If you open a newspaper or watch the nightly newscast these days, there’s a good chance of seeing a story that gets at the relationship between animals and the law. Animal law issues regularly make headlines, whether it’s the groundbreaking animal cruelty charges laid against a Chilliwack dairy farm after undercover footage revealed cow abuse; the recent spate of BC puppy mill busts and a provincial promise of new standards for breeders; or MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith’s important new private member’s bill to modernize federal animal protection laws.
Animal law may be a new kid on the block as an area of legal practice, but it’s emerging as a fast-growing and respectable area of law. Most Canadian law schools now offer animal law courses, and many students are hoping for careers in animal law. Canada’s first animal law-focused organization, Animal Justice, is expanding rapidly and sparking conversation about how our legal and political institutions treat animals.
We now know more than ever before about the incredible cognitive, social, and emotional capacities of animals. Most Canadians understand that animals are sentient beings who deserve respect, but societal attitudes toward them have changed much more quickly than our laws. The result is a legal system that fails to protect animals and reflect societal values.
That’s why animal law is focused squarely on the interests of animals themselves, rather than the humans who use them. Animals are still considered property under the law. While animals don’t yet have legal rights (despite a push to give them such rights) they do benefit from protections in connection with unnecessary suffering or distress. But animals don’t yet have legal standing to seek a remedy in court when those protections are violated.
This forces animal lawyers to get creative, and search out novel ways to use existing laws to get cases before the courts. Sometimes this means advocating for stronger law enforcement and more prosecutions. Animal protection laws are woefully under-enforced and under-prosecuted in every corner of the country, usually due to a combination of lack of political will and under-resourced enforcement agencies.
Other times, animal lawyers file suit directly, such as a recent Pacific Wild application to judicially review BC’s unpopular and unscientific wolf cull. They also seek opportunities to get involved in existing litigation, such as a
historic Animal Justice intervention last November in R. v. D.L.W., a Supreme Court of Canada case that has the unnerving potential to weaken criminal bestiality laws and legalize some forms of sexual abuse of animals.
Animal lawyers also push for new legislation to set higher standards for animal care, and ban outright some of most abusive things we do to animals. Mr. Erskine-Smith’s proposed Modernizing Animal Protections Act fixes loopholes in animal cruelty laws, bans shark fin and cat and dog fur use and trading, and makes fur labels mandatory. After decades of stalled progress at the federal level, it stands an excellent chance of passing through Parliament and becoming law.
Our legal system still has a long way to go before it adequately considers animals’ interests, but with the field of animal law gaining momentum, attention, and respect, progress is being made
Camille Labchuk is an animal rights lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice, a non-profit working to secure legal protections for animals in Canada. Anna Pippus is a Vancouver-based animal rights lawyer and director of farmed animal advocacy for Animal Justice.