Manitoba’s new Animal Care Act gives enforcement officers sweeping powers to investigate and prosecute cases of animal abuse whether they are in the city or on the farm, the province’s top animal welfare officer says.
“We really have police powers. We can enter and collect evidence. You must cooperate with me when I ask you questions about your animals– non-co-operation is an offence under the Animal Care Act,” Dr. Terry Whiting told a recent meeting of the Portage Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).
“We have the powers to arrest, but that is such a tricky thing to do that we’ve never done it,” he said.
Along with five uniformed officers under his oversight with the Office of the Chief Veterinarian, there are also three to four animal protection officers appointed and empowered by the minister of agriculture, but paid for by the Winnipeg Humane Society, who maintain a “very high level of contact” with him, he said.
Uniformed police officers and private veterinarians may also enforce the Animal Care Act, he added.
“The philosophy of our office is that farm animals, companion animals, unowned animals – I don’t care – they are all equally protected under the provincial law.”
In a far-ranging and very frank overview of the recent amendments to the province’s new Animal Care Act, Whiting said it might even be used to enforce industry codes of practice for animal care.
He said there is a historical precedent for the new authority now enshrined in law.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1866 in New York, was a non-government organization granted policing powers. Enforcement was to be sustained by funds collected through prosecutions.
“But what the ASPCA found, was that proceeds from fines were actually irrelevent to the cost of doing policing. But if you go to the media, and get donations for your enforcement actions, you can get lots of money,” said Whiting.
FOOTING THE BILL
Why do taxpayers now have to foot the bill for animal welfare policing, as is now required under the act?
He noted that there is a ” huge moral
hazard” in policing through private organizations. The biggest sums are generated at the time of arrest, when a media furor generates intense interest and attention. Actually punishing offenders through due process of law, is less spectacular.
“One of the bad aspects of the ASPCA system was that the farmers never trusted them. They were seen as vigilante, media-grasping whores,” said Whiting. SPCA laws only applied to pets, or so-called companion animals.
The public, according to Whiting, has had enough with this loophole in animal welfare law, and wants those laws extended to farm animals.
“What we are pushing with the Criminal Code of Canada, is that we want to say that crimes against animals are not crimes against property, but crimes against society, … I am injured when someone is cruel to an animal,” Whiting said.
The Animal Care Act resulted from public pressure to gain a taxpayer-funded, professional police force instead of the old privatized system that delivers a “public good.”
In Manitoba, 75 per cent of the population lives within 50 km of Winnipeg. Also, there are no rural-based SPCA groups, even though livestock outside the Perimeter Highway numbers millions of head.
Whiting described Bill 17, which passed in 2008 and permanently curtails hog barn expansion in much of Manitoba, as an “anti-swine producing law” that didn’t help the situation.
“We have this lack of trust between rural and urban people,” said Whiting.
Under the act, people with animals in their care, whether they own them or not, are responsible for providing food, shelter and medical care. But standards of care required differ according to how animals are used.
“Currently, society accepts the raising of pigs under conditions that would never be tolerated for a dog,” said Whiting.
In the new act, allowing a dog to ride loose in the back of a truck is a ticketable offence.
“I don’t think the RCMP really cares about dogs in the back of trucks,” he said. “But that gives them cause to stop a truck, and the kinds of hillbillies that have loose dogs in the back of their trucks also have big bales of marijuana on the floor and a box of handgun ammunition on the dashboard.”
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Whiting’s officers do not seize animals “to punish people,” but to relieve suffering and distress. In many cases, killing the animal is the most expedient course of action, he said.
The code of practice requirements built into the legislation are largely tested, but Whiting plans to push the envelope by pressing charges against a swine producer.
“My lawyers think we’re going to win on this. The swine code of practice says you have to have eight hours of light in the barn. The guy didn’t have eight hours of light, so we’ll charge him and see how it goes,” said Whiting.
“If it happens, it will be the first time in Canada that the enforcement of codes of practice was demonstrated in common law.”
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ARMED WITH A BADGE:The province’s top animal welfare officer Dr. Terry Whiting says all animals are equal under the law.