State-Sanctioned Cruelty: How Canadian Laws Authorize Abuse Towards Animals

Most people will agree that cruelty to animals is morally wrong. This sensibility exists across the political spectrum – from people on the left to people on the right, and from vegans to meat-eaters alike. The idea that animal cruelty is morally wrong is such a deeply held conviction that governments have animal-specific legislation that enshrine those values into law.

In Canada, every province and territory has their own legislation that protects animals – from the Animal Protection Act in Nova Scotia to the Animal Care Act in Manitoba. These Acts lay out the provisions that define animal cruelty, distress, harm, suffering, etc. and the penalties associated when these laws are broken. In a truly just society, the most vulnerable among us require the strongest legal protections from harm. And we can be thankful that the most defenseless members of our society – animals – are afforded such protections from harm.

While each province has a different legal conception of what ‘animal cruelty’ amounts to, we can take Manitoba’s prohibition against the infliction of suffering as a concise definition on what is meant by ‘animal cruelty’. From Manitoba’s The Animal Care Act:

3(1)   No person shall inflict upon an animal acute suffering, serious injury or harm, or extreme anxiety or distress that significantly impairs its health or well-being.

The legal definition of ‘distress’ also varies from province to province. Saskatchewan’s The Animal Protection Act has a robust definition that is useful in understanding what is meant by ‘distress’:

(2) An animal is in distress if it is:
  (a) deprived of:
        (i) food or water sufficient to maintain the animal in a state of good health;
        (ii) care or shelter; or
        (iii) veterinary care or medical attention;
  (b) in need of reasonable protection from injurious heat or cold;
  (c) wounded, ill, in pain, suffering, abused or neglected;
  (d) kept in conditions that:
        (i) are unsanitary;
        (ii) will significantly impair the animal’s health or well-being over time;
        (iii) cause the animal extreme anxiety or suffering; or
        (iv) contravene the prescribed standards, codes of practice or guidelines; or
  (e) abandoned by its owner or by a person responsible for the animal in a manner that causes, or is likely to cause, distress resulting from any or all of the factors listed in this section.

From these definitions, we can get a general understanding of what is meant by animal cruelty. And from repeated news reports of people convicted on animal cruelty charges when they abuse dogs or cats, we get a disturbing picture of what animal cruelty looks like when it occurs. However, we only tend to read and hear about animal cruelty cases when they are indeed about dogs or cats. Why?

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

Provincial laws that prohibit acts of cruelty towards some animals permit acts of cruelty towards other animals. Despite the appearance that these laws protect animals from harm, in every Act for every province, there is invariably an exception to the rule, which goes something like this:

Animal cruelty is illegal, EXCEPT…

This legal “exception” has a tremendous amount of pain and suffering attached to it. In most cases, the laws that protect animals from harm explicitly state that they do not apply to farm animals (in legal terms, this is usually written as animal husbandry, animal management, agricultural activities, or “prescribed by regulation”, which sets out different rules for different categories of animals).

An example of this can be seen in the Alberta Animal Protection Act. The bolded provision below, section 2(2) of the Animal Protection Act is the “exception”:

2 (1) No person shall cause or permit an animal of which the person is the owner or the person in charge to be or to continue to be in distress.
  (1.1) No person shall cause an animal to be in distress
  (2) This section does not apply if the distress results from an activity carried on in accordance with the regulations or in accordance with reasonable and generally accepted practices of animal care, management, husbandry, hunting, fishing, trapping, pest control or slaughter.

Every animal protection legislation in Canada has a variation of this provision. In practice, it legally permits cruelty towards farm animals. In effect, it can be characterized as the State-Sanctioned Animal Cruelty Provision.

What kind of legal protection is left for farm animals? The State-Sanctioned Animal Cruelty Provision usually includes wording along the lines that it permits “reasonable and generally accepted practices of animal management.” That’s it. That’s the legal protection that hundreds of millions of farm animals receive against cruelty and harm. (It should be noted that there are also no federal laws in Canada that regulate treatment of farm animals).

What are these “reasonable and generally accepted practices of animal management”? Typically this refers to NFACC (National Farm Animal Care Council) Codes of Practice – guidelines that are primarily developed by the meat, dairy, and egg industries to serve their own interests, not the interests of animals. If you read through these guidelines for any farm animal and replace the animal with “dog” or “cat,” you get a sense of the cruelty that exists when these guidelines are put into practice.

Animal Cruelty is Wrong. Full Stop.

Morally, there is no difference between doing this to a puppy or a piglet:

Grasp the hind legs of the animal and strike the top of the cranium firmly and deliberately against a flat, hard surface. Alternatively, a sharp, firm blow with a heavy blunt instrument to the top of the head over the brain can be used.

Legally, there is. Legally, you can’t do that to a puppy.

But you can to a piglet.

In the animal agriculture industry it’s called “thumping”, and it’s an accepted form of euthanasia for piglets in Canada under the NFACC Codes of Practice. What is quoted above is directly from NFACC.

What this looks like in practice can be seen at a Puratone pig farm in Arborg, Manitoba, a company now owned by Canadian meat giant Maple Leaf Foods. At 2:40 minutes into the video, a worker demonstrates blunt trauma euthanasia, or thumping. This action is entirely within the scope of the law. Disturbing footage warning.

If you described this action towards a puppy, it would be like describing the contents of an animal torture video – snuff videos where people torture and kill animals for an underground market of zoosadists. While Thumping Puppies may be the title of an animal torture video, Thumping Piglets is a state-sanctioned “reasonable and generally accepted practice of animal management.” Where Thumping Puppies has a disturbing market in the dark corners of the internet, Thumping Piglets is a widespread agricultural practice, legally permitted by the state, and part of the process for pork and bacon to end up on Safeway and Sobeys grocery shelves across Canada.

Repeal the State-Sanctioned Animal Cruelty Provision

What happens on farms, transport trucks, and in slaughterhouses is inherent animal cruelty. When we recognize that the government permits systematic animal cruelty towards farm animals and we pinpoint those legal provisions that make this cruelty legally permissible, we can voice our outrage to the government to change our laws so that they are in line with our values.

Animal cruelty is wrong. Full stop.