The images are always despicable, the incidents far too frequent -- beaten cats, tortured dogs, mutilated birds.
Within the last three weeks, Winnipeg has seen reports of the beating of a kitten with a baseball bat so severely, it had to be euthanized, the operating-table death of a malnourished puppy with circle-shaped burns on its body, and the clubbing to death of a Canada goose at the St. Charles Country Club.
There was a time some media were reluctant to report on animal cruelty because it was considered poor taste. Now, such stories are common and frequently accompanied by graphic photos or video clips.
The apparent rise in animal abuse hasn't gone unnoticed by police or animal-rescue organizations. Last month, Winnipeg Police Service's Crime Stoppers program announced it has teamed up with a new animal-abuse hotline called Paw Tipsters. Paw Tipsters is a Winnipeg-based non-profit organization created to combat animal cruelty. The partnership between the police crime-tip line and the animal-welfare line is a first in Canada. Paw Tipsters, like Crime Stoppers, provides rewards of up to $2,000 to anonymous tipsters if the information leads to conviction.
The best efforts of police and animal welfare groups are critical to stopping animal abuse. But the criminal justice system should play a more aggressive role in deterring harm to animals. Of late, it's been given the tools to accomplish that.
For a long time Canada's animal-cruelty laws were a weak-kneed relic of the 19th century. Canada badly lagged behind the United States and western Europe, where public reaction to the horrors of animal abuse had long since spawned tough animal-cruelty laws. Until a few years ago, no substantive changes to Canada's Criminal Code animal-cruelty provisions had been made since 1892. One critic labeled Canada "a First World country with Third World animal-protection laws."
But in 2008, and after nearly a decade of sundry draft cruelty-to-animals bills dying on the order paper, Parliament finally amended Canada's Criminal Code. The changes redressed gross deficiencies in our animal-protection laws. And they created penalties -- and judicial remedies -- that put some teeth in the law.
Animal cruelty went from being a lesser-penalty summary conviction offence -- punishable by up to six months in jail or a $2,000 fine, or both -- to what's known as a hybrid offence, whereby the Crown can choose to prosecute the crime as a more serious indictable offence. Penalties also increased.
Where prosecuted by indictment, a convicted person now faces up to five years imprisonment and/or a no-ceiling fine.
Almost as important, a provision that allows a sentencing judge to impose a lifetime ban on animal ownership, a device intended to prevent an offender doing repeat harm to animals, was enacted, plus another enabling a judge to order anyone convicted of animal cruelty to pay restitution to animal-care agencies, shelters or veterinarians for costs they incurred for the care and treatment of an abused animal.
These amendments reflect the beginnings of a policy that animals must be protected from injury and death, not just because they are property, but because they are sentient beings with feelings and emotions. Animals' capacity to grieve, suffer and give and receive affection is irrefutable. Belated recognition of this was the impetus for many of the legislative changes.
It's to our shame it took so long to legislate these protective steps. However, the changes, late coming as they are, redound to our credit so long as Crown prosecutors request and judges impose, where merited, incarceration and large-dollar-value fines or restitution orders against offenders.
Our criminal law now has the sanctions and tools it long lacked. It's up to the players in the criminal justice system to employ them. And by employing them, make the punishment fit the crime.