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McGill students discuss animal protection in Canadian legislation

Content warning: Mentions of animal abuse

 The Herbivore Society for Peace and Justice and Animal Justice McGill hosted, “A Talk on Animal Protection in the Canadian Legal System” on Jan. 17 to discuss whether the law in Canada and Quebec adequately protects animals. The guest speaker was Alanna Devine, former Director of Animal Advocacy at the Montreal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and current Policy Advisor to the Mayor Valerie Plante and the Executive Committee at the City of Montreal.

Devine, who worked at the SPCA for a total of 10 years, has a Bachelor of Civil Law from McGill, which she uses to advocate for increased animal protection legislation at the municipal, provincial, and federal level. She has taught courses at the Faculty of Law.

Devine explained that the majority of animal protection legislation in Canada is criminal or penal in nature, meaning that it is enforced by either the federal or the provincial government. In some cases, the power of enforcement can be given to entities such as the Montreal SPCA. Devine focussed on the Canadian Criminal Code and the Quebec Animal Welfare and Safety Act.

 “There are definitely problems with [the] provisions in the Criminal Code,” Devine said. “Essentially the […] requirements in both of these provisions are what we call mens rea,  [which means you] have to prove that a person intentionally neglected or failed to provide suitable and adequate food, water, shelter [or] care for their animal, or willfully permitted or caused unnecessary pain, suffering [or] injury.”

Devine was heavily involved in the recent expansion of the Animal Welfare and Safety Act, a Quebec provincial law. Its provisions can be more helpful than the Criminal Code in some cases.

“[The Animal Welfare and Safety Act] is very different from the Criminal Code and has positive degrees of care,” Devine said. “[That means that, while] the Criminal Code says ‘You can’t do this,’ this legislation says ‘You have to do this.”

Devine gave examples of when the law is sufficient and insufficient in protecting animals. To exemplify the shortcomings of the law, Devine described the case of the Rodier fur farm in 2014 that sparked public outcry: After an anonymous complaint, the SPCA inspected Rodier’s farm and found about 90 foxes, 10,000 minks, and two dogs that were living in inhumane conditions. The animals were sick, dehydrated, and living in filthy cages, leading some to be euthanized. Nonetheless, Rodier’s sentence was minimal.

Devine referenced an image of an emaciated fox that could not stand: Under stress and deprivation the fox had chewed its paw to the bone.

“I’ve seen a lot of things in my life, working at the SPCA and doing animal advocacy work,” Devine said. “This fox and this photo will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Overall, Devine believes that there is still a long way to go for Canadian legislation on animals.

“[In] conclusion, does the law protect animals?” Devine said. “I would argue, not really. The majority of animals are not protected by the law, unless you are a dog or a cat […] or maybe a horse.”

After the discussion, Anita Sengupta, 1L Law, spoke with The McGill Tribune about points that she found interesting.

“A lot of the provisions in the articles we talked about, they require very specific actions on the part of the owner,” Sengupta said. “If the owner wasn’t found to be intentionally harming the animal, then potentially there’d be no case against [them].”

Abby Couture, U3 Arts and Science student and events organizer at the Herbivore Society, was inspired by Devine’s presentation.

“It was really interesting and eye opening for me to see how language plays a really big role in deciding to what extent is something unlawful or unethical,” Couture said. “On an individual level, I am now more motivated to want to volunteer with the SPCA or donate to the SPCA because you can understand how these resources are going to be [tangibly utilized].”

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