By Claire Williams, University of Saskatchewan student
An Investigation into the Consistency of Animal Welfare Across Canada
As terrible a habit as it is, I have never been one to put much afterthought into the articles I read. I’m the kind of person who reads bad news and thinks ‘that’s unfortunate,’ and moves on. It wasn’t until I was sitting in class, listening to a lecture about how it only takes one instance to warp the public’s opinion, that I realised, in a way, my perception was also not entirely accurate. The media stories that start with descriptions of animal abuse cases, and don’t follow up with a story explaining the consequences, meant that I didn’t really know what happened after the cameras left. Was there a trial? Were there fines? Because of this, I felt an overwhelming desire to investigate the one thing that motivated me to take animal science in the first place.
Cattle are such a vital part of Canada’s agriculture that I foolishly assumed the welfare system in place was refined. In my mind, the treatment of cattle was tightly monitored and free from cracks that left room for ambiguity of the rules’ interpretation. When I would hear complaints of cattle welfare, I gave it only a scrap of my attention. However, I did pay attention the Codes of Practice for both beef and dairy cattle.
Once I began my investigation into welfare claims, I learned that the Code of Practice, while a legalised requirement of all producers, can only be enforced if a producer is caught in violation. The majority of those caught result from complaints made by the public, who may not be entirely sure of proper practices. In which case, the inability to meet the code requirements may be beyond a producer’s control, or a one-time occurrence, not that I’m excusing missteps that place an animal in any sort of distress. I am simply trying to express that the public may not be well-enough equipped with facts as to how the industry works to make accurate claims against a producer. For example, a cow in the rain is not necessarily without shelter, and therefore the rights of the animal have not been violated.
Existing Legislation Against Animal Cruelty
Let’s assume for a moment that cattle breeders are maliciously harming their animals for their personal vendetta. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, (particularly in section 445.1: Cruelty to Animals) it is illegal to knowingly or unknowingly (regardless of first or third party action) mistreat an animal or “…[fail] to exercise reasonable care or supervision of an animal or a bird thereby causing it pain, suffering or injury…”. If unable to provide evidence to the contrary, a violator has a maximum fine of $10,000 and maximum imprisonment of 5 years. On top of the criminal code, there are subsequent acts unique to each province. In all three prairie provinces, producers can lose custody of their animals, while in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, both a fine and prison sentences are possible.
As with much of the industry, cattle production is costly in a number of inputs to produce either milk or beef depending on the operation. The addition of the above fines is a cost which would not be beneficial to the animal or the profits of the producer, therefore it si within the best interest of the producer to avoid welfare issues. These fines and jail sentences seem as though the right steps are being taken toward accountability. As long as the RCMP is not involved in the investigation, no criminal record is administered. It gaps in government oversight – such as prosecution only if the RCMP is involved – that allow someone malicious or someone who is unable to care for their creatures to skirt around the law, especially in a sector of agriculture so heavily reliant on the public’s observations. Currently, there is nothing preventing a producer in Saskatchewan from moving to Alberta where the fine is a little more reasonable and where no jail time is better than 2 years. Regardless of the plausibility of such a situation, it is still a possibility. The cases we frequently hear of are from a lack of care, such as the September 2016 BC dairy investigation. While these legislations are a great beginning, the loopholes – such as a SPCA animal confiscation without a permanent police record – are the reasons we hear of abuse cases across the nation that are left to eventually fade out of the public’s attention without much penalty.
A Challenge to Cattle Industries
I implore you to make animal welfare a more talked-about aspect of the agriculture conversation, and recognise that animal welfare, if nothing else, should be a stepping stone to strong public awareness and trust in the industry. While most, if not all, producers hold their animals (and ultimately, their business) to the highest standard, mistakes can be made. “Caring for animals properly is simply a matter of doing the right thing, but it also makes good business sense” (Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan). This is the kind of statement that perfectly describes the kind of attitude we, as consumers and producers alike, need to embrace. Abuse cases are far less common than those of neglected living conditions (although neither is prevalent here, in Canada), and the BC investigation serves to remind the public that farmers do everything they are capable of, to bring a heightened quality to Canadian agriculture. The media is a constant source of fear tactics around the agricultural industry. This is part of the reason we hear of the circumstances and none of the follow-up. Without consistency of consequence across the provinces and territories, we can never truly reach a fair system free of ambiguity. It’s this ambiguity that puts a distrust in society’s perception of Canadian agriculture.
Claire is in her third-year animal science student at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Victoria, BC, but that did not inhibit her love of animals or recognition of the increasing importance of the agriculture industry. She has spent her summers gaining hands-on experience on small mixed farms and continues to enjoy educating her family and friends on the industry’s progression. Claire plans to continue learning and exploring everything the field has to offer.