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Righting Canada's wronged animals

For the first time in a federal election in Canada, animal issues are on the map.

Illustration labrador in an animal shelter

With Canadians set to head to the polls on September 20, the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and Green Party all have animal welfare promises in their platforms.

"We're thrilled," said Barbara Cartwright, CEO of Humane Canada, the country's largest national animal welfare organization, representing humane societies, SPCAs, and animal rescues.

"In living memory, there hasn't been a recognition of either the importance of animal welfare or protection. It's clear that politicians are finally waking up to the fact that Canadians care about animals. More than 60% of Canadian homes have animals, with 90% of Canadians who own animals perceive them to be part of the family.

At Animal Justice, Canada's only national animal law advocacy organization, executive director Camille Labchuk says seeing campaigns make animals the focus of announcements and platform planks is "pretty significant."        

That said, getting parties to stick to their promises once elected is always a struggle, and she doesn't anticipate it will be any different with animal protection policies.

"It's never an easy walk to get animal protections passed in this country," Labchuk says.  

Whether it's the Free Willy bill's long swim through Parliament to ban whale and dolphin captivity, the long overdue tightening of the definition of bestiality or efforts to ban cosmetic testing on animals, "industries that have a vested interest and profit handsomely from abusing animals" will oppose any attempt to pass animal protection and welfare measures.

"But they're certainly necessary as Canada continues to have some of the worst animal protection laws in the western world," Labchuk says. 

Further, polls have consistently shown over the years that many Canadians are interested in considering animal issues when they vote, and politicians don't have the luxury of not talking about these issues anymore.     

The Conservatives have promised to ban puppy mills and the importation of animals bred inhumanely and target unethical breeders and dealers from misleading the public with false claims.

The party has also pledged to ban cosmetic testing on animals, modelling that effort after an existing ban in the European Union. The Liberals have made a similar promise to do so as soon as 2023, and to phase out toxicity testing on animals by 2035, something the EU and the US have already committed to. If re-elected, the party says it will also introduce legislation to protect animals in captivity.

The Green Party promises to adopt comprehensive animal welfare legislation to prevent inhumane treatment of farm animals, including minimum standards of treatment, housing density, distances live animals can be transported, and conditions in slaughterhouses and auctions.

In a further sign of the times, the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP all have provisions aimed at preventing future pandemics by addressing the threat posed by animal markets and the wildlife trade in their platforms.

The Conservatives have promised to end the importation of and trade in wild or exotic animals and their products that carry an elevated risk of spreading zoonotic diseases and encourage the closure of poorly regulated wildlife markets globally. At the same time, the Liberals say they will work with partners to curb illegal wildlife trade and end the trade of elephant and rhinoceros tusks in Canada.

According to World Animal Protection, between 2014 and 2019, at least 1.8 million wild animals were imported into Canada from 76 countries to be used in traditional medicine, luxury fashion or as exotic pets. Of those, 93% were not subject to any permits or pathogen screening. That's despite the fact 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases over the past decade, including SARS and Ebola, originated from animals, principally from wildlife. The wildlife trade has likely played a significant role in the outbreak of COVID-19 as well.

Labchuk says the most critical role Canada has to play in preventing the next pandemic is shutting off the illegal and legal wildlife trade into this country and pushing on the international stage for other countries to do the same.

"Legal trade also puts us at risk because any interaction with wild animals is inherently risky. The fewer of those we have the lower the chances of a novel virus that jumps the species barrier."

From imports to exports, the Liberals have promised to end the live shipping of horses overseas for slaughter, which sees them loaded on airplanes in crates with other horses with no segregation and a lack of proper headspace.

"They're basically hunched over for 12+ hours," says Vancouver lawyer Rebeka Breder, who has represented the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition in its court challenge to have the Canadian Food Inspection Agency follow its own transport laws the coalition says the agency has broken for years. That matter is headed to the Federal Court of Appeal.

A petition submitted to Parliament calling for an end to the practice garnered 77,684 signatures in four months.

"There is no reason the Liberals shouldn't act on this. It's not a partisan issue," Breder says. "It's a very small industry that generates a lot of money for very few people. From a political point of view, it's not that controversial."

The connection between violence against animals and violence against people is also getting play in platforms. Research has shown a significant correlation — known as the violence link — between animal cruelty, domestic violence crimes, and child abuse. If an animal is being abused, it's likely the women and children in a situation are as well. Among women in shelters who have fled domestic violence, one study out of the University of Windsor found 89 per cent reported the same kind of violence against their pet.

The Conservatives are promising to provide $10 million a year to train judges and prosecutors to foster a better understanding of the link in the criminal justice system, increase cross-reporting between animal welfare and child welfare agencies, and add animal cruelty as an aggravating factor in domestic violence prosecutions.

Cartwright has worked for years to bring awareness to the violence link, including through Humane Canada's annual violence link conference. She says that kind of investment in direct training for police, lawyers, judges and victims services is what it's going to take to get this on people's radar.

"There is definitely a lack of understanding that there is a link and what it means," she says. "There's almost a blindness in our justice system that this is an issue. Crimes against animals need to be taken very seriously. They don't exist in a vacuum."

And it's not just the serial killer concept that most would think of, like Luka Magnotta. "It's rather more subtle things that are missed in the justice system, how animal abuse is used to coerce and control victims, and keep them from leaving," Cartwright says.              

The Conservatives and the Liberals have promised to work to support pet owners fleeing violence to ensure they don't have to leave their animals behind.

"We've tried many things with gender-based violence, but one thing we've failed to try is having a social safety net that recognizes the relationship between a victim and their animal," Cartwright says. "It's not the be-all and end-all, but if we can get the next government to see and understand that, it could be a way to reduce gender-based violence and animal abuse at the same time."