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New animal cruelty law toughens penalties

But bill isn't expected to affect universities that use animals for teaching and research

BY TIM LOUGHEED | JUN 09 2008

After almost a decade of debate, the federal government passed new legislation in April amending Canada’s Criminal Code on cruelty to animals. Bill S-203, now law, retains almost all of the language and terms of the previous legislation, which had been in place since 1892 to deal with everything from neglect of farm animals and pets to the promotion of dog baiting or fighting.

Under the new law, however, maximum fines and jail sentences have increased, along with the length of time an offender can be prohibited from owning animals. Courts also have a new power to order restitution paid to individuals or agencies that have lost animals because of an offender’s actions.

The changes in this legislation should have no impact at universities where animals are used for teaching or research, said Steve Wills, manager of legal affairs for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

While animal-rights protest groups sometimes make charges of cruelty against university research using animals, these activities fall within the established bounds of the law, having passed the review of internal research ethics boards and followed the guidelines of the Canadian Council on Animal Care.

Indeed, the CCAC offered no comment on Bill S-203, suggesting that the legislation was entirely in line with the principles underlying the organization’s mandate. Those principles were formally presented to Justice Canada in the late 1990s, when parliamentary discussion of new animal cruelty legislation began.

That process first yielded another attempt at new legislation, Bill C-373, which contained many more changes to the existing legislation and gave new wording to define offences of animal cruelty. Although this law was passed by the House of Commons in 2003, it was delayed by Senate debate and hadn’t received royal assent when the outgoing Liberal government fell.

Under the current government, Bill S-203 emerged as a private member’s bill from Liberal Senator John Bryden. He argued that only the penalties for cruelty to animals needed to be updated, since the wording of the offences has been sufficiently interpreted with well understood legal precedents that go back more than a century. He also objected to some of the language contained in Bill C-373, referring to killing an animal in a “brutal” manner, which could mean different things to different observers.

Mr. Wills of AUCC added that these kinds of changes could create uncertainty and have a profound effect on university researchers, since the CCAC guidelines haven’t been mentioned in any iteration of the law. “You could be potentially acting in complete compliance with these guidelines, and yet someone could launch a prosecution against you because in their view, any use you’re making of the animals is offensive,” said Mr. Wills.

Nevertheless, some members of the academic community were disappointed to see the new law pass in its current form. Alice Crook said that harsher penalties alone will not improve the prosecution of animal neglect. As coordinator of the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Atlantic Veterinary College and member of the Animal Welfare Committee of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, she testified earlier this year before the House of Commons committee reviewing S-203.

There she said that new terms such as “brutal” could have made more explicit the legal protection for well-established activities involving animals, such as hunting, fishing, euthanasia, or scientific research. She pointed out that the new law does not recognize the brutal killing of an animal as a form of violence, offering an example of two men who were charged with beating their dog with a baseball bat but were not convicted because the dog died on the first blow.

Meanwhile, with the new law in place, she and others will be watching to see if more cases are successfully prosecuted. If not, said Dr. Crook, the push for more significant changes will likely continue.

Those efforts have already started, with another private member’s bill, this one from Liberal MP Mark Holland, whose legislation is virtually identical to the failed Bill C-373.

“I don’t think this is the end of the issue by any means,” acknowledged Mr. Wills. He warned that sanctioned uses of animals can be compromised by laws too eager to redress the gross abuse of livestock or pets – the kind of issues that disturb the public.

“But an unfortunate spillover may be that if we change the law in a way that may be ill-considered, and it allows people who are more on the fringes of the spectrum to pursue university researchers, then you’ve caused collateral damage that may be really unnecessary and unwarranted.”

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