Unpacking animal welfare and law in Canada

Kingston Humane Society, member of Parliament, and lawyer speak to issue

Image by: Cassandra Pao
Neglected pets are being returned to the Kingston Humane Society.

Pets are legally classified as personal property in Canada, which advocates in Kingston and beyond see as contradictory to the convictions of animal lovers.

“The classification of pets as property is a defense for [the animals]” Bruce Pardy, Queen’s professor of Law, said in an interview with The Journal. This classification provides certainty in a person’s ability to keep other people “out of the business” of their pets, Pardy said.

He said that classifying pets as property doesn’t mean you “can do whatever you want with them,” condemning the inhumane treatment of pets on the basis of them being property.

The Kingston Humane Society

Workers and volunteers at the Kingston Humane Society (KHS) who routinely witness the neglect, abuse, and abandonment of animals, have expressed doubt about the fairness and effectiveness of this classification system under Canadian law.

“I don’t think you could find a single person in their life who’s had an animal that would say ‘that’s [my] property,’” Gord Hunter, executive director of KHS, said in an interview with The Journal.

The consideration of pets as property leads to neglect and all kinds of issues, Hunter told The Journal.

Hunter explained tenants renting property in Kingston often abandon their animals, leaving them behind at the end of their lease. Since the law considers pets property, landlords become the de facto owners of those animals.

“The landlords […] in their defense, they didn’t sign up to care for an animal […] They bring them to us, and we have to deal with the fallout of that.”

According to Hunter, it costs about 700 dollars to provide food, medicine, and diagnostic testing at KHS for each animal. This amount does not include the cost of utilities to heat and provide shelter for the animal or more extensive medical treatment like surgery.    

According to Hunter, 70 per cent of KHS’s operational funds come from donations.

The frequent abandonment of pets places an extra strain on KHS’s resources, since they have to keep a specified number of spaces open for stray animals brought in from Kingston and the surrounding areas.

If there’s concern an animal has been mistreated and it is brought to KHS without proper warrants, KHS can be considered in possession of stolen property.

In that case, KHS cannot care for the animal’s needs, and due to existing legislation, the animal does not get the care and compassion it needs, according to Hunter.

“We have to be really careful […] we could be legally liable for costs incurred or for potential charges.”

For Hunter, the legal system is deficient in handling animal abuse.

“It happens so frequently […] people who are backyard breeders or who abuse animals are very quickly back in possession of other animals after animals are taken from them because there’s so little in terms of consequences right now.”

He shared a story of three golden retriever puppies housed in a transport carrier in a basement without any light or windows. Once discovered, authorities seized them from their owners, brought them to KHS, and charged their former owners with abuse.

KHS has since received more animals from that same home, Hunter reported, and the owners are being investigated a second time. Despite the charges of animal abuse against them, they had no difficulty in procuring and abusing another set of pets.

Hunter, who’s spent the last 20 years working for not-for-profit organizations, praised the dedication of the KHS staff, claiming it’s unmatched by any workplace he’s ever been in.

The Journal spoke with Penny Campbell, a long-term volunteer working at KHS, who has been volunteering at humane societies since she graduated from nursing school in 1965.

“Sometimes it’s so joyous and just warms your heart, and other times we have a group cry,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

According to Campbell, the staff consists almost entirely of young women entering the workforce who provide as much emotional support to one another as they do to the animals.

One such staff member is Adele McParlan, a client care supervisor at KHS. She runs the front desk, receiving incoming donations or animals and seeing off pets who are being fostered or adopted.

McParlan sees a lot of animals that have been involved in animal abuse investigations brought in. She said that even when animals are not explicitly known to have been abused, the signs are visible in their behaviour.

“Sometimes we get the full story. Sometimes we don’t. Once they get here, we’re just focused on what happens next for them.”

McParlan said a group of four mastiff strays were brought into KHS one after the other within a 48-hour period. Two of the dogs were brought by members of the public, and the other two by Animal Control.

Although the dogs were not known victims of abuse, based on their behaviour, it was clear they had experienced trauma, she said. One of the dogs, Riggs, has now found his forever home which he will go to at the end of this week.

KHS has seen a surge of surrendered pets in the past two years since the end of the stay-at-home orders implemented at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s common for up to five individuals to call into KHS on a given day wanting to surrender their pets, McParlan said.

People surrender their pets for various reasons, such as unforeseen allergies or sudden medical expenses, but the animals surrendered now are often perfectly healthy. McParlan noted the pets being surrendered were often acquired during the pandemic.

For long-term KHS volunteer Sandie Michaud, this trend reflects the growing desire for instant gratification.

“It’s a shame […] we live in a disposable world where you give up your cell phone after two years–you know, you move on,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

Michaud said people adopted pets because they’re great to have around when you’re home all the time, and now they want to travel, they want to work outside the home, and they cannot do that with a pet. KHS wants people to understand when they bring home a pet, the best outcome is a lifelong commitment to the animal, she said.

“A cat, a dog, a pet–you owe them care and good health and happiness […] All the good things that pets give us—it’s worth the moral imperative to take care of them.”

Michaud contested the idea that cats are emotionally detached from their guardians. She said that cats become very bonded to humans, similar to a dog or any other pet. She shared her experience fostering six cats, specifically referencing one cat named Pesto.

When Pesto arrived at KHS, she was exceptionally frightened of human interaction and cowered at the back of her cage anytime somebody approached her. After three months of fostering, Pesto ventured out of the comfortable box Michaud had arranged for her at home and sat, purring, beside Michaud as she read.

Once her new family adopted her, it took her less than three days to adjust to her new circumstances. She had learnt to trust humans again.

Although KHS does its best to care for every animal, being crowded and busy makes it an inevitably stressful environment for the animals. KHS relies on fostering to discover the true personalities of the animals.

KHS provides food and medications for animals in foster care so their foster guardians don’t have to bear those costs themselves. KHS estimates this is particularly helpful for the large portion of foster guardians that are Queen’s students and have limited budgets.

Animal Welfare in the Law

Currently, judges in Canada have no obligation to consider the best interest of animals during pet custody disputes. Ontario courts typically do not apply child custody laws to disputes over pet ownership, instead settling custody issues as property disputes.

In an interview with The Journal, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, ArtSci ’07 and Queen’s Law ’10, Liberal member of Parliament in the House of Commons, said the federal government must take accountability to promote provincial animal welfare guidelines as national standards.

He said federal and provincial governments need to work “very collaboratively,” but there’s no “real appetite for change” to animal welfare among many lawmakers.

Erskine-Smith strives to ensure his politics and advocacy are consistent with his values. He credits his mother for raising him and his two siblings with a “real sense of compassion towards animals” and focusing on the humane treatment of animals.

In 2016, Erskine-Smith introduced Bill C-246, the Modernizing Animal Protections Act. Erskine-Smith characterized its measures as modest: to expand the definitions of animal fighting and bestiality, prohibit the import and sale of dog and cat fur, and to impose greater restrictions on puppy mills.

The Bill also sought to strengthen existing animal cruelty offences in the Criminal Code. According to Erskine-Smith, animal cruelty is the only standard in the Criminal Code categorized as willful neglect rather than a gross negligence offence.

Erskine-Smith told The Huffington Post Canada that willful neglect is difficult for prosecutors to prove. The Bill would facilitate the prosecution of animal cruelty for individuals who cause suffering to animals through gross negligence. The Bill was defeated at its second reading.

Despite the cessation of Erskine-Smith’s bill in 2016, similarly progressive legislation continues to be bolstered by advocates and lawyers like Jennifer Friedman.

Friedman left behind a corporate and administrative law career to become the first-ever counsel to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SCPA), marking the beginning of her career in animal law. She currently runs her own private animal law practice in Ontario, Canada’s Animal Lawyer.

In an interview with The Journal, Friedman said the addition of an animal law section to the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) demonstrated the legal community’s recognition of animal law as a legitimate discipline.

She said the animal law section is “an example of the importance of persistence and perseverance” in law and advocacy but acknowledged ongoing shortcomings in the legal treatment of pets in Canada.

According to Friedman, animal welfare laws are not being enforced to a high enough degree of regularity to act as a deterrent to abusers. The fact people who have been charged with animal abuse continue to access and abuse new animals is unsurprising to Friedman.

Although there’s a chance to impose a lifetime ban on animal ownership for persons who have previously abused animals, such bans are not imposed as often as they should be, according to Friedman.

She said the problem of ineffective law enforcement is compounded by the classification of pets as personal property.

The classification of a dog as property theoretically prevents a person’s neighbour from walking into their house and taking their dog since they don’t own it and don’t have the right to interfere with it. However, in the event of theft, the classification of pets as property precludes guardians from reporting them as missing.

Given the costliness of litigation and inevitable court delays, somebody who steals a dog or any other pet may feasibly maintain improper possession of it indefinitely.

“Without equivocation, classifying [pets] as property is highly problematic,” Friedman said.

Friedman added that this classification of pets as indistinct from inanimate forms of property “like bicycles and butter knives” is irreconcilable with the recognition of their sentience.

Friedman likened the process of amending existing and constructing new animal laws to transitioning from a crawl to a walk and eventually a run. Changemakers and advocates such as herself, Erskine-Smith, and the staff and volunteers at KHS enable advances in animal welfare.

“While we are still at the ‘walk’ stage, I look forward to marathons in the future,” Friedman said.


animal rights, Canadian law, Kingston Humane Society, pets

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