bulls can sometimes have a fight response as you would witness in bull fighting, and then sometimes you’ll see that with some of the bulls that are used for bucking, but they quickly move out of fight and into flight as soon as they’re given an opportunity to. So you can see that they still have that desire to respond to their fear by getting out of the situation.

Samantha: Yeah, I find based on the animal and the particular event, the response might be a little different. Like you said, for calf roping, there’s more of a promotion of that flight response. For bull riding, there’s more of that promotion for a fight response.

That’s kind of what they’re looking for in that instance because they’ll get scored based on how aggressive or how lively the bull is performing in that instance. The same with the horses in the bronc events. There’s definitely variations between the events of which response they’re trying to get.

Amy: Yeah, I find it really interesting. Certainly to get that difference of, okay, are these animals trained? And maybe yes, in some cases they’re trained or they’re made to grow accustomed to the way that they’re expected to perform. But it seems like often they’re motivated through fear.

Samantha: Yeah, and I think there’s a certain amount of genetic manipulation that goes on with rodeo stock as well, trying to achieve that higher scoring animal, which can obviously play in how they respond.

Amy: Right, like with the bucking behaviors.

Samantha: Primarily, I think those are the ones where there’s more genetic roles in how they select those animals.

Public attitudes to rodeo

Rodeo culture at the Calgary Stampede

Chantelle: It’s really brutal to think about what these animals are going through, but a lot of the culture around rodeo minimizes the individual experiences of animals.

And I know that part of your research was looking at attitudes toward rodeo. The VHS recently ran a campaign on ending animal suffering at the rodeo, and part of that was monitoring rodeo events.

Amy, I wanted to talk to you about that because you watched three days of the Calgary Stampede rodeo while that was underway. I was wondering what some of the things were that you observed about the rodeo culture in Calgary.

Amy: What I found most interesting was listening to the commentators as they observed the rodeo events.

There was a really big focus on money, who was going to take money away from the event, and what I understood from that is that performers depend on placing in a certain ranking to take an income from the event. So they’re incentivized to perform the way that the rodeo expects them to.

But even with that in place, there’s many situations where things go wrong, such as when calves are pulled off their feet by the rope that gets wrapped around their necks rather than put on the ground by the people who are handling them,often aggressively. In the rodeo, these instances are considered no time—their scores aren’t counted—but the animal still gets pulled off their feet.

There were quite a few of these during the Stampede. It seems like even if it potentially causes more harm in that the calves are getting pulled off their feet and maybe dragged by the horse, it seemed difficult for the person performing to manage that. Obviously they don’t want that to happen because they don’t get a score, but it was still happening quite a bit.

I also noticed there were a lot of interesting comments made about animals and their behaviour.

There’s a lot of sociology of how people describe other people or other animals, and I noticed people commenting on whether the animals are nice or not, whether they comply or behave or not. There’s also a lot of commentary about the calves straining and struggling with this expectation that they should be submitting; where we know it makes sense that an animal that’s wanting to be free and being contained is going to struggle and try to get free.

I also noticed a big emphasis on the event as being part of the circuit to qualify on a world scale. It’s a reminder that even though the event only happens once a year, the animals performing in the rodeo are often traveling frequently and long distances. Especially the different horses are going to different events throughout the season and practice sessions through the year.

Travel is stressful on everyone, humans and animals, but particularly these animals aren’t being given a choice as to whether they want to opt into that travel. Horses and cows are herd animals and they’d rather be with a group of horses and cows over being put in a trailer on their own and traveling to a loud and stressful arena.

Responses to advocacy

Amy: We shared some of the photos and videos from this event on social media, and I’m curious, Chantelle, being the person who saw all the social media comments, what are some of the ways that people respond to posts from VHS’s website,

Chantelle: There’s a very strong response. One thing that’s really clear is this is an issue that people feel very strongly about either way. There are people who would love to see rodeos cancelled for good, but the rodeo supporters feel just as strongly that they should be kept around forever.

I’ve noticed that people on the side of rodeo kind of move the goalposts when you’re talking about rodeo, every time you point out an issue.

So if we say that animals aren’t given choice whether to participate, people will say that, actually, animals love being in the events, so they would choose to.

But we know for a fact that animals aren’t given a choice because we see what happens to them if they try to opt out of the behaviors. For instance, we shared a video of a horse during a bucking event who instead of having the flight and fight response, had a freeze response and just stood still in the chute. That horse was just repeatedly smacked in the face. They kept opening the gate and trying to hit and push the horse out.

We shared that video and the response to that video was, well, the horse wasn’t being hit that hard; the person just slapped or pushed the horse; they weren’t punching them, and the handlers wouldn’t actually hurt the horse. The video shows that horses aren’t given a choice, but we do know that horses are hurt in these events also.

Animals are catastrophically injured and die at the Stampede quite frequently. The VHS started tracking fatalities in 1986, and since then, 105 animals have died at the Calgary Stampede. Those deaths are happening almost every year. But on the other hand, when we shared those numbers that animals actually are in fact injured and killed by these events, people will just say, those deaths just happen sometimes, or it’s not enough deaths to really worry about. But those individual animals’ lives matter and we as humans don’t need to be putting them in those situations where they’re at risk for our entertainment.

Another response we hear a lot is deflection. People will say that advocates shouldn’t be looking at this issue at all because there are all these other issues happening in the world.

That’s a technique known as whataboutism. It basically aims to distract from the topic at hand. Of course, it’s possible to care about this issue of animal suffering in rodeo and work to address other different issues at the same time. And if everyone really believed that we shouldn’t be looking at one issue because there’s another one, nothing would ever improve. There’s always going be other issues.

So in general, there’s a lot of denial, moving the goalposts, and deflections to avoid discussing the very real fear and stress and pain and risk that animals face in rodeos so that humans can carry on hosting these events and participating in them and watching them.

At the same time, it’s clear that public opinion is increasingly critical of how animals are treated in rodeos. So I think that the fact that there is such strong pushback to criticism of these events shows that the industry is concerned about how the future of rodeo is going. Maybe this is not something that is sustainable to continue.

Amy: I think some of those observations apply to any type of advocacy or change.

Polling results on rodeo attitudes

Amy: Samantha, you recently collected some data about people’s perceptions of rodeo events and their responses to rodeo footage. What did you learn from that?

Samantha: People’s attitudes seem to be guided by a couple things, including:

  • the perceived cultural value of the event;
  • how the animals are treated; and
  • the risk and safety of the event.

And these are most influenced by like that person’s attitudes towards animal use in general.

There’s kind of these two ends of the spectrum.

On one side, somebody will think all animal use is okay, so all of these events are okay. And then on the other side, there’s no animal use is okay, so no event is okay. And these are kinda like hypothetical endpoints. Most people fall within kind of this gradient of how they view the use of animals.

Public perceptions of 4 rodeo events

And in this study in particular, it seemed to also be influenced by the species in the particular event and the age of the animal. For this study, we looked at four events:

  • Barrel racing;
  • Chuckwagon racing;
  • Bull riding; and
  • Calf roping.

In general, most people approve of the events using horses. I think there’s this relationship or perceived relationship between horses and riders, so most people think that horseback riding is okay. As a result, most people approved of barrel racing. For this event in particular, people recognize the importance of the place of women in rodeos.

There was a slight decrease in the approval of chuckwagon races, and this was due to the fact that a lot of people thought there was more risk involved in the event because of the number of horses and the proximity of the wagons.

More people disapproved a bull riding and felt like the animal was being exploited and angered for the sake of entertainment. Bull riding was most polarized in terms of the cultural significance. Some people in the U.S. in particular said it was in our all-American sport, it needs to be conserved; while others thought the event was barbaric and outdated.

It’s important to note for chuckwagon racing and bull riding, there was a lot of uncertainty in whether people approved or disapproved. And this might be due to like a lack of information or they’re kind of unable to pick which value is more important to them, the cultural aspect or the potential of harm to animals.

Finally, people most disapproved the calf roping event. People identified the age of the animal as a concern, referring to the calf a lot of the time as a small baby, which in turn may have led to them to perceive more stress and injury involved in the event. Some participants who approved of calf roping thought it showcased a vital skill for the meat industry in general.

Amy: What were you surprised by with all of these research findings?

Samantha: I thought it was interesting how much cognitive dissonance was present regarding animal use and entertainment.

Cognitive dissonance is a stress response when people have information that doesn’t align with their beliefs. And like you said, it can result in people either, discounting information or they’ll provide some sort of explanation to justify their beliefs.

In this study, the contradicting information was the safety and animal treatment versus this cultural value and historical value of the event.

People who approve of high levels of animal use don’t necessarily associate negative states to the animals, or they’ll even say the animal is enjoying the event. They are also more likely to say that training of participants and the rules in place or government rules protect the animals and the people from getting hurt, as another justification to those perceived risks.

And then on the other side, people who disapprove of all animal use were more likely to associate these negative animal welfare and risks, but they’re also more likely to disvalue any cultural significance. They would say things like, rodeos are like a Greek Colosseum and the viewers are violence seeking.

So there’s definitely this divide and this polarization.

Amy: Yeah, it’s really interesting because I think about just the ways that the animals experience the event, and then the ways that people think that they’re experiencing the event.

Based on the scientific evidence we have of animal behaviour, it can be drastically different.

We had one email from someone who said basically that they thought that the wild pony racing (a children’s event at the Calgary Stampede where the kids try to mount a pony that’s trying to get away and doesn’t want to be mounted) was important because the ponies almost always “win”. And winning means getting away, not getting mounted by the children. I thought that was really interesting because animals don’t have a concept of winning and losing; of competing against each other or competing against the children.

They aren’t winning exactly, but maybe they’re getting away or avoiding the stimuli that they find aversive. But the idea that we put that label on them gave me a real insight into how people shape their ideas about animal behavior.

How will survey data be used?

Chantelle: Samantha, this is really fascinating data. How do you think this could be used in the future?

Samantha: Survey data can help researchers identify the areas the public’s concerned about, and inform possible areas of future studies.

For example, providing more information about chuckwagon racing and bull riding—the events that there is a little bit more uncertainty about—could impact the approval of these events or clarify some of the perceptions around these events. Or, adding safety precautions to events that people are perceiving the safety risks such as chuckwagon races could also improve the acceptance and in turn the welfare of these events.

Amy: Is there anything you didn’t ask in the survey that now that you’ve gone through that process, that you’d want to study or ask in the future?

Samantha: Yeah, with these fairly strong opinions about culture and animal use, I think it would be interesting to investigate this a little further by providing potential changes or refinements that could happen in events and see if there’s still that cultural and entertainment value to it, as well as maybe a lower perceived risk.

For an example, if in calf roping you use the mechanical calf or breakaway ropes, which are ropes that once the animal’s caught it kind of releases the tension and breaks away, would they still find this event entertaining?

Amy: I’d be curious about that as well. Certainly I’ve seen people ride on mechanical bulls and have a great time. There’s so much scoring that goes down to the animals that I’m so curious if you took away the scoring of the animals and just had people be scored, it would be a little bit more consistent and maybe make it more of a sport.

So curious to see where the future takes us with rodeo.

Dropping animal events would not impact Stampede attendance

Amy: VHS actually gathered some polling data about opinions towards rodeos. Chantelle, I was wondering if you could talk about the findings from that poll.

Chantelle: Certainly. During last year’s stampede, the Vancouver Humane Society commissioned a Research Co. poll of Calgary residents to ask about their current plans to attend the Stampede; so if they were going to attend that year or if they had already attended that year, and also if they would attend in a future year if the rodeo and chuckwagon events were removed.

The poll found that there was virtually no change in attendance if those the rodeo and chuckwagons were dropped. 64% of people said they had attended that year or were likely to attend, and 63% said they would be likely to attend without the chucks and rodeo.

So although we’ve assumed the Stampede has continued hosting those inhumane animal events out of financial motivation, we can see that dropping them really wouldn’t have much impact on attendance at all.

The poll also showed that removing those events would draw in new crowds. 24% of people who didn’t attend last year expressed an interest in attending the Stampede if it didn’t have rodeo and chuck wagon racing.

Of the people who hadn’t attended and would change their behaviour, the biggest change was in the youngest group of people, where about two out of five non-attendees from last year (aged 18-34) would be likely to attend if the rodeo and chuckwagon races were removed.

That makes sense; we’ve heard from many people who won’t attend because of the animal suffering.

Beyond the animal events, there is another draw: the Stampede is a major arts and culture event. The concerts alone draw in hundreds of thousands of people every year. Coverage in the news of this year’s event pointed out that the events that do cause animal deaths almost every year don’t really resonate with the crowds coming for the concerts.

As there’s more information available and people are becoming more aware of what animals go through and how they experience the world, it would make sense for the Stampede to lean more into the concerts and the arts and the midway elements and start moving toward a rodeo-free future that’s more in line with the public’s values.

What’s next?

Amy: Thinking about what impacts that we can have, what can the people listening to this podcast do to support individual animals’ needs being met and their wants and desires being cared for, and put an end to some of these inhumane practices?

Chantelle: So there are really two major factors that are going to help end inhumane rodeo practices, and those are public opinion and policy change.

The first step is fewer people buying tickets and attending rodeos. The industry’s main motivation is profit, of course. So if people aren’t spending their money supporting those events, there’s really no financial motivation to continue them.

You can help with this by sharing the posts from the Rodeo Truth page on social media to show the realities of what animals experience in rodeo and encourage other people to boycott rodeo events.

Follow Rodeo Truth on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok and share the posts:

Secondly, you can help by asking your municipality’s mayor and council to introduce a bylaw that bans inhumane rodeo events.

Call for a bylaw

The City of Port Moody in B.C. recently passed a bylaw unanimously to prohibit inhuman rodeo events. The City of Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver also have bylaws in place.

This is a really impactful step, whether you live somewhere that hosts rodeos or not. If you live somewhere that doesn’t host rodeos currently, a proactive ban can be really important because it prevents new rodeos from being introduced, and it helps to grow the precedent for other municipalities to follow suit.

You can also take the Say No to Rodeo Pledge on the Rodeo Truth website, which we’ll share with Stampede organizers and Calgary decision-makers to show them that the public opposes those events.

Take the pledge

Next episode

We hope you’ll join us again next month for discussion on plant-based eating and health.


Podcast: Will plant-based become the norm?

65% of people are eating fewer animal-based products.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault delve into a recent project from the VHS to determine what people in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland think of plant-based eating and to share the benefits.

Read report

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Why share the benefits of eating plant-based?

Chantelle: As we’ve mentioned before on this podcast, industrial animal agriculture is arguably the biggest animal welfare crisis in the world. We’ve also mentioned that eating a plant-based diet is the most impactful way to decrease the demand for animal products, which drives farmed animal suffering. Another important piece of that puzzle is advocating for plant-based foods to be more accessible for everyone. But what does that advocacy look like in practice?

This month we’ll be delving into a recent project from the Vancouver Humane Society to determine what people in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland think of plant-based eating and to share the benefits of eating a plant-based diet.

Report prepared for the City of Vancouver: Increasing Plant-Based Purchasing at the Municipal Level

Amy: Yeah, and to share a little bit of what’s kind of behind this: In 2021, the City of Vancouver made a commitment for their staff to look into the city shifting 20% of their animal-based purchasing to plant-based foods, following the release of a report that our organization commissioned on what the city could save in greenhouse gas emissions, cost, and animal lives.

Read report for the City of Vancouver

So after the success of that report, we were supported by a funder to develop and promote a cost-benefit analysis demonstrating what an individual could save if shifting towards a more plant-based diet.

Poll of plant-based habits and attitudes in the Lower Mainland

Amy: That involved observing the quantity of animal products consumed by B.C. residents. Since we were already gathering that polling data, we recognized it would be worthwhile to gather meaningful data about BC residents, plant-based eating habits and attitudes as a whole.

We used a recent poll from VegTO as a starting point, and then we gathered data that we could use to further the plant-based movement in B.C. In the next little while, we’ll take you through some of the findings from both the survey and the cost benefit analysis. You can find this data linked in the blog post associated with this podcast.

There are lots of visuals there to make the data come alive. And really to give a broad overview of what the survey entails, it included results from just over 800 residents of the Lower Mainland to ensure that the data could be statistically significant.

Chantelle: Right. And those respondents were also balanced for demographics like age to be as accurate as possible.

How different generations feel about plant-based eating

Chantelle: Let’s talk about age. People have been avoiding animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy in some cultures for thousands of years, plant-based eating has deep roots in a lot of cultures, including ancient Indian cultures and Eastern Mediterranean societies. But the idea of plant-based eating in most of the Western world is pretty new.

The word vegan is less than a hundred years old. It was coined in 1944 by the founder of the Vegan Society named Donald Watson, and the concept has been growing very gradually since then and has recently bloomed.

If you were to look for a vegan-friendly meal at your average food court just 40 years ago, you wouldn’t have had a lot of options. I’ve heard so many stories from early vegans who had to get by on french fries and ketchup any time they were outl. Because those early adopters persevered and advocated, the movement has spread and now you can find something plant-based to eat almost anywhere. We’re so fortunate to have this amazing selection of veggie burgers and wraps and curries, and almost anything else you can think of.

And now that we have all these delicious options available, there’s so many more people who are open to eating plant-based foods.

Which generations are eating more plants?

Chantelle: In the survey that we did in the Lower Mainland, we found that younger generations are more likely to decrease or eliminate animal products from their diets. 69% of people aged 18 to 34 had reduced their consumption of animal products, compared to 66% of people aged 35 to 54, and 60% of people aged 55 and over.

In both the younger age groups, 3% of people identified themselves as being vegan, compared to in the 55+ age group, which rounded to 0% of people who identified as vegan.

Why people are eating more plants, by age

Chantelle: Another interesting finding that came out of the survey is that the motivations for eating more plant-based foods differed by generation.

People aged 18 to 34 were most likely to eat more plant-based foods to save money or to help the environment, while the other age groups were like ust to eat more plants for their personal health.

When it comes to choosing what to eat, all the age groups consider taste to be a priority, with price and availability coming close behind. Younger people are also more likely to consider convenience and the influence of friends, family, and their community.

It’s really great news that people are beginning to consider convenience a priority just as plant-based convenience foods are becoming more widely available. Those are things like packaged meals or plant-based lunch meat.

As companies keep developing those products and they keep evolving to have prices and flavors that rival their animal-based counterparts, it’s going to become easier and easier for someone to pick up something like a $2 package of veggie bologna over a $4 package of meat bologna that tastes essentially the same. That’s when it’s likely that we’ll see a wider shift toward a society that eats more sustainably.

Amy: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that. Certainly I think it makes sense that eventually those products are going to become more affordable.

Do people with pets eat more plant-based foods?

Amy: We were also really curious. If people who have pets make any different decisions when it comes to plant-based eating than people without pets.

Pet guardians more likely to consider farmed animal welfare

Amy: So current pet guardians and non-pet guardians were asked how much they agreed with the statement, “I think about the treatment of farmed animals when I’m deciding what food to buy”.

I found it interesting that 59% of people who currently have pets agreed or strongly agreed with that statement compared to 47% of people who don’t currently have a pet.

Chantelle: I think that’s very interesting. I can see where that number is coming from because people who share their lives with animals can see how complex they are and how much they feel, and how strong their relationships can be.

Amy: I think it lines up with what I would expect too. Although, of course I’d love to see more connection between pets and farmed animals, considering we know they’re all sentient, they can feel pain and suffering.

Having a pet doesn’t make people value plant-based eating more

Amy: With another question on the survey, when asked how much they agreed with the statement, “Eating more plant-based foods can have a significant impact on reducing harm to animals”, there was really no discernible difference between pet guardians and non-pet guardians.

70% of people who currently have a pet agreed or strongly agreed with that statement, compared to about 68% of people who don’t currently have a pet.

Do you feel that seeing your pets’ unique personalities, intelligence, and capacity for love, joy, fear, and pain has made you more compassionate towards other animals?

Chantelle: I mean, for myself personally, sharing my life with animals has definitely made an impact on the way I see things.

Content warning: pet loss. Losing my first cat was actually what convinced me to start phasing out animal products from my diet years ago because it didn’t make sense to me to make animals die for the food I ate when I was so devastated by the death of an animal that I loved and farmed animals have the same complex internal lives that our companion animals have.

Pigs can reason just like dogs, cows form friendships and emotional bonds with their calves. Chickens can solve problems. They all dream, they think they feel and they want to have a good life.

Do men eat more meat?

Chantelle: Another interesting distinction in the survey data was about gender identity. You may have seen the stat that most vegans identify as women. Looking at the survey gives us some more insight into what the gender gap really looks like when it comes to plant-based food habits and attitudes here in the Lower Mainland.

Men are less likely to reduce animal product consumption, identify as vegan or vegetarian

In the survey, women and those who prefer to self-describe were significantly more likely at 71% to have reduced their animal product consumption than men at 58%.

Of the survey respondents who identified as vegan or vegetarian, 70% identified as women or preferred to self-describe and 30% identified as men.

That could partly be because animal products, especially meat, have historically been heavily marketed to men and associated with masculinity. If you think of something like ads for barbecue equipment that show a full tray of steaks, those are really featured around things like Father’s Day, and they almost always show men in the ads.

And then we see so many people who are changing their narrative on this, which is great news. The Game Changers is a really great documentary from filmmakers including Arnold Schwarzenegger. It follows a number of plant-based athletes to bust the myth that you need to eat animals to be strong, and it shows that anyone can be just as if not more strong eating plant-based.

What does the plant-based gender gap mean for food access?

Chantelle: I think that gender gap is probably making a really big impact when we consider that there’s a lot of men in high power positions in the companies that decide what food is available.

Men are 83% of the 533 named executive officers in S&P 100 companies, which is what many people consider to be the a hundred most major companies in the United States.That means that a lot of decisions about what food is offered and what food is marketed are ultimately being motivated by male leadership.

What do people think of plant-forward policies?

Amy: Speaking of male leaders being prominent in the corporate sector, we were really curious about what people, both those who eat plant-based primarily and those who do not, think about change at that institutional level.

Most people support plant-forward government policies

Amy: The survey showed that three in five consumers (60%) would support including animal product reduction efforts into local, provincial, and federal climate, health, and animal welfare strategies.

The results also showed that a majority (58%) would support shifting government subsidies from animal-based food production to plant-based food production.

Most people believe menus with plant-based options are more inclusive

Amy: When it came to restaurants, hospitals, schools, and public institutions like parks food service, the survey showed that 89% of consumers would either not change their opinion or value them more highly if they offered more plant-based food options.

Looking at this in more detail, the survey data indicated that 73% of consumers would view food services that offered greater variety of plant-based options as more inclusive to all.

So that’s nearly three quarters of the population that see this change as meaningful and want the kind of leadership who are making decisions about this to make more plant-based options available.

Most people would eat more plant-based foods if there were more tasty options on menus

Amy: 65% of respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that they would eat more plant-based meals if there are more tasty options available when going out to eat.

So big changes can be made at the institution level to increase the prevalence of plant-based foods.

How to advocate for more vegan-friendly options

Amy: Really the best thing we can do as individuals to support these changes is to encourage restaurants, schools, park concessions, and government to adapt familiar and popular menu items to be plant-based.

We can also ask them to prioritize the marketing of plant-based items; place them front and centre on the main menu, rather than having them be something on the side.

If you’re keen to get involved with that kind of advocacy, there’s resources or through our farmed animal advocacy team at the Vancouver Humane Society who can provide personalized support to help you get involved in your community to ask for more kind of prominent plant-based options.

Advocacy resources
Contact the VHS team

Chantelle: Yeah, those are all great points. It makes such a big difference for individuals choosing what to eat when institutions have made those plant-based foods straightforward and accessible.

Is a plant-based diet nutritious?

Amy: We also wanted to get an idea of what the major barriers were to switching to a plant-based diet.

Survey results indicated that nutrition was the main barrier. 88% agreed or somewhat agreed that they think about nutrition when deciding what food to buy, and 28% of respondents said that they were concerned they wouldn’t get enough protein in their diet if they ate more plant-based foods.

To share a little bit of a personal story, I grew up as a gymnast eating an animal-based diet. Today, I’m a rock climber and a runner, and I have genetic blood sugar issues and I eat a fully plant-based diet.

There are some strategies I’ve found to help me keep up the energy I need for the activities I’m doing. I make sure that I eat a protein with every carb. That’s either nuts, soy products, or a good volume of lentils and beans.

I also avoid really carb intensive foods like white rice or potatoes unless it’s an activity day, because my body can’t process those types of sugars very well. So I opt for sweet potatoes and brown rice instead.

My body really craves fats and protein after a big day in the mountains, so I’ll often eat a spoonful or more of peanut butter before bed to ensure my body’s getting what it needs to stay active. Avocados are really great too, and they’re great insulin regulators.

When I take slower days where I’m not moving a lot, I eat the same ratios of food, but I stick to smaller meal sizes. The reason I eat smaller meals more frequently is to manage my blood sugar, essentially to ensure my body always has the fuel that it needs without a big sugar spike and a consequent dip.

I make sure to take my B12 and eat foods rich in magnesium, calcium, iron, and also make sure to intake lots of electrolytes.

While being active feels good, it feels even better knowing that I’m fueled by plants. I’m grateful that I don’t feel pressure to harm animals while being active. And many of my high intensity athletic friends also eat a plant-based diet.

And this is a personal experience. Certainly everyone has a different dietary need, a different kind of lifestyle, and figuring out what the best foods are for your life is what’s most important. Some of this comes lots of research, going to nutritionist, going to naturopath, and learning about food, and so I really recommend just going to many sources as you can to gather information to understand what your body needs and how to take care of yourself.

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. We’re really just sharing our personal experiences about what works for us, but it’s really great that you found something that works for you, Amy.

There’s so much information on nutrition out there that it can at times be hard to sort it all out. I really personally like the recipes on because they’re focused on good nutrition while also being really tasty. The website also has great videos from nutritionists breaking down the important things to make sure you are considering for your body to thrive on a plant-based diet.

I have also found that since going vegan and eating a plant-based diet, I’m more mindful about making sure I get the nutrients I need, so I’m eating meals that are more balanced to help me get through the day.

I used to struggle with low iron when I was an omnivore and later a vegetarian. I would experience some symptoms of that, like weakness and fatigue even when I was getting enough calories for the energy I was using. Now I’m eating more foods that are rich in that nutrient, like dark leafy greens and tofu, and I’ve found it easier to keep my nutrient levels where they need to be.

Is a plant-based diet tasty?

Chantelle: You might not be surprised to hear that the top concern people identified in the survey was taste. 73% of respondents said taste influences their food choices the most, and 37% said that they worried they wouldn’t enjoy their meals as much if they switched to more plant-based foods.

Amy: Yeah, this is a really interesting one. This is something that I’ve thought about a lot because growing up my favorite meal was macaroni and cheese and I just loved cheese in general. So when I transitioned to a plant-based diet, I was worried about having to give up my favorites.

I found a really good mac and cheese recipe using vegetables and seasoning to make up the cheese sauce. Just the other day I had a mac and cheese meal that reminded me so much of my childhood and no animals were harmed for me to be able to eat that meal. I know nostalgia is really powerful and I did miss cow’s dairy cheese for a little while. But I’ve gotten to the point now where I’ve created new memories about the food that I like to eat, and I don’t crave things like dairy cheese anymore.

There are more resources than ever to help you find options for things that you have as a go-to that provide the nutrients and the taste that you’re looking for.

I found checking out the aisle at the grocery store that has plant-based alternatives. Sometimes there’s many aisles or it’s kind of strewn around the grocery store in a lot of different spots.

I find also learning how to better flavour foods that are made with things like walnuts, beans, and lentils is the best way to address nostalgia for meat-based recipes.

Chantelle: For sure, and your taste buds definitely change as your diet does. One of my favorite things about switching to a plant-based diet has been all the new foods I’m getting to try.

When I expanded my view of food from meat being the centre of a dish to considering the dish as a whole and having all these different protein options like beans, mushrooms, lentils, tofu, seitan, and I also do enjoy plant-based convenience foods like mock meats, this whole culinary world opened up to me.

I find that I have a lot more variety in my diet now, but that’s not to say I don’t still enjoy my classic comfort foods like your mac and cheese. There are so many resources out there to adapt your favorite dishes by swapping out ingredients, but the easiest thing that I’ve found to do is if I’m craving something like Alfredo, I’ll just look up vegan Alfredo and the work of figuring out ingredient swaps is already done for me.

Amy: Yeah, I love that.

How plant-based food can lower your grocery bill

Amy: We spoke quite a bit about the survey, but the main reason we did this survey was to do a cost benefit analysis and have that be available for individuals to see the kind of financial and environmental and animal welfare benefits to switching to more plant-based diet. So what’s that all about?

Chantelle: In a brief summary, we know that one thing that’s really deeply impacting people right now is rising food costs with the price of groceries going up. We thought many people might be looking for ways to reduce the cost of their cart and the food that they’re buying.

The poll validated what we suspected and found that the vast majority of people are concerned about rising costs and are looking for ways to cut back at the grocery store.

  • 92% of people are concerned about the rising cost of living.
  • 87% of people are looking for ways to cut back at the grocery store, and most people are not just looking for sales and deals, they’re also looking to change the way they eat.
  • 75% of people are trying to eat more affordably.
  • 66% of people shared that they would be open to exploring more plant-based food options to save money.

When we look at the youngest group surveyed, all those numbers are even higher.

  • 96% of people aged 18 to 34 are concerned about rising cost of livings.
  • 91% are looking for ways to cut back at the grocery store.
  • 82% are trying to eat more affordably.
  • 77%, so more than three quarters are open to exploring more plant-based food options to save money.

While most people were open to eating more plant-based foods to save money, some people do express concerns that plant-based eating is just too expensive; maybe imagining a scenario where people are eating the highest cost mock meats every day.

But we know that practically, that’s generally not what’s happening. Most people who eat plant-based are eating a balance of a lot of different foods, including whole foods like tofu and legumes.

The cost benefit analysis essentially lays out the actual financial savings of swapping out animal products for plant-based products.

If you consider the cost savings of swapping ground beef in your chili for red lentils, a hundred grams of ground beef is $1.54. A hundred grams of lentils is less than a third of that at 48 cents. Or if you have a bean burrito instead of chicken, a hundred grams of chicken breast is $2.42, whereas the same amount of black beans is just 42 cents.

So those savings are significant and they do stack up over time significantly, which means that rising food costs in general could be a factor that push plant-based eating to become more of the norm.

How plant-based food can cut your emissions

Chantelle: The other thing the report looks at is the impact of our food choices on greenhouse gas emissions and what making those same swaps could mean in terms of emission savings.

We found that eating plant-based for a year can save as much carbon dioxide as the emissions used to power an entire home for six months.

Or if you just switch 25% of your diet from animal-based foods to plant-based foods, that could save enough carbon dioxide each month to charge a cell phone 2068 times.

Impact of swapping beef for lentils

Swapping beef for lentils has the biggest impact in terms of emissions, and the second biggest impact in terms of cost. That’s because beef is so resource intensive to produce. Cows need a lot of space; they eat a lot of food; they produce a lot of methane. If all beef products in someone’s diet were replaced with lentils for one year, it would be the equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 18 tree seedlings over 10 years.

Depending on how much beef and what kind of beef a person eats, they could also save up to $60 a month by making that swap.

Impact of swapping seafood for mushrooms

The next most impactful change in terms of emissions and the biggest impact in terms of cost is swapping seafood for mushrooms. Mushrooms have a really similar texture to seafood and they can be used as a substitute and a lot of recipes.

If a person eating the average Lower Mainland diet ate mushrooms instead of seafood for a year, they would save enough emissions to drive about 1600 kilometers in a gas powered vehicle.

Depending on the amount of seafood a person is eating, the cost savings are up to $64 a month.

How plant-based eating helps animals

Amy: Yeah, those are all really significant impacts that one person can make by changing just one thing, the way they eat.

Of course, eating plant-based also has a major impact on reducing animal suffering because there’s less demand for animal products so fewer animals will be raised and killed in the conditions we’ve spoken about that are pretty horrific.

If you’re aiming to reduce your consumption of animal products to reduce animal suffering, it’s really important to consider the number of animal lives used to supply consumption habits, as well as the amount of hardship a particular animal will face in their short lifetime.

So for instance, chickens are quite small, so a very large number of them are killed to supply the demand for chicken meat. Dairy cows are typically given very little freedom and are forced to endure births and heartbreaking separation from their calves about once per year. They also live longer, more long suffering lives.

So just really thinking about each product that you consume, what’s its origin? Who is it coming from? What is that individual’s life like? I found that really helpful when I was moving towards a plant-based diet; to not see this packaged product as just plastic and marketing, but seeing the animal behind it and thinking about the animal behind it. That really helped me stick to my motivation to create a full shift and to go a hundred percent plant-based.

What’s next?

Amy: So what’s next?

Chantelle: Great question. So there are a lot of ways we’re planning to use the data from the survey, including for the cost benefit analysis.

Read report

We are also sharing it with the media.

We’re raising awareness in the community through things like infographics and ad campaigns.

We’ll also be engaging with government policy makers and institutional decision makers to talk about ways that the public supports these more institutional shifts towards plant-based foods and plant-based policies.

We’ll use it to inform the content we create moving forward for Plant University, which is a resource that helps individuals and institutions shift their diet and the foods that they offer to more plant-based foods.

How can you help?

Chantelle: One way that you can get involved with this is by sharing the cost benefit analysis from the Plant University website or the related infographics and social media posts with your friends and family.

You can also use some of the stats we’ve discussed today to engage with your favorite restaurant or grocery store or at your school or workplace if food is purchased and provided.

Amy: I’m looking forward to seeing the ways that people choose to change their diet. I think there’s a lot of great ways to start and to shift kind of one little bit at a time and certainly the resources are there to make that happen.

Chantelle: Absolutely. And we are also available as a resource so you can comment on the posts associated with this episode or reach out to us on social media.

Next episode

A bull in the chutes at The Calgary Stampede rodeo. Jo-Anne McArthur \ We Animals Media.

Please join us next month as we discuss animals used in rodeo.


Podcast: How can you help wildlife?

What can we do to help wildlife?

There are many ways that human activities, infrastructure, and policies impact wild animals. On this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault discuss the ways in which animal allies can speak up for wildlife.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Compassionate conservation

Chantelle: Last month we talked about farmed animals and went through their natural behaviours species by species. This month will be a little different, since we’re talking about wildlife and there are so many species.

Amy: Before we get into it, I want to touch on an important piece of background for this discussion. Conservation is a topic that comes up a lot when people talk about wild animals, but it’s often about preserving the species and maintaining biodiversity, without looking at the well-being of individual animals. The lens we’ll be using today is compassionate conservation, which includes the guiding principles:

  • First, do no harm
  • Individuals matter
  • Inclusivity
  • Peaceful coexistence between animals and humans

Throughout this episode we’ll be talking about ways you can help protect wild animals from the threats they face, and it’s important to bear in mind through all these advocacy actions that the goal is to treat wildlife with respect, justice, and compassion, and to allow them to thrive. There is a great infographic on this.

Urban wildlife

Chantelle: Absolutely, thanks so much Amy. Now that we’ve covered that, I think it makes sense to start with a brief overview of some of the ways humans interact with wild animals. When we think of most people’s day-to-day interactions with wild animals, many people living in cities, towns, or suburbs will think about urban wildlife. Urban wildlife refers to animals who have adapted to survive alongside humans and the infrastructure we’ve developed. Those adaptations can include taking advantage of new food sources, like garbage or some types of plants, or building their nests in human-made structures.

Amy: Urban wildlife may show signs of being habituated, or unafraid of, people. This happens over time as they encounter situations that feel safer and safer; alternately, they find ways to navigate in the human world that avoids people entirely. Just like with humans, wild animals will be afraid of what they don’t know, and comfortable with anything that feels familiar and safe.

Some urban wildlife are considered synanthropic species, which means they thrive in human environments. Think of adaptations like pigeons nesting in buildings and eating dropped food, squirrels living in trees from parks and gardens, rats commonly living in sewers or buildings. Some people consider these species to be “pests” because living in such close proximity can lead to human-wildlife conflict.

Other urban wildlife often live alongside humans in urban environments, but they aren’t as dependent on human activities to survive. If you think of an animal like coyotes, they’re generally considered an opportunistic species so they can exploit the resources in human environments like eating small animals, fruits and vegetables, or garbage; but they can also survive in a more natural landscape. They’re also typically more wary of humans.

Threats to urban wildlife

Chantelle: That brings us to talking about some of the threats urban wildlife can face. You mentioned human-wildlife conflict and that’s something that can have a very negative impact on animals. Generally, conflict arises when animals are causing damage like chewing walls, making messes like knocking over garbage bins, or if they’re posing a threat or perceived threat to human or pet safety, such as skunks nesting below a shed and the people who live in the home being afraid of their dog being sprayed. In those situations, the outcome for the animal is usually very negative or even deadly. Often animals are killed—two issues that have been really top of mind over the past year are rodent poisons and culls.

Amy: I can speak more to the poison issue. Rodenticides, or rodent poisons cause a great deal of suffering to animals. There are a few different categories of poisons which we spoke about in our wildlife episode with Erin Ryan last year, so please listen to that episode if you’d like more details.

Essentially, poisons don’t work immediately and cause animals to die slowly and painfully. Anticoagulant rodenticides work by thinning the blood so animals die by bleeding out or hemorrhaging. Those are the poisons most often used in Canada.

There are also other poisons like neurotoxins, which cause the nervous system to shut down so animals can experience symptoms painful and scary symptoms like weakness, loss of coordination, convulsions, and respiratory distress.

We’ve had some progress here in B.C. with permanent restrictions on second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs), which are some of the most dangerous poisons and also some of the most likely to cause secondary poisoning to predator or scavenger animals, like owls or eagles, who eat poisoned rodents; but there are still exceptions where those poisons can be used.

First-generation anticoagulants and other poisons are also still allowed.

Chantelle: Several municipalities have taken the compassionate step of banning all rodenticides on the city or town property. A great way to advocate for animals harmed by poisons is to ask your Council or the building manager where you live or work to commit to poison-free methods.

There are also government sanctioned culls of animals. The Vancouver Park Board recently approved a plan that includes the option of killing geese to control their populations, which is inhumane and unnecessary. Evidence shows that habitat modification is a more effective long-term method. There was also the coyote cull in Vancouver’s Stanley Park in 2021 that happened after people reported coyotes approaching and biting them. In total, 13 coyotes were killed. This could have been prevented if better methods were implemented to prevent the feeding of animals in the park and remove attractants like garbage that draw coyotes toward human areas.

How you can help urban wildlife

Amy: Prevention is the best and most effective method of dealing with conflict with wildlife. You can prevent animals like rodents from entering buildings by sealing up access points and removing or sealing away food and other attractants.

The most important thing we can do is to make sure wildlife continue to be afraid of anything that might hurt them. This is why it is so crucial to not feed wildlife. If you feed wildlife, they start to see people as a source of food. They also can become dependent on the food being provided and then if it is removed, they can become aggressive. We would do the same if we were fed regularly and then suddenly all the food was gone, with nothing available to us… I have been around some pretty “hangry” people and I imagine it can get pretty bad when an animal feels truly desperate from their hunger.

Chantelle: Absolutely. Another way people deal with wildlife conflict is by trapping and relocating animals. This method still isn’t perfect because it causes stress to animals and can introduce new risks to animals if their social structures are disrupted, if they come into conflict over territory or if they have difficulty finding resources in their new environment.

Amy: Other threats that are more common for urban wildlife include animals being hit by vehicles, urban development infringing on their habitats and resources, and noise and light pollution which can disrupt their natural behaviours and communication.

Native wildlife

Threats to native wildlife in British Columbia and beyond

Amy: Wild animals, including those outside cities are also impacted by climate change which can affect their habitat, temperature regulation, resources like food and water, and behaviours like migration patterns.

Chantelle: One thing that a lot of Canada has been dealing with is forest fires. Temperatures are rising and precipitation patterns are changing, which means we’re seeing an increase in both fire-prone conditions and flooding at different times and in different areas. Forest fires and floods directly cause the deaths of animals who are caught in them. They also destroy habitats and displace animals, making it more difficult for them to survive and maintain their social dynamics.

Amy: Speaking of habitat destruction, there is natural habitat destruction, and there is also human-caused destruction of habitats like deforestation.

Logging is a major industry here in B.C. Although some considerations are in place for a few protected species, many animals like squirrels and birds end up losing their homes.

Logging roads that haven’t been decommissioned after use also make prey animals more vulnerable to predators.

Particularly, caribou have been significantly affected by the destruction of forests and the creation of logging roads because it provides wolves easier access to the caribou, leading to declines in caribou populations. Rather than addressing the root issue, which is habitat destruction, the B.C. government has been carrying out a wolf cull since 2015 that involves shooting wolves from helicopters. So now we have a situation where both caribou and wolves are suffering.

We know that both caribou and wolves have complex dynamics, including unique family structures. When wolves are killed it impacts their entire family. Just like humans, they have the ability to feel loss and must grieve these sudden deaths as they struggle to survive.

How you can help native wildlife

Amy: To be an active ally for the caribou and the wolves, you can:

  • Advocate for stronger wildlife protection laws, including the decommissioning of forestry roads and better forest restoration management
  • Share about the importance of compassionate conservation, recognizing that well-being isn’t just about biodiversity, but about the well-being of the individual animal and their communities.
  • Avoid having fires during fire bans, and carefully dispose of any cigarettes and be careful in the backcountry using machinery that causes sparks


Chantelle: We can’t talk about wildlife behaviour without talking about the ocean’s most populous wildlife – fishes! You can check out our podcast just about fishes, but there are a few key points I’d like to touch on here. Fishes demonstrate many different behaviours, the same way that species on land do. Some live in schools, but others are solitary. There are even some interspecies friendships of fishes that are mutually beneficial. Fishes, just like mammals, end up having lice and benefit from grooming. Some fish travel long distances, while others exist in small habitats and focus on protecting their homes. There are more than 33,000 different types of fish species.

Threats to fishes

Amy: Some of the threats faced by fishes include fish farms, where diseases from captive fish populations can get into wild species. Fish farms are often densely packed, which don’t allow fish to swim and forage the way they would naturally.

Fishes are also threatened by pollution. While the physical pollution is a problem, such as plastics, some of the biggest harms include the waste product that runs off of intensive agriculture, such as keeping cows and pigs. This can cause harmful algae blooms in the water, which is often called ‘red tide’ for the different tone it gives the water. In areas with red tide, fish are poisoned and die. Animals like turkey vultures can be impacted as well as they eat the fish that have died from the harmful algae blooms.

How you can help fishes

Chantelle: The best and biggest impact that we as individuals can make is to take fishes and other animals off our plates. Consumption of animals for food is driving these complex issues that are causing significant physical suffering to both individual fishes and entire species.

Wild and exotic animals kept in captivity

Amy: The behaviour of animals that are kept in captivity varies from enriched and engaged, to, most commonly, bored and repetitive. Just like we seek out ways for indoor cats to have full enjoyment of their spaces, including building catios and providing different toys, treats, and play, wild animals need access to spaces and activities that make their lives worthwhile.

While the best thing is for wild animals to be free, sometimes they end up in captivity and don’t have the skills or capacity to care for themselves in the wild. Unfortunately, facilities that house wildlife in captivity often lack the staffing and capital resources to provide spaces for animals that ensure their needs are met. For example, some animals are not provided the opportunity to hide from public view, or the temperatures in their outdoor enclosure are too cold for their normal body temperature. Incidents regularly occur of people getting bitten, or animals becoming depressed and dying at ages far younger than their wild counterparts.

If you have observed animals in captivity, you know it can be a strange experience. Seeing the animals themselves can provide a sense of beauty, but juxtaposed against barren enclosures, cages, and pacing, bar licking, and other maladaptive behaviours, these spaces can feel downright uncomfortable. I once visited a facility where the bears were made to perform; that facility is still running today. Last year, when a bear died after 19 years of performing, the facility claimed that the bear loved making people laugh and was happiest in front of a crowd. It is common for facilities to anthropomorphize wild animal behaviours in order to make people feel at ease and buy into the experience they are seeking.

Chantelle: It’s so sad to think about and it’s easy for people to forget, because usually visitors to places like this will only be seeing the animal for a few minutes but this is the animal’s entire life day in and day out. I find it wild that animals are still being kept for use in entertainment, particularly the film and tv industry! I would have thought that would be phased out with the amazing technology we have. There have been a few really major films that came out recently where animals played a large role but thankfully they were all computer generated. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case and animals kept for performing are often kept in small cages and deal with frequent travel. Their lives are akin to that of research animals in terms of the degree of confinement, but even more stressful because their environment is constantly changing and they are around unfamiliar people.

Mobile exotic animal petting zoos are similar. The animals have to deal with frequent transportation, being kept in small cages, and being handled. Despite the risks around salmonella, reptiles are a popular choice for this because they are slow to get away. However, for them, it can be quite uncomfortable to be handled. Not only might it be uncomfortable, but it’s also very important for reptiles to regulate their own temperature; and the conditions they are kept and handled in do not allow them to do that.

Amy: While we know that it isn’t ideal to keep animals in captivity, the solutions are complicated. Zoos and aquariums try to argue in favour of letting animals breed as a way to exhibit natural behaviours, but then the off-spring often die or are forced into a life of captivity. Since such a sparse patchwork of laws exists for animals in captivity, their ability to express natural behaviours outside of breeding is equally sparse. Laws around wildlife in captivity are made at the provincial and local level. Advocating for these beautiful animals can include asking the provincial government to better protect them through limiting captive breeding, putting an end to using wild animals for any kind of entertainment, and asking the federal government to put very strict limitations on the importation of exotic wildlife.

Chantelle: Yeah, that’s an interesting argument because it feels very convenient that zoos will argue in favour of animals expressing their natural behaviours when it’s about breeding, which is something that allows them to draw in more people to see the new animals and keep making money, but not when it’s about moving the animals to a climate that’s more appropriate for them. It’s very important to look at those arguments critically and see how they’re being used to maintain the status quo and make more money rather than do what’s best for the long-term well-being of the animals.

How to help wildlife

Amy: We typically end these episodes on the question of what you can do in your own advocacy work to help animals. We’ve certainly touched on a lot of actions throughout the episode, but here are some of the biggest takeaways.

  • Help wild animals stay wild by not feeding them
  • When law changes around wild animals come up, speak with your representatives like your MP or your MLA about compassionate conservation and the importance of considering individual animals’ well-being
  • Support and share ways of learning about animals that don’t involve keeping wild animals in captivity

Next episode

Please join us next month as we discuss the Vancouver Humane Society’s findings on the attitudes and benefits around plant-based eating!


Podcast: Do pigs really like mud? And other farmed animal behaviours

How would farmed animal species live their lives if they weren’t being raised in the animal agriculture system?

Previous episodes have looked at how the needs of farmed animals are not being met in the industrial animal agriculture system; but how do these species behave when they are living lives that are happy and fulfilled? In this episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal well-being, the VHS’s Chantelle Archambault and Amy Morris discuss the natural behaviours and needs of farmed animals like pigs, chickens, cows, and sheep.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

How we learn about farmed animal behaviour

Chantelle: Over the past two months, we delved into what good welfare looks like for companion animals when it comes to things like care, play, and training. This week, we’re going to branch out from that and look at what a good life looks like for the species that are currently raised for meat, milk, eggs, and wool.

We’ll talk about some of the science around farmed animal behaviors and needs, and we’ll touch on ways those needs aren’t being met in today’s animal agriculture system. But if you’d like to hear a more in-depth discussion on that aspect, I’d encourage you to go back to our second episode, which looked into farmed animal cruelty laws and practices.

Amy: Where does knowledge about farmed animal behavior typically come from?

Chantelle: We can learn a lot about what these animals’ natural behaviors would look like by observing non domesticated versions of farmed animals in the wild.

The farmed animal species we’ll be talking about today have been domesticated and selectively bred for thousands of years. So those exact breeds of animals don’t typically exist in the wild, but there are wild or feral animals that line up with those domestic breeds. A lot of knowledge also comes from just observing farmed animals and research studies that are funded by educational institutions or government or even the industry. So there can be bias there.

Amy: Yeah, I really love this topic because looking at animal behavior, I see more about what we have in common with animals, being animals ourselves, than our differences. Humans and other animal species all we’re young need bedding and homes, social structures. We all groom and maintain our bodies, we need to find food and water, and we need engagement with our environment through movement. There’s this othering that happens in society as a result of non-human animals being domesticated for food, but now that we’re not dependent on eating animals or their products, we have an opportunity to re-examine our understanding of farmed animals.

I’m hoping with this podcast and all the actions that you take in your everyday life, we can reflect on what information gets buried in order for people to be more comfortable with animal oppression. It was only once I really spent time in person with pigs, cows, chickens, sheep, and goats, that I began to really understand that our similarities outweigh our differences.

We share fear of change, fear of the unknown, and fear of death. We share joy at good food and opportunities to stretch our legs. We develop favorite places to spend our time. We like to choose our own friends, and we get along better with some than others. We go through phases and we make different decisions when we’re young and then when we’re old and have had the opportunity to develop more wisdom and we pass on our wisdom to our young.

Chantelle: I’m so excited to dive into some of the specific species to, to better get a picture of what you’re describing. So what animal should we start with?

Amy: Let’s start with pigs.


Chantelle: I love learning about pigs so much. These are one of the animals that kind of tow the line between farmed animals and companion animals because people have started keeping pigs more as pets while the breed typically kept as pets is slightly smaller potbelly pigs. It’s important to note that the breeds raised for meat are not fundamentally different. In a lot of ways, pigs and other animals that are raised on farms are very similar to the animals that most people consider part of the family, like dogs.

Pigs are curious. They have problem solving skills. They’re social. They form complex relationships. They have favorite people. They have favorite animals. They feel fear. They feel pain.

Pigs in the wild

When we’re looking for an analog to domestic pigs in the wild, we can look at the behaviors of feral pigs and wild boars. And just for a little background on what that means, wild boars are essentially the ancestors of domestic breeds of pigs. While pigs who are released or escape into the wild will become feral, they can grow tusks, they’ll grow thicker hair, and they’ll become more fearful of humans.

Amy: Yeah, and this all depends on their genetics, how their bodies are capable in terms of epigenetics. So there are some nuances there.

Pig socialization & rearing young

Amy: We know both in the wild and on farms, pigs are very social animals who live in small to medium size groups together called sounders. Each group can have kind of one to six female pigs or sows along with their young.

Wild sows experience motherhood very differently than pigs on industrial farms. When they have a choice, they prefer to give birth in sheltered, secluded spots where they raise their piglets on their own for the first one to two weeks. Within the first day, mother sows and piglets will recognize each other by smell. Piglets also recognize the unique grunt calls of their mother, and so they know which pig to go to when it’s time to nurse.

As they get a bit older and start exploring outside of the nest, they’ll call to each other if they get separated. Piglets really like to be close to their mothers, they’ll snuggle up to their mother and litter mates for warmth. After a week or two, the mother and piglets will rejoin the group and the piglets will be fully participating in group life by eight weeks old. All of the pigs will interact and play with each other, but siblings do maintain close bonds into adulthood.

Are pigs aggressive?

Chantelle: Some people in the animal agriculture industry believe that pigs are naturally aggressive, but that’s really because pigs can become aggressive and irritable in stressful conditions; humans do the exact same thing.

In the wild, pigs are mostly peaceful. They form stable social relationships and they live in harmony together. The groups of sounders are not territorial. Many pigs may live in the same area if there’s enough food for all of them. Pigs who branch off might stay close to their mothers, and together the family groups have been found to form herds of up to a hundred pigs.

Whereas we’ve talked about the matriarchal groups (sounders), adult males are more nomadic and the dominant males in an area will generally force the younger males to leave their family groups around seven to 18 months old.

Natural habitats for pigs

Amy: And in terms of their physical environment, pigs are really adaptable.

They can live in most places, from forests, to marshes, to grasslands. They like to be in or near places with dense cover. They tend to avoid areas with a lot of ground frost because it makes it difficult for them to forage roots and tubers.

What do pigs eat?

Amy: Pigs are omnivores. They mostly eat whatever plants and mushrooms are available in their area, but they will hunt for small animals or scavenge meat from dead animals. They spend about 75% of their day rooting and foraging.

If we compare that to industrial animal agriculture, farmed pigs can eat the food they’re given in only 15 minutes in a day or less. They tend to spend much more time resting when there’s a lot of food in an area and they don’t spend as much time traveling to find it or when it’s cold and they need to conserve energy.

Pigs are very social eaters. They prefer to eat together as a group, and they’ll often share food and take turns eating. I think the biggest takeaway on this is knowing how vastly different it looks to be a pig roaming around all day versus having a lot of boredom and time that’s unused for any kind of social or physical activity in industrial settings.

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. The way that they spend their time is very different. The environment that they stay in is very different.

Do pigs like mud?

Chantelle: You’re probably familiar with the image of pigs playing in mud, and you may have also heard that pigs like to be clean. If you’re wondering which of those is true, it is both. They’re very hygienic. They keep clean by rubbing off dirt on hard surfaces or swimming in the water and in the wild, they’ll often create separate areas for sleeping, eating, and eliminating waste. And if you have looked at industrial farming systems, things like gestation stalls, there’s absolutely no way for them to do that.

But on the other hand, they also like to wallow in mud or water, and the reason they do that is to regulate their body temperature since they don’t have many sweat glands. So they’ll wallow if they need to keep cool. And when they need to keep warm, they’ll huddle together in communal nests.

 Pig nesting

Amy: And speaking of nests, I love thinking and talking about pig nests. When pigs are pregnant, they take a lot of time to build the perfect nest, to birth their young into. I bet you think of nesting habits of, when you talk about soon to be human parents, it’s referring to birds. But when pregnant pigs want a home for their family, they build a really nice space. And in captivity, the barn conditions means that they don’t get to build the nests. So out of frustration, they end up chewing the bar of the container they’re in until they end up having problems with their mouth and teeth.

Chantelle: It’s really tragic when you look at the disparity of what a good life looks like for pigs expressing their natural behaviors and then the conditions that most of them are living through in the modern farming system.

I think that covers pig behaviour, so shall we move on to cows?


Amy: I’ve always had such a soft spot for cows. I’ve had the privilege of spending time with cows in sanctuary that are social. I’ve also been around cows that were terrified of me. I later figured out why that was; their handlers used sticks to hit them and make them move in down the line to get vaccinated and one handler even jumped his full body weight on a calf in frustration when the calf wouldn’t get up. This was on an organic, free range farm.

I try not to remember those moments very often. I try to focus on the cows that do get to live their ideal lives.

Cow socialization & rearing young

Amy: Cows bond so strongly with their young, the new mom will nuzzle and lick her calf clean, making a sound that encourages the calf to get up and start nursing right away. They’ll provide milk to their calf and spend time together for about a year and sometimes even more before they make the decision to wean them. Suckling increases the bond between the mother and the calf, and that releases oxytocin. So as a kind of converse situation, in intensive farming, calves are removed from their mothers at birth and only fed intermittently rather than the free feeding they would have normally.

Cows that get to continue to suckle their young have a significantly reduced risk of post calving diseases and clinical mastitis. And clinical mastitis is essentially a condition of the udders that is really common on intensive farms.

Chantelle: Definitely. Looking at their sleeping habits, cows can sleep anywhere, but just like humans, they prefer soft bedding. This reduces injuries and health issues such as mastitis and hock sores; they do well on straw bedding. Cows live in a herd with individual and long-lasting social relationships that exist between cows and the herd.

They can recognize up to 50 other cows and they can remember them for several years. They’ll typically follow the decisions of the oldest and most experienced female cows. The ancestors of modern day cows were called aurochs. The social structure of aurochs was based on cooperation, communication, and mutual support with females playing a key role in the organization and leadership of the herd.

Bulls would only join in the herd during the breeding season. Grooming behavior is also social with cows using their tongue, teeth, and horns to clean and groom the hair and skin of other cows. And just like humans, they experience oxytocin from those interactions. They also self groom by rubbing against trees or rocks or other objects to remove dirt and insects and dead skin.

Cow grazing & roaming

Amy: When it comes to eating, cows like to get a variety of nutrients and are highly adaptable to food sources. They are known to have an excellent memory and can remember the location of food and water sources for several years. We know that aurochs would travel long distances to find good food and water sources.

I can say from my experience of being on a free range farm in the mountains, that cows still like to roam big distances in their grazing. In intensive farming, cows can be tied up in barns or packed into dusty feed lots. That means they don’t get any opportunity to do one of their favorite activities, which is grazing. Cows also have an excellent sense of smell, and they can detect orders up to 10 kilometers away.

As a side note, this is why dogs often roll in feces or fishy smells because wolves would hide their scent in order to get a better chance at hunting animals like bison and aurochs.

Cow communication

Cows communicate with each other through a range of vocalizations, body language, and physical contact. They use different vocalizations to indicate hunger, distress, and excitement.

They’re creatures of habit, they prefer to follow a routine and changes in their environment or routine can cause stress and anxiety.

Chantelle: I definitely can sense a familiarity between that and my companion cat. Cows are so fascinating to talk about, but I think that’s a good overview of them and their behaviors. Let’s move on to chickens.


Chicken socialization and behaviour

Amy: I find chickens to be the most interesting and complex of farmed animals. They have this reptilian look descended from the red junglefowl, a wild bird that’s native to Asia. But they also have really complex social structures. I spent some time on a farm that had a flock of rescue chickens, and the biggest rooster was huge.

He had this sizable group of hens that he cared for, but then the other roosters would pair up with one or two hens and keep their distance. I would often see them perched up a few branches in a tree, getting a break from the sun. And chickens also love to spend their time dust bathing in the sun, getting bugs out of their feathers, and they often fall asleep after a good dust bath, which is really cute to see.

They spend their days foraging and as omnivores, they’ll eat bugs and worms as well as grains. They love fruit and it’s a great treat for them on summer days because they can get quite warm.

Egg laying for hens in nature

Chantelle: Chickens in nature would lay 20 to 30 eggs in a clutch all at once, once a year. And when they would do that, they would find a really hidden spot that feels safe and away from predators.

They would keep those eggs warm and do their best to stay alive, leaving only for short periods to get food and water. If you’ve ever heard a chicken lay an egg, you can tell it is an intense and painful process for them every time. Chickens will stay with their chicks until they’re big enough to survive on their own.

They pass on information about their environment, like what bugs are tasty to eat, what places are safe to find shelter. They like to wrap their feet around a branch or a wooden bar at night, and balance as they sleep in a place that has good overhead cover to keep them safe from predators. They also have a range of vocalizations, like clucking, crowing, squawking, and they’ll use those different vocalizations to communicate with each other.

Chickens in intensive farming

Amy: Yeah, and this is really juxtaposed against intensive farming situations, which are really tough to observe if you have seen happy chickens living out their lives. Chickens in intensive farming almost always lack good perches and opportunities to dust bathe. They don’t get reared by a hen, so it’s essentially this weird situation of placing 25,000 orphans in a room together, and they just don’t develop any sense of order and structure that they would have when they’re with their family.

As a result, chickens really often end up boredom feather plucking each other so that they’re often barren. I’ve seen barns where the chickens are so bare of feathers because once it’s started it’s essentially impossible to stop. They are all doing it to each other. They’re also bred to lay eggs almost every day, which on top of being painful makes their bones so weak that they have to be killed after about a year and a half because their bones break so easily.

And as a comparison, chickens in nature live up to 10 years. I was pretty devastated the first time I visited a large scale free range organic operation and realized how much the hens were still suffering. Very few of them, maybe 5 to 10%, even went outside because it’s really problematic to run back inside in case of a predator. There was no overhead cover. Outside, the ground was barren and it really only served a purpose for some of the hens of dust bathing because it was so packed that they couldn’t forage. On a smaller scale farm that was theoretically better, I came across a dead bird that had been trampled. On another smaller scale farm, I came across a chicken whose cloaca, the place where the egg comes out, was stuck permanently extended and the chicken was in a lot of pain. I wasn’t sure how long she had been like that.

I don’t like sharing these stories and I did it very quickly, but they really have stuck with me having witnessed all of that.

After spending a lot of time with chickens, I came away with a strong sense that they deserve to live their lives as fully as you or me.

Chantelle: Thank you for sharing those stories, Amy. I know it’s really difficult to think about, but it’s important for people to know, and it’s something the animal agriculture industry works really hard to hide, so I think it’s an important topic to touch on.

Shall we talk about sheep next?


Sheep have a strong fear response

Amy: Sheep are fascinating as people make a lot of assumptions about them. They have a really strong fear response. In particular, they’re prone to freezing in place. They often get mistaken for “enjoying” being shorn, and I put that in quotes because they’re actually immobilized with fear.

In fact, most activities that people do relate to sheep are about motivating their fear drive, such as when dogs or vehicles are used to herd sheep.

So I wanted to share that because I think a lot of people see these things as normal, and it’s normalized, but there are other kinder ways to motivate sheep with food incentives and things like that.

I thought we’d get that sad part out of the way. So now we can focus more on the ways that sheep are great.

Sheep socialization and communication

Chantelle: Definitely. Sheep have excellent memories. They can recognize up to 50 other sheep’s faces and remember them for several years.

Like cows, they are herd animals. They can see behind them without turning their heads because their eyes are positioned on the sides of their heads, like you’ll see with prey animals typically. They’re known for their excellent sense of hearing; they can detect higher frequencies than humans. They can produce different vocalizations to communicate with each other including bleats, grunts, and snorts. A very fun fact is they even have accents. So just like humans, studies have shown that sheep in different regions have distinct vocalizations that reflect their local dialects.

Amy: I love that. Sheep will also spend time with other sheep they know and trust. They’ll seek companionship when they’re feeling stressed or anxious. They sleep in groups huddled together for warmth and protection. And when outdoors, they will sleep in shifts with some sheep standing guard while others sleep, and they tend to return to the same spot to sleep night after night.

Chantelle: When we talk about sheep, we also, I think, can transition very smoothly into goats because goats have a lot of similarities to sheep, so I don’t think we’ll cover them in full.


Chantelle: Goats are excellent climbers. They can climb trees and cliffs, and even steep mountainsides. They have rectangular pupils, which gives them a wider field of vision and better depth perception.

And they’re known for being curious and intelligent, and they’ve been observed learning from each other and problem solving. They have a unique digestive system that allows them to break down tough plant fibers, so they’re excellent foragers.

Many people think that goat milk is a better alternative to dairy milk, but realistically, the treatment and experiences of goats and cows raised for producing dairy is very similar. It limits their ability to express some of their important natural behaviors of grazing, roaming, and raising young. There are so many plant-based alternatives for dairy milk and goat milk on the market now, so you can find one to fit your personal preference.


Amy: Absolutely. I love talking about animal behavior and what animals enjoy. This is a really fun podcast to put together. What was your favorite thing that you learned in preparing for it?

Chantelle: I really love learning about how different animals raise their young. I think it’s so interesting to look at the different family structures and the relationships they form with each other because they’re really so much like us.I think it’s so interesting to look at how complex those relationships can be.

What about you, Amy?

Amy: I really loved learning about sheep dialects. Certainly I know that wild animals like wolves and ravens tend to be regionalized in their communication styles, but it was fun to learn that domesticated animals are too.

I’m also constantly reminded of how much we all have in common.

Chantelle: Yeah, this was a really fun episode to learn about. I’m glad we got to touch on some of the more positive aspects of farmed animals and looking at their behaviors and what it looks like when they get to live a happy and fulfilled life.

I hope that you also got something out of this podcast as a listener, and I hope that you will join us again next month.

Next episode

Please join us next month as we delve into the topic of well-being for wildlife!


Podcast: How to train your dog or cat

Training can have a big impact on the way animals experience the world.

Rewards-based training methods can help keep animals safe, build stronger bonds with their guardians, and reduce their fear of unfamiliar situations. In this episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal well-being, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Chantelle Archambault and Amy Morris discuss science-backed training techniques for any species of animal, from dogs and cats to horses to birds and hamsters.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Anyone can learn about training

A dog sits in a training exercise as her guardian holds a ball behind her back

Amy: The way an animal is trained will make a big impact on their experience of the world and level of happiness. The most important thing to mention is that animal training is 100% grounded in science. Any person can learn how to train animals and can get consistent results.

There’s certainly knowledge and skills to be learned over time, and those include in particular how to best design an effective training protocol in regards to frequency and timing. The BC SPCA just released an updated 2023 literature review on dog training that gives great scientific grounding.

Why train animals?

Amy: So what are the reasons to train animals? In a broad sense, there are three goals in training:

  1. To protect ourselves from animals that can harm us; for example, preventing us or others from being bitten or scratched, knocked or pulled over.
  2. To protect animals from harm, real or perceived; for example, preventing animals from getting in fights with each other, preventing them from running or or flying away and related harms like getting injured or starving, as well as husbandry activities such as grooming, foot and hoof care, and medical care and treatment.
  3. To build a bond between us and animals; for example, through trick training or other fun agility type activities.

Chantelle: Speaking of protecting animals from harm, real or perceived, animals can perceive harm that isn’t there, such as when they have a fear from the noise of fireworks. And training can play a big part in making our companions feel happy and healthy and safe.

Early life experiences

Amy: Before we dive into some specific scenarios, I’d love to talk a bit about the impacts of genetics and environment on training. The science of genetics, epigenetics, and environment on behavior is developed more in some species than others.

In a very broad sense, we understand that the negative life experiences of an animal can get passed on to their offspring. In humans, this could be labeled as intergenerational trauma.

Research in rats has demonstrated that if a rat is stressed while pregnant, the offspring will demonstrate more signs of fear and anxiety. However, there’s genetic and temperament variations within a litter, so essentially one offspring can be really fearful and aggressive, while another can come out fearful and defensive, and another could seem to be easygoing. These behaviors are seen to continue into adulthood.

It’s important to note that wild animals will be genetically fearful of humans. Feral domestic animals are those that aren’t exposed to humans in their early lives, so we know that environmental or early life experiences can play a big role as to the level of fear that domestic animals experience, such as one in response to humans.

Classical conditioning

Amy: Many people have taken psychology classes or heard of that experiment where a person called Pavlov rang a bell, which led to an animal salivating in prediction to food delivery. That’s called classical conditioning.

Chantelle: Classical conditioning is basically when a neutral stimulus like ringing a bell is paired with a stimulus that provokes a response like food.

Eventually, the animal associates the neutral stimulus with the meaningful stimulus so strongly that they start expressing the response when they’re exposed just to the neutral stimulus alone, which is why Pavlov’s dogs salivated when they heard a bell.

Now we will get into classical conditioning to better describe the role of genetics and environmental influences on behaviour. We know that classical conditioning causes a neutral stimulus to result in an involuntary response, and one example of that is a fear response.

The way people and animals respond to different stimuli, especially in terms of what causes fear and anxiety and folks’ risk tolerance, is very individual. The way that we, and other animals, respond to stimuli will differ. For example, some people can stand at the top of a high building comfortably, while others experience a fear response—things like a racing heart or sweating. Standing at the top of the building can be seen by some to present a risk, but it’s not a sign of imminent danger in itself. The same goes for walking into a loud, crowded restaurant.

For animals, some common examples we think about are skateboards or vacuum cleaners.

Amy: Classical conditioning is really interesting because, as I was mentioning, it can relate to early life experiences and temperament. One animal might hear a loud noise and be unaffected, while another will hide at a young age, and with no change or influence, will continue to hide as an adult. Fireworks are a great example of this. Many animals are terrified of fireworks because of the loud noises they elicit. Training animals with classical conditioning methods involves three concepts: habituation, desensitization, and counter conditioning.

Applying classical conditioning: habituation

Amy: Habituation can occur when a stimulus has repeated exposure and the animal doesn’t experience any consequences, they can become familiar with it.

Habituation’s effectiveness depends on the degree of sensitivity of the individual. I might be able to get used to motorcycle noises by being exposed to them over time, while another individual might find them increasingly fear inducing. The same goes for individual animals.

It can be helpful to pair positive reinforcement, such as delivering a treat, with stimuli that we think might cause fear in the future for animal to aid in the habituation process when an animal is newly being exposed to unfamiliar stimuli. Delivering a treat is one way of conditioning the animal, so instead of being fearful of something like a noise they have a neutral or positive association with it.

Once, I was caring for a mini dalmatian mix that had spent her whole life tied up or crated in a barn. I was tasked with exposing her to new stimuli as my foster. It was amazing to see the world through her eyes; she would cower when a plane went by overhead!

Chantelle: So basically, the dog you were caring for was becoming habituated to everything because she hadn’t been exposed to anything. It sounds like she was in a similar situation to a puppy going out into the world for the first time. So if an animal isn’t having a response to a new thing at all or is having just a brief startle response about something new, we can help them become habituated to the new thing.

Applying classical conditioning: Desensitization and counter conditioning

Chantelle: When an animal is already showing signs of fear as a response to something, we can use the tools of counter conditioning and desensitization as go-to methods for making life more comfortable for them.

Amy: Two examples I would love to highlight are a fear of the sound of skateboards and a fear of having nails or hooves done.

If we take a step back, first we have to identify what the animal we are working with is afraid of. We talked about fear and stress behaviours a little bit in the last episode, so I won’t go into great detail. Depending on the species, you might observe cowering, running or flying away, freezing, barking, running towards the fearful situation aggressively, hissing, swatting, scratching, pecking or more.

Once the fear behavior is observed and identified, and the cause of the fear is identified, a training plan can be created. It is best to work with a trainer who is knowledgeable about the species if you think that you or your animal are at risk of injury or further psychological damage.

For example, my dog Clover became so averse to having her nails cut that I had to work with a trainer to develop a very carefully constructed protocol for desensitizing and counter conditioning her, also called DSCC. Similarly, her fear of skateboards became problematic because she would run towards them, barking, and almost pull me over! No one else could walk her because of this risk.

Chantelle: What are some of the steps someone could take to desensitize and counter condition an animal who has a fear response?

What is an animal’s “threshold” in DSCC?

Amy: The most important thing to understand about the process of DSCC is that animals have a “threshold”. This means that there is a moment that they don’t observe the thing they are afraid of, and then there is a moment when they notice and don’t react, and then there is the moment they react. It is impossible to desensitize and counter condition an animal that is already reacting.

Some fearful animals can stay in a hypervigilant state, so they are always looking for threats. It can also be very difficult to desensitize and counter condition them. Trainers suggest creating opportunities for decompression so that an animal is more relaxed as a status quo, before starting to retrain them.

The only method to train an animal that is feeling fear is delivering a reward when they are under their threshold. They receive the reward when they notice the thing they are afraid of, but do not react to it.

It can be important to set up scenarios that keep them feeling safe and relatively below threshold.

This can mean keeping a large distance between the animal and the trigger, or with something like foot or hoof care, breaking the process down into microsteps. For example, if the animal reacts to seeing the nail clippers, then anything that happens after they see the nail clippers is going too far.

There are lots of videos on Youtube about DSCC.

Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning to Handling

Lionel is an under-socialized cat from an animal hoarding background. He didn’t have much experience with being pet and hands coming towards him were scary at first. Here is one of his first DS/CC sessions to being pet.

Chantelle: The terms desensitization and counter conditioning are coupled together, because both are needed to change a behavior response from fearful to neutral. However, desensitization essentially describes the reduction in emotional response to the stimuli, or the outcome that is desired, while counter conditioning describes the method used to achieve that outcome, which involves changing the association the animal has made between the behavior and its consequences by pairing it with a positive experience.

Amy: Exactly! And that is what is always needed in this process: that pairing of a positive experience.

Chantelle: I did this with my companion cat Callie last year. We had fireworks going off near our home every night leading up to Halloween, and she was very fearful of them. I tried to help her get used to the fireworks by giving her a treat every time one went off. It’s a common training method, but I didn’t realize it was a classical conditioning method.

Amy: Typically a very high value reward is needed for this process, a reward that the animal does not experience any other time.

What is most important to consider with this kind of training is that it needs to involve short, intentional training period because just like us, animals reach a limit where they can’t relearn, and that limit is extremely short when it comes to situations that cause them fear.

DSCC is a very slow process, but we know from science that it works, and it just requires calm, consistent behaviour on our part.

Some scenarios we may never achieve the full outcome we are hoping for. For example, if you have a pet bird who bites your fingers as a means of protection, it might take a very long time to change that, and realistically, based the bird’s early life experiences, that behaviour may never change as much as you want it to.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning to the Syringe

Uploaded by Busy Beaks Academy on 2018-01-14.

Chantelle: This can be a hard concept to really absorb, so we’ve included some videos where you can see DSCC in action with a few different species.

It can be helpful to search youtube for desensitization and counter conditioning, and whatever fear issue the animal you are working with is experiencing, to get a general idea of how to address it.

Journey DS/CC to Touch

Journey is learning that touch is not scary – but it’s hard for her! From this angle it’s easy to see that touch with the hand is too much for her at this point. The trainer pushes her too far and she jumps away.

Keep in mind that the person on YouTube might be making some mistakes when it comes to the value of the reward, the timing, or how much they push the animal in each session. Each animal is an individual and will move at a different pace.

NAIL TRIMS – part 1/3: counterconditioning & desensitization to tools and handling

This is the first part of three on teaching the dog to like nail trims. This part covers the process of counterconditioning and systematic desensitization to tools (in this case nail clippers) and general handling of the paws.

I also want to note here that there’s a misconception that “taming” and “training” are completely different thing. Really, taming is just one type of training that uses the classical conditioning technique of desensitization to teach animals to tolerate human touch who normally wouldn’t, like hamsters or feral cats.

Operant conditioning

Amy: Now that we have covered classical conditioning, let’s talk about operant conditioning. This is the formal term for intentionally increasing or decreasing the frequency of a behavior using a consequence.

Something to keep in mind, that I will bring up throughout, is that the same techniques that have an impact on human behaviour, have an impact on animal behaviour. Essentially, the way you raise a child, or treat a friend, and the way you train an animal are grounded in the same science.

Chantelle: I think this is probably the thing people do most consciously with children, like giving a toddler a high five every time they put their shoes on nicely for a walk because they like high fives.

In operant conditioning, there are four quadrants representing the following four ways of training: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment, and negative reinforcement.

  • The term positive is used for when a “consequence” is something that is added.
  • The term negative is when the “consequence” is that something is taken away.
  • The term “reinforcement” is used to describe trying to increase the frequency of a desired behaviour.
  • “Punishment” is used to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour.

Four quadrants of operant conditioning in animal training

Positive (adding)Negative (taking away)
Reinforcement (to encourage desired behaviour)Positive reinforcement is essentially adding something to the equation to encourage an animal to repeat a desired behavior. You can think of this as the well-timed use of food, play, or happy verbal attention to encourage them to repeat desired behaviours.Negative reinforcement is when negative stimuli are applied to increase the frequency of a desired behaviour. A person might put physical pressure on a horse with the body of another horse until the horse offers a desired behaviour, such as turning a certain way, at which point, they give the horse space. The horse offers that behaviour as an attempt to avoid the physical pressure they were experiencing.
Punishment (to discourage unwanted behaviour)Positive punishment involves adding a stimuli to a stop an unwanted behavior. This can include a person telling a dog “No” or “Stop” when they are barking. Positive punishment is often used on when walking an animal on a leash. When a dog pulls, handlers often have the tendency to tug at the leash. In this case, the handler is adding a correction as the consequence.Negative punishment is when we take away something to get a behavior to stop. This could be, for example, walking away silently from an animal that is jumping up.

Chantelle: Although these are all ways that can be used to train animals, we know now from research that the level of effectiveness and long-term outcomes for the psychological well-being of the animal can differ based on the technique used. These different quadrants don’t fully encapsulate the role that trust plays in each of these scenarios.

Assuming all of these training methods are applied consistently, a training method like positive reinforcement builds trust because the animal derives enjoyment from the experience through brain chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin and want to continue to seek out experiences that lead to the release of those chemicals.

On the flip side, training methods like positive punishment or negative reinforcement are grounded in the parts of the brain that seek to avoid situations that cause fear or pain and do not have a knock-on effect of building trust.

Amy: We use the words “reward-based” and “aversive-based” training to differentiate between these two.

In the literature review we referenced from the BC SPCA, 4 out of 4 data-based research studies found that training with aversive-based techniques lead to more stress related behaviours in the dogs compared to training with reward-based techniques. They also identified that 7 of 7 surveys found that more frequent reported use of aversive-based techniques, whether alone or in combination with reward-based techniques, was associated with more frequent reporting of aggression and other problem behaviours.

Applying operant conditioning

Chantelle: I was wondering if you could speak more to different training tools?

Amy: Absolutely. In an ideal world, animals could be completely naked, with no harness or halter or collar.

However, sometimes we need to attach the animal to us, or ourselves to the animal, for that added layer of safety. In those situations, we certainly don’t want to put them or us at risk, so it can get pretty high stakes, especially when you talk about large animals like horses!

The most important thing is to see a collar, leash, harness, or halter as something that the animal might be fearful of and either habituate, or, if they are already fearful, practice DSCC to ensure that they are comfortable with putting on and taking off the apparatus.

Any tool that is safe to use should not cause pain. Tools like bits that you put in horse’s mouths, or prong collars, or choke collars, or shock collars, are all designed with positive punishment training methods in mind.

A trainer might be deceptive about this. For example, think about a scenario where a dog is walking around, away from a person. The person calls the dog and gets no response. The desired behaviour is for the dog to come to the person. A trainer might suggest pairing an electric shock (positive punishment) to extinguish the undesired behaviour (walking away) with a treat when they change their behaviour, and call that positive reinforcement.

The first problem with this example is that the trainer is adding an intermediary of positive punishment into a scenario that can be trained without it. That essentially makes a person dependent on shocking their dog to get the outcomes they want, which we know from research.

The second problem is that shocking a dog is aversive and can lead to long-term negative outcomes for both the dog, and the relationships with the dog and other dogs, strangers, and the guardian, since it is brings in their fear response.

What if a dog gets an electric shock when they are next to another dog? If they are fear aggressive by nature, they might end up turning and biting that dog, connecting the fear they are feeling to the presence of that dog.

So, how do we eliminate the need for the shock collar? The answer is in identifying the original goal: for the dog to respond to being called.

This can be difficult when a dog has already latched on to the scent of an animal trail, or the visual of another dog. Similar to the idea of threshold, there can sometimes be a point of no return where a dog goes into a focus mode and no longer registers the sound of our voice.

Early recall training has to be consistent, with small wins and big rewards. You eventually build up to more complex scenarios, and it has to be done gradually. The cue used to call the dog back has to be used only in very specific scenarios, where it is always paired with a very high value reward.

For example, for a time, Clover was trained to come to me yelling “TACO”. At some point, I stopped using as high of rewards, and I even used it once or twice without a reward, and the word lost its value. The good thing is you can always train a new cue, whether it be a word that is easy to yell or whistle.

Chantelle: This is a great example of the difference between training using solely positive reinforcement versus positive punishment and positive reinforcement combined. What other examples do you have for operant conditioning?

Amy: Many people think the only way to train a horse is by putting pressure on them. Instead, horses do really well with clicker training.

A clicker is an intermediate reinforcer that gives a cue that an actual positive reinforcer will follow. This is helpful when there is a time that passes between when a behaviour happens and our ability to deliver a reward. A click can happen right away and then the reward itself can follow.

Fairhorsemanship is a great resource for clicker training horses to lunge, move hindquarters, walk at liberty and more. Great reinforcers for horses include apples, carrots, sweet feed, but can also include high fiber pony cubes, sunflower seeds, chaff and scratches depending on the horse’s past experiences with these items as well as personal preference.

In sanctuary environments, it is so important for wild animals to be able to actively participate in and opt in to their care. Clicker training works really well for this.

You can find videos online of elephants voluntarily presenting their feet to be trimmed and filed. Positive reinforcement clicker training is how they work with animals to increase their desire to participate in what is called “cooperative care”. This is the term for any grooming and body maintenance that an animal chooses actively to be part of, rather than being tied down or held down for the care to occur.

Maia’s Foot Presentation

This morning Karissa did some training with Maia, working on her front foot presentation. We do footwork with Maia, but because of the immediate need for foot care when she and Guida arrived, we sort of skipped past the formal training part. So it’s one of the things we are working on now.

Grooming and veterinary procedures can be stressful for all species. Often, when pets go to a groomer, they are held in place by a tight cord around their neck so that they feel helpless and cannot go anywhere. This is aversive, but common because of the time and cost pressure for the grooming and expectation of the guardian.

Ideally, pets are able to opt in, and opt out, of their grooming and veterinary handling experience. This can be done through positive reinforcement training.

With animals that are already fearful, the principles of desensitization and counter conditioning would need to be applied. Veterinary professionals can be certified Fear-Free, you can learn more about this from the link in our blog.

I only work with veterinary professionals who know how to read Clover’s behaviour and have the knowledge and training to keep her calm when we are at the vet. They never restrain her. Sometimes I hold her while a technician gives her treats if a needle is involved to prevent sudden movement that would further cause her harm.

Voice and choice for animals

Chantelle: Mentioning the opt in and opt out sounds like consent. I’m wondering if anyone talks about consent with animals?

Amy: I’m glad you mentioned that. I often think about people picking up small animals, cats, and small dogs without identifying first if that is something the animal wants.

Similarly, people will touch the top of the head of an animal because it is the easiest to access, but typically animals prefer to be offered a hand to sniff and then will direct the hand where they want it for pets, if anywhere.

We can offer a lot to the animals in our lives by giving them the opportunity to ask for what they need without assuming what we want, such as cuddles, is something they also want.

You can train an animal to enjoy being picked up or to be pet; however, the training needs to be designed with voice and choice.

Chantelle: What do you mean by voice and choice?

Amy: Voice and choice refer to the ability of animals to communicate their needs and preferences and to have some control over their environments.

Voice refers to an animal’s ability to communicate their needs and desires through vocalizations, body language, or other forms of behavior. It is a common misconception that animals do not have a voice. We know that they communicate clearly, but it comes down to whether anyone is actively listening to them.

Choice refers to an animal’s ability to make decisions about their environment, and in reference to training, their ability to end the training session when they want. It is important to listen to their voice as you can often identify subtle signs of frustration when they start to become overwhelmed.

Providing animals with opportunities to make choices in training can help them develop problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Choosing an animal trainer

Chantelle: You spoke in the last episode about receiving advice from a trainer to encourage a dog not to bark, and most people’s response would be to trust what we see as professional advice. How do we know if the guidance a trainer is giving us is trustworthy or not?

Amy: This is something I have grappled with a lot. With my first dog, he had a big barking problem. He barked at every noise that he heard. Unfortunately, I worked with a trainer who was not knowledgeable with animal behaviour. She suggested I make something that makes a loud noise, or try a spray bottle, and introduce this each time he barked. I now know these methods as positive punishment. Citronella collars and shock collars are also positive punishment.

Sadly, I was misguided and my dog suffered for it. I now know that the best ways to manage barking behaviour involve counter-conditioning and desensitization, as well as managing the environment.

When my current dog, Clover, started barking out the window, a trainer suggested frosting the glass so she couldn’t see through.

Whenever we would move to a new place, I would give her a high value treat every time we heard a noise, before she had a chance to bark. Pretty soon, she was coming to me for treats whenever she heard a noise, instead of barking!

When trying to screen for a trainer, it is important to ask clear questions about what quadrants of operant conditioning they work with, as well as what outcomes they have seen implementing DSCC.

Avoid working with trainers who can’t speak about quadrants of operant conditioning. This is a big red flag and is really common in the horse community. Also avoid trainers who say they are comfortable using positive punishment or negative reinforcement. These are aversive methods.

Look for trainers that specifically mention positive reinforcement-based training and use food-based rewards. Ask them about desensitization and counter conditioning and see if they understand the importance of pairing timing and rewards.

There are also training accreditations that can be researched. Some are more effective than others.

If you aren’t sure about a trainer, there is probably a good reason! Anyone can call themselves a trainer and they might actually make suggestions that are harmful.

Any good trainer is focused on ensuring a positive bond between the person and their animal, and a positive experience for the animal being trained.

Next episode

Please join us next month as we delve into the topic of well-being for farmed animals!


Podcast: Is my pet happy?

We all want our companion animals to live happy, healthy lives.

In this first episode of The Informed Animal Ally’s series on animal well-being, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Chantelle Archambault and Amy Morris discuss companion animal behaviour, emotional “tells”, and the many facets that make up a good life for domestic cats and dogs. The discussion explores a question that is dear to the hearts of many animal guardians: “Is my pet happy?”

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

A good future for companion animals

A calico cat is patted in the sunshine.

Chantelle: We’ve just wrapped up our series on animal cruelty, where we talked about the laws and regulations meant to protect different species from cruelty as well as the gaps in those laws.

This month, we’re flipping the script and beginning a new series where we’ll talk about animal wellbeing – what good welfare looks like for animals. The first episode will go into what a good life looks like for companion animals and answer a question that I think a lot of animal guardians care really deeply about, and that’s: “Is my pet happy?”

Amy: We know there’s more than a billion cats and dogs on earth. Our society will likely always have companion animals. Certainly cats are producing prolifically in warmer places, so I just can’t imagine a world without them, and I think dogs will do just fine as well.

One of the things that I really like to think about is, you know, if a vegan future is possible, what does a future look like for these companion animals? What does it mean to give them a good life in that existence?

I often reflect on the ways that you can keep an animal, and are the ways that we keep animals right now the best ways?

There often are compromises between their personal freedom and their physical wellbeing. So we want to keep them out of traffic – that protects their personal physical wellbeing, but it might compromise their sense of freedom and autonomy.

What does wellbeing look like for companion animals? We’ll speak about physical health and safety, and mental wellbeing is also a huge part of that. Having relationships with their guardian, if that’s what they want, or other animals, if that’s what they want, and having the ability to play and express their natural behaviours.

Chantelle: I think there’s so much to delve into with this topic, and we could speak for hours and hours about it, but today we’ll look at:

  • The differences between different animals; animals are individuals just like humans are;
  • The differences between different species; we’ll mostly be focusing on dogs and cats today;
  • Animals who are young versus animals who are older;
  • The difference between animals living in urban and rural environments;
  • And how all of their needs differ depending on their situation and just their individual preferences.

Amy: And really these are opinions. “Is my pet happy?” That’s a qualitative question, measurable through different types of assessments, but I think ultimately it comes down to learning as much as you can.

So we’ll share lots here today, and my recommendation is, keep learning about anything that makes you think, “Hmm, I don’t know the reason behind that.”

Explore it. Find out more about it. Never assume that you know why your animal is doing what they’re doing, because often we’re wrong and it’s good to admit that.

Spay and neuter

A veterinarian examines a grey cat.

Amy: Let’s start with spaying and neutering. This one is an interesting topic because in the humane movement, it has been a cornerstone for a really long time. And yet more recently, it’s become quite controversial.

I think what’s important to think about is why spay and neuter started.

Why do we spay and neuter pets?

Amy: Humane societies and SPCAs in the 1950s were so overloaded that they were doing massive, large scale euthanasia and the number of animals wasn’t really changing. There were still many animals and there were people whose jobs it was to essentially put animals to death unnecessarily. Spaying and neutering became a procedure that would be an alternative to that to stop the production of animals.

It took a really long time. That was in the 1950s when that was really prevalent. Now, 70 years later, we’re still working at this and we’re still trying to make sure that animals become spayed and neutered; because the second a community has a gap, especially when there’s a warm climate, we see numbers just bloom.

That also happens in microcosms where animals are being fed; cats in particular. All around the globe, places where animals have access to food, they’re going to have more success with breeding offspring. And then you end up with more animals living in the community than there are resources to provide for their healthcare and their wellbeing.

Benefits of spay and neuter

There’s a lot of research out about spay and neutering in general. There’s a higher quality of life associated with cats and dogs who are spayed and neutered versus those who are intact.

There’s behaviour outcomes, such as reducing mating behaviours, which can be quite conflict oriented. If you haven’t been around animals that are mating, there tends to be a lot of fights that break out, physical injuries that will happen to the males who are interested in pursuing the female that’s in heat.

And there’s also marking.

Animals will roam a lot farther. They might cross roads that they wouldn’t normally.

It also reduces the risk of some diseases like mammory cancer; vascular disease, which affects blood vessels; and degenerative diseases; any kind of cancers that would be the organs that end up being removed, they just remove the likelihood of that cancer happening.

There are some studies that show spayed and neutered dogs are at a higher risk of some other diseases, but it’s been found that the benefits far outweigh the risks.

There are some bone considerations, and so when thinking about what age to spay or neuter a large breed dog, it’s important to be in consultation with a veterinarian about that.

Spayed and neutered dogs live an average of 1.5 years longer; who knows if that’s because they’re making better decisions for themselves because they’re not motivated by their hormones or if it has to do with the diseases. But I think that stat by itself really shows us the benefit.

Chantelle: That’s really compelling. We all want the animals we share our lives with to live a long, happy, and healthy life.

Barriers to spay and neuter

Chantelle: I also want to note here that oftentimes, when an animal isn’t spayed and neutered, it’s not because their guardian doesn’t want to have the procedure done, but because there were barriers preventing them from accessing that care.

Find low-cost spay and neuter in B.C.

Outdoor access for dogs

Two dogs run on a stone path in autumn.

Amy: Now we’ll move on to another topic that tends to be widely debated, which is outdoor access. If you’ve ever been in communities that have free roaming animals, certainly it is a different experience than that city environment where animals are kept.

I’ve been in some places as well with free roaming animals who get to make so many decisions. They’re constantly deciding who they want to interact with and who they don’t, where they want to get water from, where they want to get food from.

It’s a certain level of freedom that, you know, we ourselves are afforded.

If we think about dogs that are kept indoors, or cats that are kept indoors, what they eat, what they drink, what they drink from, who their friends are, that’s all controlled.

We might think we’re doing a very good job of all of that, and they’re pretty spoiled. And that might be the case. But certainly there’s sort of some trade-offs that happen there.

Dogs in isolation (such as dog chaining/tethering)

Amy: We know that dogs who are kept in isolation, on a leash or in a kennel, they’re kind of in the worst case because they don’t have access or ability to meet their own needs, and they don’t have the social benefits of living closely with a family.

They end up having stereotypic behaviours. Their activity levels are limited to maybe going in circles, and they’re not able to do all the natural behaviours that they want to. For instance, they love sniffing.

Dogs in the home

Amy: Dogs who live in a home get the joy and access of family life.

They hopefully get to go out, go on walks, use their nose lots, just experience the world in a meaningful way

They may or may not be going to dog parks. Something to keep in mind is a lot of people bring dogs to dog parks who don’t actually enjoy dog parks – who find them stressful, who see it as sort of like they’re facing threats rather than companionship. It’s important to read each individual dog to see how they want to experience the world.

A dog on leash might be a bit more stressed out, walking around a neighborhood with reactive dogs than a dog off-leash, but a dog off-leash that’s not well trained may end up getting themselves into fights and need veterinary care.

So it’s always balancing these different kind of wants and needs.

Considerations for leashes

Amy: Some things that I tend to think about when it’s about happiness is thinking about if you do need to contain an animal in some way – whether it be a leash or a harness and or collar to basically keep an animal safe – it’s important to think about in what ways they are confined if the dog is exhibiting a natural behaviour.

Let’s say they want to run up a mountain, in what ways are a leash and a harness or a leash and a collar confining them? Consider:

  • Is it pushing on their throat, on their vocal chords?
  • Are they choking or breathing strangely?
  • Is it something that’s pulling on different areas, so it’s more balanced?
  • Is it rubbing under their armpits?
  • Are they getting friction that’s uncomfortable?

So really thinking through what the setting is and making sure that what they’re wearing is as comfortable as possible for them, knowing that they’re going to pull at the end of their leash sometimes.

Should I use an extendable leash?

Amy: Extending leashes can be confusing for dogs because they’re not sure where the end is.

They think they have more distance than they do, and then when they’re stopped short, it’s sort of shocking for them. They’re surprised or they’re focused on something else because they’ve gotten so far away.

Things like consistency can matter when you are keeping a dog on leash

Off-leash settings for dogs

Amy: When it comes to off-leash settings for dogs, we want them to have as much freedom as possible and we want to keep the safety and freedom of other dogs and animals. We also want to prevent them from eating things that are toxic to them.

It’s important to be mindful about where you choose to walk a dog off leash, how well trained they are, and also mindful of which other dogs might be around or wild animals. Thinking all of those things through to make sure that your dog gets the happiest experience they can.

Outdoor access for cats

A cat lies in the grass outdoors

Chantelle: When it comes to indoor-only or indoor-outdoor access for cats, there are safety considerations and other welfare considerations.

Risk of illness and injury for outdoor cats

Chantelle: Cats who free roam outdoors are at greater risk of injury and illness.

One study found that cat guardians in urban settings are more likely to keep cats indoors only, whereas guardians in suburban or rural settings were more likely to have indoor outdoor cats. Many guardians in urban settings cited car accidents as one of the reasons that they keep their cats indoor only. But another study actually found that outdoor cats were just as likely to be victims of road accidents in rural and urban areas, and it doesn’t really make that much of a difference.

  • They could be hit by a car.
  • There could be attacks from predators.
  • There could be bites from other cats who might have transmissible diseases, and then that could lead to a longer term health issue.
  • They could be poisoned from eating toxic plants or poisoned rodents or other substances.
  • They could contract parasites like fleas, ticks, and worms.

Enrichment for indoor cats

Chantelle: Indoor-only cats can get bored, so they might need additional enrichment to make sure that they’re getting enough physical activity and they can express their natural behaviours like chasing and pouncing.

Individual cat preferences

Chantelle: Individual cats will also have different wants and needs depending on how old they are and what they’re used to.

So for instance, like a newly-adopted kitten in an apartment building might be perfectly content having playtime with their guardian; but an adult cat who’s used to being like an outdoor barn cat in the country would be more likely to want to do what they’ve always done.

Safer outdoor options for cats

Chantelle: There are also safer options for cats who like to be outside.

If you want to make sure that they’re safe while doing so: there’s enclosed patios, you can take them on a walk with a harness close to home if that’s something they’ll tolerate.

I share my home with a cat, Callie. She’s an indoor cat and she’s really skittish around loud noises, but she still likes to have some outdoor time supervised in a fenced yard, and she likes the option to go back inside anytime she wants.

Cats and wildlife

Chantelle: With cats, it’s also important to consider the wellbeing of wildlife.

Cats are predators, so they have natural hunting instincts and that makes them a risk to birds and other small animals. They’re not a native part of Canada’s ecosystem, so they’re considered an invasive species, and that can be a concern as well.

Bedding for pets

A small dog sleeps on a commercial dog bed with his head on the floor

Amy: Something we can talk about pretty quickly is bedding for animals.

I think this is pretty much common sense. Most people know that animals will sleep wherever they want to sleep

That’s going to really differ based on the age of the animals. Older animals tend to pick softer surfaces.

Bedding for dogs

Having a variety of surfaces available is really important. Options include:

  • Commercial dog beds;
  • Blankets and towels – dogs like to nest;
  • High pile rugs;
  • Cold surfaces like tile;
  • Straw.

In a cold environment, anything that’s insulating, such as a hut with appropriate siding and straw and things like that.

The most important thing of all bedding is always making sure it’s dry; checking it on a daily basis. Just like us as humans, they can get cold and they can be impacted by wet bedding.

Bedding for cats

Chantelle: I think that covers it really well. Going on my theme of just adding on with cats, the best cat bed is really suited to each individual cat and the way they like to sleep. You can observe that when they’re lying down.

If they like to stretch out, a larger, flat bed might be good. If they like to curl up in small spaces, a bed or a basket that’s enclosed on the sides might be better for them. It’s great to have a variety so that they can choose where to be.

Some cats also like blankets or towels folded up on a surface.

Some cats like commercial cat beds or baskets, but pretty notoriously, a lot of cats will prefer the box that the bed came in over the actual bed.

Some studies show that cats in unfamiliar situations, like being in a shelter, feel less stressed when they have access to a cardboard box. Many cats will translate that to places that they’re comfortable in, like their home.

Amy: I think we do this as well when we’re in an unfamiliar environment, we look to all of our resources to go, “What’s available to me? Where can I be safe? Where can I be alone?” If you’re at a dinner party and you suddenly need a break, you’re gonna go into the kitchen or maybe into another room where it’s quiet.

All of these things seem like common sense, but it’s a reminder to relate animals to ourselves because we have the same psychological motivations.

Water access for pets

A cat drinks water out of a tall bowl

Amy: The same principle applies when it comes to water. We like access to fresh, clean water. If water sits around for 24 hours, I might dump it out for myself and get myself a fresh glass. The same goes for animals.

They often don’t like the saliva of another animal, so if you have multiple animals living in a house, keeping multiple water dishes and changing all of them on a regular basis is important.

Cleaning the bowl is really important because they can build up saliva and then bacteria over time.

When you have animals living outdoors, it’s really important for the water to not be frozen and to make sure it’s kept fresh and clean as well.

Chantelle: For cats specifically, most cats prefer to have at least one water bowl that’s not next to their food dish. Cats have an instinctual fear of contamination from their food going into their water source.

Amy: The best thing is to just have as many water sources as possible around the home.

What does pet food look like in a vegan future?

A dog eats a treat out of a person's hand

Amy: Food is a really complicated one, especially as Vancouver Humane Society is a vegan organization. We advocate for an end to all animal suffering, including for farmed animals.

That can be really complicated when it comes to feeding companion animals like cats and dogs who typically eat some meat in their diet; but it doesn’t have to be.

The ideal we’re working towards is a future where animals are not used and killed for food, and where human-animal relationships are respected, and all animals have an opportunity to thrive. There are developments that are making this possible

Chantelle: Absolutely. And looking into the future, I think the simplest solution is to use lab-grown or cultured meat for companion animal food. There’s one company that I know of that’s already doing this with cultured meat pet treats; that’s a really interesting development.

And then we need to look at, if that’s the ideal, how do we get there? So we can advocate for innovation to develop those cultured meat alternatives and make it more accessible in terms of availability and cost. We can also continue to conduct and follow the research around what nutrients animals need.

Each animal guardian will need to observe their companion animal’s health and behaviour, and then make the best choices that enable your companion animal to thrive.

That could mean introducing plant-based foods. There’s new research being done into the healthfulness of plant-based diets for pets. A lunchtime live from Animal Justice Academy goes into depth on this topic.

No Title

Dr. Andrew Wright was our guest on this Animal Justice Academy Lunchtime Live talking about if dogs and cats can eat plant-based. With meat consumption being one of the biggest contributors to climate change, land and water use, and biodiversity loss, as well as the widespread ethical concerns of the treatment of animals in industrialized farming, many humans are opting to eat plant-based.

Learn more about the research on plant-based diets for companion animals:

Animal Justice Academy
The Province

There are a lot of options and there’s a lot of development into a better, brighter future for all animals.

Social relationships for pets

A grey cat grooms a calico cat on a white comforter

Chantelle: The next thing we could touch on is relatationships. Companion animals are social. Much of the time, they thrive when they have a strong relationship with their guardian.

Human-animal bonds

As we mentioned, more than half of Canadians share their home with animals and most consider those animals to be part of the family. I know I certainly do.

That relationship can look different for different individuals. Some dogs always want to be right beside their person. Some enjoy more alone time. In some cases, animals who were previously feral prefer lots of space, and they can take years to warm up to their caregivers.

In general, it’s a good idea to build trust, to let your companion have their own agency on when to engage, and to listen to their communication.

Bonds between animals

Chantelle: There’s also some animals who have strong relationships with other companion animals in the house, if there are any.

Again, that depends on the individual. Some prefer to be a one-animal household and some are bonded with each other.

You’ll see this in feral dogs and cats too. Feral dogs typically have their own routines, but they’ll buddy up with each other and spend time together. Some feral cats live on their own; some like to form colonies. It’s an individual preference.

Should I adopt a second pet?

Chantelle: When you’re making a decision about whether to open your home to one or more companion animals, you can look at their current and previous relationships to give you an idea of how they respond to relationships with other

Amy: This one is really interesting and complicated because certainly we get in our heads sometimes, thinking, “There’s a lot of dogs out there that need to be rescued, and I have one, but maybe I have space for another.” And so we go, “Okay, I should get another dog because I have the space and capacity to do so.”

And meanwhile, the dog that you have isn’t really keen to share their space. And the same can go for cats.

It’s important to get a read on, is your dog or your cat or your rabbit happy in and of themselves? Do they seem like they’re longing for more social connection?

I had one dog who would just cry whenever I left the house, and I had some foster puppies and I videoed to see what would happen when I was away. I had basically a kennel with an ex pen around it, and he jumped up onto the table to jump onto the kennel, to go into the ex pen to lay down with the puppies. And he was so much calmer when he was doing that. And I realized, okay, he needs to live with other animals. He’s just too sad to live alone, or to be left alone.

My companion dog now does not want another dog in the household. She’s very protective and she wants all the treats and toys and water to be hers and hers alone.

Looking at, at the individual is important.

The science of animal emotions

A dog exhibits "whale eye", a sign of stress, as a child approaches

Amy: Let’s go into a little bit of biology on animal behaviour.

We know so much now about animal behaviour grounded in science, which is incredible. If the language gets too technical, we’ll get to a point that maybe we’ll feel a bit more relatable.

Mammals – like humans, dogs, cats, rabbits – have an autonomic nervous system. This system manages involuntary physiological processes, including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal.

It contains three distinct divisions. There’s the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system, and the enteric autonomic nervous system.

Sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn)

So you may have heard of the fight or flight response; that’s really well known. It’s actually a really simplified explanation of one function of our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS engages with nearly every living tissue in our body.

When we and our pets experience stress, it’s our SNS that responds. It may respond with one of four reactions, the well-known fight and flight, as well as the lesser known freeze and fawn.

With animals, you may notice fight presenting as biting, growling, barking, or bearing teeth, with dogs; or swatting, hissing, or an excited but tight tail wag for cats.

You might notice flight when they run away or cower behind you.

Freeze can be much more subtle. Sometimes in dogs you’ll see the whites of their eyes, a stiff position, a stiff tail or them kind of laying down and staying put. This response is really common in rabbits and chickens as well. Often people think that they’re calm when actually they’re just as stressed as an animal who is fighting or fleeing, they’re just frozen.

Fawn also presents itself, for example, in dogs when they show their bellies, wag their tails, trying to make them seem as unthreatening as possible.

Parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest)

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for calming. It’s known as the rest and digest system, specifically involving the vagus nerve. This nerve also has a role in providing an early warning system for us and animals for things like colds and flus. It also monitors the body’s recovery.

To get an idea of whether a pet is happy, it’s good to understand the signs of their sympathetic nervous system being activated, as well as their parasympathetic nervous system responding.

How to tell if your pet is stressed

A dog yawns, exhibiting a sign of stress

Amy: When it comes to things like calming, we know that dogs can calm themselves by shaking. There’s an entire body of therapy for humans dedicated to that called somatic movement; they might call it displacement behaviours as well.

For animals, you can see them trying to manage stress by panting, yawning, licking their lips, whining.

Whining can also be considered a fawning response because the dog might be seeking connection and reassurance.

I mentioned “rest and digest”, so animals might also also go to the bathroom after a stressful situation. Peeing can be a fear response.

I often see this in spay neuter clinics when animals wake up from a surgery; it’s the most stressful thing that they experience probably in their lifetime. They will pee and poo as the first thing they do when they wake up.

Cats are notorious for their freeze response, and in lots of cartoons, you see that puffing up and then not moving. They’re also excellent at hiding if they have enough time to assess the situation and know that they have a safe getaway.

Cats might also develop maladaptive eating and toileting behaviours if they’re chronically stressed.

And of course, going back to the that fight mode, I think we’ve all seen cats that know how to engage in the fight mode and conflict as well.

Sometimes signs of stress are subtle. In cats, they can exist over a long period of time. So in a household with more than one pet, it’s really important to have different water sources and litter boxes to prevent one animal from being able to guard all of the resources.

Is my dog stressed?
Is my cat stressed?

How to tell if your pet is happy

A cat appears relaxed as she is scratched under the chin

Amy: So now that we know what stress looks like, what other states are there that animals experience?

How to tell if your pet is excited

They can be excited, which can look like stress, but typically they’ll have irregular ear and tail movements that show like anticipation; so they’re frozen or in an aggressive state.

How to tell if your pet is content

Amy: Happiness can mean excited; or it can mean calm, it can mean content. That is going to differ outside of the excited state. You’ll see an animal’s body be very loose, eyes being soft, they might blink more slowly.

Chantelle: A lot of cat guardians are familiar with cat slow blinking as a sign of affection.

Amy: Cats might even knead with their paws or rhythmically swish their tails or rub against you. Dogs might lay on their backs or sprawled out and wag their tails.

How to tell if your pet is playful

Amy: They show signs of playfulness, including seeking out toys. Dogs even have a certain kind of laughter that typically comes out when they’re playing with other dogs, but if they have a good bond with you, it might be possible to hear it from them when you play with them too.

And they’ll be comfortable grooming themselves and eating and cats they might purr or chirp.

The difference between cat and dog behaviour

Chantelle: I find that a lot of the time, when someone is really familiar with only dogs, they can find cats’ behaviour sort of confusing and vice versa. And I think that’s probably because a lot of behaviours that you mentioned have opposite meanings depending on the species.

So for instance, when a dog yawns, they could be feeling fear or stressed, but cats tend to yawn when they’re relaxed.

Both of them wag their tails for a lot of reasons, but more commonly it’s associated with dogs being happy or excited, and cats being kind of annoyed. I just find it really interesting to look at the differences between their behaviours.

Is my dog happy?
Is my cat happy?

How and why pets play

A dog appears playful and looks into the camera

Amy: I’d like to chat a little bit more about play. I mentioned it briefly. I absolutely love watching animals play.

As you’ve noticed, we have mostly been talking about dogs and cats. For any species outside of dogs and cats, I really recommend researching their natural behaviours around fear, stress, and play. Sometimes people think an animal is doing well when they’re actually stressed or afraid.

One really important aspect of play is considering the play from the perspective of the animal.

How dogs play

One example would be playing tug of war with the dog. I know there’s a misconception out there that this game can be used to establish a hierarchy where there’s one winner – always the guardian – and they’re the one in charge. This isn’t play.

Power can be a factor in play, but dogs prefer to set the rules and, and if they’re not setting the rules, they don’t really see it as play. They’re just doing what they have to, to get the response from you that they need.

Typically, if they’re playing, they’re the ones in charge. If you give a dog space to do so and you give them resources and you give them your time and engagement, they’ll start to create games and teach you how to play with them the way that they want; whether it’s hide and go seek, fetch, tug of war, scent games, learning tricks, or agility.

It’s really important that a dog is positively reinforced and always given options so that they can communicate whether they want to opt into the activity.

If you choose to engage in physical play with a dog, really take it slow and observe what they respond well to.

With my dog Clover, I can tell when I get a play behaviour right because when I move backwards, she’ll actually come towards me. So she’ll say, “Hey, this is fun. I want to keep doing this.” That’s an example of giving choice.

Something that comes up frequently with play and dogs is mouthing.

It’s really important to recognize that bite inhibition is best taught to puppies because they’ll learn it easily that way. If a dog wasn’t taught bite inhibition as a puppy, it’s really important to follow a very specific training protocol using positive reinforcement to prevent accidental injury during play and to make sure everyone is happy about the outcome.

How cats play

Chantelle: I love talking about animal play as well.

Most cats like to play both by themselves and with another cat or person; in other words, solitary and social play. Generally, the way they play reflects their natural hunting behaviour, like stalking, chasing, pouncing.

Solitary play usually involves a cat interacting with their environment or toys, like batting around a toy mouse or jumping in paper to bags. Animals are just as unique as humans are, so different cats will have different toy preferences.

You can also play with your cat with their toys as a form of social play, like moving around a wand toy for them to chase, or throwing a small toy.

Every cat has a different style of play when they’re playing socially. Some cats love to chase toys that are thrown and some will even bring them back. Some like jumping up at a wand toy when you dangle it above their head, like they would if they were doing their natural behaviours chasing a bird; some like to kind of pounce on it on the ground like they would with a mouse. Even how you move the toy can make a big difference in whether they’re interested or not.

One way that cats play with each other is by fighting or chasing, and some cats also like to do this with people. It’s important to really read your individual animal companion’s behaviours.

It’s also important to teach your cat not to bite you. It’s easiest to do this when they’re young by putting a large object like a stuffed animal between you and the cat when they start to bite.

That being said, some cats can have a lot of fun with games like hide and seek and tag. Cats will also let you know which toys and games are their favourite, because they’ll play with those more and they’ll either initiate the play themselves or they’ll be receptive when you start playing.

Going back to behaviour, a playful cat will typically have dilated eyes and will focus on the thing that they’re playing with. Their tail might also be up,  which is typically a sign of friendliness or their tail could be twitching to show they’re excited. If they’re growling or hissing or flattening their ears, that’s a sign that they’re really no longer feeling playful and have actually become frustrated.

Also to note, cat toys don’t have to be expensive. Most cats actually love playing with found items that are around the home. As long as it’s a safe item, not a choking hazard, it can be something that they consider a toy.

(A choking hazard includes items that have parts or materials that can break off, and either a part of the object or the whole object can fit entirely into the cat’s mouth and be swallowed.)

Some favourites in our house are the rope strings that come out of hoodies, hair scrunchies, boxes with a hole cut out, rugs, rolled up socks, paper bags. The world is open for cat toys.

Why do cats get zoomies?

Chantelle: Sometimes, cats also get zoomies where they run around, maybe pounce on things or run in and out of hiding places. Sometimes they meow really loudly. This can be alarming, but is typically a normal cat behaviour.

Cat zoomies are called frenetic random activity periods (FRAPs).

FRAPs are usually a normal way for cats to burn excess energy or express excitement. If you get woken up at 3:00 am, you might be familiar with this.

If a cat is doing this a lot, it could mean that they need more enrichment throughout the day to get the exercise they need and engage their mind.

If their running behaviour is unusual or seems distressing to them, you can check in with your veterinarian to find out if it could be due to an underlying health issue.

Next episode

A dog sits in a training exercise as her guardian holds a ball behind her back

Please join us next month as we delve into the topic animal training!


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.

Take action for farmed animals

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.

Help protect farmed animals

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.

Take quick action

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.

Take the 21-Day Plant-Based Challenge

Take action

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.

Take quick action

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.