An animal-abuse court case based on the discovery of hundreds of dead, starving, dehydrated and injured hogs in a Notre Dame de Lourdes-area barn earlier this year could be precedent setting on two fronts.
The horrific conditions animal-welfare officers found when they were called to the scene and the number of charges laid against the owners of the barn may make this one of the biggest animal-abuse cases the province has ever witnessed.
But it is also the first time charges have been laid for failing to comply with an industry code of practice – standards of animal care developed under the leadership of these hog producers’ peers.
Thirteen of the 23 charges laid against Martin and Dolores Grenier are based on violations of the hog industry’s code of practice. The transgressions include failing to clean the facility, failing to provide the pigs with eight hours of light per day, failing to maintain the ventilation and watering systems and failing to consult a vet when high rates of mortality occurred.
That’s in addition to charges under the Animal Care Act for failing to feed and water the animals and for housing them in conditions that caused injury, such as a broken slatted floor in which animals could fall into the pits below and drown.
Codes of conduct for animal care in livestock production have been in place for decades. Some are now into their second generation. But they have largely been seen as voluntary. Even though animal-welfare officers have had the authority to charge livestock producers using the codes of practice as a guideline since 1998, this is the first time such charges have ever been laid.
It remains to be seen how the courts will deal with this case, or who will be found culpable. But there is little debate about the conditions and the suffering these animals endured.
Likewise, it is impossible for the animal industry to condone or rationalize this treatment. In fact, the way in which livestock producer organizations spoke out in support of the new Animal Care Act demonstrates their commitment to seeing bad actors held accountable.
There is a long-standing tradition in Canada to allow professional organizations, such as doctors, dentists, veterinarians and lawyers to set their own standards of conduct that are enforceable in law.
But whereas these other groups in society maintain organizations that have the authority to regulate and sanction their membership’s conduct, there is no such structure in animal industry.
That leaves it to society at large to put teeth into these codes. And it will place tremendous pressure on their developers to ensure they are both reasonable for producers and acceptable to broader society.
Under new provincial animal-welfare laws, all animals are considered equally deserving of protection, whether they are farm animals, companion animals or animals living in the wild.
The catch of course, is how we define abuse. This is a society that personifies animals in fiction, gives names and coddling to some, while eating others for dinner. There are different standards for raising puppies than for raising pigs.
Increasingly, society considers keeping sows in gestation stalls, hens in battery cages and branding or castrating without the use of local anesthesia to be unacceptable. But these are still accepted standards of care within the livestock industry.
Dairy farmers have recognized this disconnect between economic efficiency and social sensitivities in their revised code of practice; the new code shuns dehorning or caustic debudding without providing the animal relief from pain.
Technology will also play a role in this transition. Granted, new livestock identification and traceable systems that rely on readable ear tags are still a work in progress. But as they become more reliable, it’s questionable whether branding has much of a future in the cattle business.
Even though it may be the cowboy way, pressing red hot metal onto a calf’s raw hide is hard to justify as humane treatment of animals – especially in an age when bar code ear tags may eventually be just as effective.
Other livestock groups will face similar pressures as their own codes come up for review. The debates within will be difficult as traditional practices confront changing societal values.
Some producers will feel threatened and defensive of the old ways. The cost of conforming to new standards might be steep and producers need time to adjust.
Some will undoubtedly resent the notion of provincial animal-welfare officers armed with a badge, new investigative and prosecution powers and their own industry’s backing to make sure farm animals don’t needlessly suffer.
But they ignore these winds of change at their own – and their industry’s – peril. Livestock producers need to know what’s in their sector’s code of practice for animal care. And they’d be wise to follow it. [email protected]