The mistreatment of any animal, including our much beloved equine companions, should be considered wholly unacceptable in today’s society. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that the mistreatment of animals hoofed or otherwise persists, both in Ontario and right across the country.  There is an array of legislation, both provincially and federally, relating to the welfare of animals.  An awareness of animal welfare legislation affecting your community empowers people to do more for animals at risk.

Federally, there are three pieces of legislation important to the well-being of animals.  The Health of Animals Act 1990, c.21 and the Meat Inspection Act 1985, c.25 ensure the humane treatment of animals, including horses, during their transport and slaughter respectively.  There has been a tremendous growth in Canada’s slaughter of horses, doubling every 2 years since the U.S. stopped slaughtering its own horses in 2006, with the meat produced destined for Europe and Asia.  Unfortunately, corporate compliance with legislation governing the treatment of animals intended for slaughter appears to be insufficient, or, at best, their compliance lags behind instances of publicized abuse.  This growing and profitable industry shouldn’t require CBC exposes into deplorable and inhumane practices, at three of the limited number of abattoirs in Canada which have been slaughtering horses over the last two years, in order to ensure their compliance with federal legislation.  Legislation is only as effective as its enforcement.

The most important piece of federal legislation to curb the mistreatment of animals is the Criminal Code (s.444 – s.447).  The provisions on animal welfare prevent cruelty to animals that is wilful or without lawful excuse.  Unfortunately what is needed to support a conviction under the Criminal Code is hard to satisfy.  In a criminal prosecution, the Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt both the physical act and the required intent.  It is the intent component which is difficult to prove resulting in very low conviction rates, particularly in instances of neglect.  The provisions on animal cruelty were amended in 2008 but sadly these amendments did not address the difficulty in obtaining convictions because of the proof required to establish the necessary mental component of the offences.  In areas without their own animal welfare legislation, such as Quebec and much of Canada’s north, those responsible for the mistreatment of animals may all too often escape punishment.

The toothless nature of the Criminal Code is well demonstrated in the unfortunate case of R. v. Heynan [1993] AWLD 214.  The accused operated an outfitter and guide business in the Yukon and wintered two dozen of his horses in an Alberta pasture unattended.  The pasture in which the horses were left was covered in snow and ice and was incapable of preventing the starvation of the untended herd.  Three horses died, with the autopsy of one indicating that it had starved to death, and, but for the concern of neighbouring farmers, the whole herd may have slowly and painfully succumbed to the cold and starvation.  All the defendant had to say by way of a defence was that he genuinely believed the horses would be fine when left to themselves.  The Alberta Provincial Court said that even though “such belief was incredibly naïve, it would, if genuinely and honestly held, afford the accused a defence”.  The suffering of these animals, left alone through an Alberta winter without food or water, went totally unpunished.  A similar case in British Columbia ended quite differently in the courts, partly because the accused was charged under the Criminal Code so pled guilty to the Provincial offence (see “Rescued by Volunteers”).

The animal welfare provisions of the Criminal Code, unlike in Heynan (above), can be successfully employed to punish those that would do harm to horses as can be seen in the case of R. v. Pryor [2007] ONCJ 648.  Nearly two dozen horses had to be seized on Manitoulin Island, Ontario after it was found that the accused kept over 30 horses outside for the winter months, without regular access to water, without supplementary food such as salt blocks and where the horses were left untreated for lice infestation and other parasites.  Despite being given several opportunities to provide better care the accused continued to neglect the animals concerned.  The court was able to find the accused guilty of 4 of 16 counts.  As punishment the accused received a suspended sentence and probation.   Amendments to the animal welfare provisions of the Criminal Code in 2008 allowed for stiffer sentencing but didn’t address the problems associated with poor conviction rates.

Fortunately the majority of provinces, including Ontario, have their own much stronger animal welfare legislation.  Such legislation is the biggest stick with which to beat back instances of animal mistreatment.  Provinces with their own animal welfare legislation can more readily punish wrongdoers and in doing so, deter future instances of abuse in their communities.  Rather than the Crown having to establish wilful intent on the part of the accused, as is the case under the Criminal Code, the defendants put forward a defence that their actions were reasonable which the judge will then either accept or reject on the balance of probabilities.  It is suggested that this is the more desirable approach with which to seek convictions in instances of animal abuse and neglect.

Ontario’s animal welfare legislation is called the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, R.S.O. 1990, c.O.36 (“OSPCA Act”).  The OSPCA Act is also referred to as the ‘Ontario SPCA Act’ and the ‘Provincial Animal Welfare Act’ (PAW).  Under the OSPCA Act police officers and Ontario S.P.C.A. inspectors, who act with police powers in matters concerning animal welfare legislation (s.11(1)), may make orders to relieve distressed animals (s.13), take possession of animals in distress (s.14) and hold the owner of distressed animals accountable for any costs incurred for their care (s.15).  The OSPCA Act recently underwent considerable amendment courtesy of Bill 50 which was tabled in the Ontario Legislature in April, 2008.  Key changes include:

  • Establishing new offences, including causing or permitting distress to an animal;
  • Judges have greater flexibility to impose stiffer penalties, including jail time, fines and lifetime bans on animal ownership;
  • Veterinarians are required to report suspected abuse;
  • Providing inspection powers to the Ontario SPCA;
  • Expanding standards of care to all animals; and
  • Addressing animal fighting concerns.

Following these amendments, Ontario SPCA Chief Inspector Hugh Coghill said that “Ontario has some of the toughest animal protection laws in Canada”.  In addition to Ontario’s newly revamped Ontario SPCA Act there is also provincial legislation regulating animal welfare in particular activities such as animal research (Animals for Research Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. A.22), dealing with fallen animals, (Disposal of Deadstock O. Reg. 105/09), slaughter (Meat Inspection O. Reg. 31/05), sale (Livestock Community Sales Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. L.20) and racing (Racing Commission Act, 2000, S.O. 2000, c.20).

More must be done in Canada to prevent and deal with instances of animal abuse and neglect.  Individuals can start by garnering a better appreciation of the animal welfare legislation in place in their communities.  In addition, we should all advocate for stronger animal welfare legislation, not ignore instances of mistreatment and, perhaps most importantly, support the efforts of those tasked with enforcing animal welfare legislation in our community.  Contact your local SPCA to find out what they are doing to protect animals in your community and ask how you can help.