Dairy Cruelty Charges Cause For Celebration, Dismay, and Reform

Trapped cows whipped, kicked, and punched in their faces, bodies and testicles. Animals suffering from untreated gruesome injuries and infections. Live pigeons sprayed down by hoses and used like baseballs.

These were some of the brutal scenes that were secretly filmed nearly two years ago at Chilliwack Cattle Sales, which harboured what can only be described as a corporate culture of animal abuse.

This week, Crown counsel filed 20 animal cruelty charges against Chilliwack Cattle Sales and seven of its employees. For the first time in B.C. history, a company--through its directors--is being held accountable for animal cruelty that it enabled through insufficient training and oversight.

This is good news. When undercover footage surfaces from commercial farming operations, companies almost always attempt to distance themselves by claiming it was an isolated incident that violated their "strict" animal care policies.

The reality is that animal cruelty is endemic in the system. On modern commercial farms, hundreds of millions of animals each year suffer from intensive confinement, unnatural living conditions, and psychological torment. It is the companies that ultimately need to be held accountable for creating a system where animals are treated like commodities in the relentless pursuit of profit.

If charges against the company are cause for celebration, the fact that criminal charges were not pursued is the sober second thought. As a society, we use the criminal law to denounce antisocial and unacceptable behaviour. The animal abuse unearthed at Chilliwack Cattle Sales was malicious, callous, and highly disturbing. It is hard to imagine a more suitable situation for criminal charges.

Instead, the Crown filed regulatory charges under the provincial Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Wildlife Act. Unlike regulatory offences, which focus on managing undesirable activities and outcomes, criminal offences contain a component of mental culpability. Filing federal criminal charges is an acknowledgment that someone has behaved immorally in a way that is at odds with social values. The penalties tend to be stiffer, too.

A clue into prosecutorial priorities can be found in the fact that it took nearly 21 months for charges to be filed in this case. A year after the abuse came to light, experts were already criticizing the delay. Now, nearly two years later, the delay has become ridiculous. We simply wouldn't tolerate this foot-dragging with offences that we took seriously, even against favoured animals like cats and dogs.

When animal abuse is committed against cats and dogs, criminal charges are routinely filed. Yet, the law doesn't discriminate between species, and rightfully so; cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys are no different than cats and dogs in their ability to experience physical and psychological pain. There is no logical or legal reason to treat them any differently.

A practical reason farm animal cruelty prosecutions are so rare is that abuse and neglect of these animals is almost always invisible to law enforcement. Incredibly, animal agriculture is essentially an unregulated industry. In the case of Chilliwack Cattle Sales, the abuse only came to light because the animal advocacy organization Mercy For Animals took it upon itself to wire a whistleblower with a hidden camera and procure evidence. This would have been a rare opportunity for law enforcement to react as vigorously as the law would allow.

As important as this case is, the responsibility to investigate and report animal cruelty shouldn't fall to the public. Undercover investigations have demonstrated that farm animal cruelty and neglect are widespread and severe. Now, we need a proactive law enforcement strategy that reflects the reality that the majority of suffering endured by animals--to the 700 million of them killed for food each year--takes place out of sight.

The B.C. government has just announced that it will licence puppy and kitten breeders, and require inspections. This is a good policy move. There's no reason not to do the same for any business that profits from animals--all of which may not have animal welfare top of mind.

Animal cruelty constables must be empowered with a mandate to conduct regular, unannounced inspections of all animal enterprises. We already do this with public health inspections of food services facilities like restaurants because we take our own health and safety seriously. Animals deserve the same consideration.

It's a relief that justice will finally be realized for the gentle mother cows who endured vicious cruelty at the hands of their captors. However, we still have a long way to go to get our legal system caught up to societal values of compassion and mercy for the most vulnerable among us.