By Emma Gregory
For 126 years, the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has worked to protect the province’s creatures – from pets and wildlife, to farm animals.
Now, feeling caught between the unwanted attention of animal rights vigilantes and its own suspicion that some farmers are ignoring animal welfare rules, the BC SPCA wants the provincial government to take responsibility for ensuring animal welfare laws are being followed on agricultural land.
In this special three-part series for Black Press Media, we will talk to the players involved, including farmers, animal-rights activists and the BC SPCA, to showcase the diverse interests in animal-welfare, and discuss various stakeholders’ plans.
B.C. has among the strongest penalties for animal abuse in the country; however, the SPCA only investigates if a complaint is made. Following activists’ accusations that the BC SPCA is failing to protect farm animals, BC SPCA CEO Craig Daniell wrote a letter last fall to the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, calling for change.
“The BC SPCA, as a donor-funded organization, has no capacity to regulate the more than 6,000 commercial farms in British Columbia, nor does it wish to be involved in such an endeavour…,” writes Daniell in the Nov. 5, 2020 letter, obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
Daniell notes that in addition to the SPCA’s skepticism that farm animal protection laws are being followed, it is beyond the capacity of the BC SPCA’s 37 constables to enforce these laws. Further, he writes, enforcement alone is not how an industry should be regulated.
He refers to a specific, high-profile complaint made in 2019 by an animal-rights organization. It was submitted along with video footage “appearing to depict the unacceptable treatment of animals,” obtained by a series of unauthorized expeditions onto a pig-breeding facility in Abbotsford by animal rights activists. The hours-long video depicts many things, including a worker and child encouraging piglets to move by kicking them, electric cattle prodding in the face, and a teenager nonchalantly castrating piglets and cutting off their tails, with no apparent pain relief being applied.
(Farms are required by law to provide analgesics, or pain relief, to piglets when they are castrated).
The BC SPCA investigated the complaint by making an appointment after receiving consent from the owner. SPCA investigators did not observe any code violations.
Asked if planned inspections provide an accurate account of what happens in situations of alleged abuse, BC SPCA chief prevention and enforcement officer Marcie Moriarty, replied: “Absolutely not. Definitely, a planned visit is not ideal. So there are situations where we are able to do an unplanned visit, but it depends on the particular circumstances.”
When deciding whether to prosecute an alleged offence, the Crown must consider a number of factors, including admissibility of evidence. In the Abbotsford incident, no charges were laid against the farmers, but four members of the activist group Meat the Victims were charged with break-and-enter and mischief.
As a result, Daniell wrote, two SPCA locations were picketed by the activists’ supporters, and its employees were, “subjected to unacceptable personal attacks on social media…”
Daniell also noted that the non-profit association subsequently “lost financial support from a number of long-time donors, who now believe the Society is not doing enough for farm animals.”
Despite the loss of some donors, the BC SPCA received $21,369,000 in donations for its last reported fiscal year (October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020) – nearly double that of the previous year, according to the SPCA website – in addition to about $3.4 million in government funding for pandemic-related expenses. The SPCA spent $38.5 million in 2020, with a net surplus of $2.4 million.
“While we cannot confirm the veracity of the claims made on the (Abbotsford) video,” Daniell writes, “we are extremely concerned by a trend we see developing, namely that industry-led verification schemes are not achieving a level of public accountability and trust, and that what is needed is government-mandated regulation and oversight, perhaps through a third-party auditing program that provides the assurance needed for British Columbians that commercially raised farm animals are being raised according to industry-supported codes of practice.”
While the BC SPCA stands behind its choice not to pursue allegations against the farm, Moriarty said there is an increased need for transparency and reporting.
“If these videos keep popping up, whether taken illegally or not, or whether you can proceed through court on it, is one thing. It should be turning the minds of people in government and responsible people in the industry to say there is a problem here.”
Asked about the SPCA’s concern that animal-welfare laws are not being implemented on farms, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham declined an interview. The ministry communications department replied: “The great majority of British Columbians and B.C. farmers are dedicated to treating their animals well and ensuring they are kept in good health and condition.”
In addition to its government mandate to enforce animal cruelty laws, the BC SPCA has other roles. Since 2009, in collaboration with animal-farming industries, individually run SPCAs across the country have helped develop the National Farm Animal Care Council Codes of Practice. They outline proper welfare standards for farm animal management and are upheld by B.C.’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
Asked about his experience working with the SPCA, president of the BC Pork Producers Association Jack DeWit said, “I think generally they haven’t been running around the country slamming producers. I think they expect us to be part of the code, and if they are part of developing the code and it gets approved, then they have to stand behind it.”
The industry has come a long way towards implementing the codes of practice, DeWit said.
“… in the areas of when the pigs are castrated, we use anesthetic…There’s just been a whole lot of animal welfare things that are done more in a humane way, maybe than in the past, for pain control.”
DeWit says the back-lot producers – those who are not members of the commercial association – “usually create problems for the pork industry.”
“Animal abuse is bad I think. As a producer, it’s horrible, and I think for the public to hear about it is not good. And… activism, it’s uncalled for, I think. Just because someone has an opinion. We all have a right to protest but some of the stuff they’re doing is way too far and the courts will decide.”
PART 2: We look at the different legal protection provided to companion animals versus farmed animals, and an egg farmer and veterinarians discuss changes to animal welfare.
Emma Gregory is a graduate of the Langara Journalism Program, which partners with Black Press Media to create special project opportunities for new journalists.
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