Helping journalists, producers and conference planners find the female guests, speakers and expert sources they need.

Law must see animals as more than ‘property’

The Times Colonist by Maneesha Deckha 3 February 2011

The thought of Nora crawling over the bodies of her peers and fighting to stay alive with half her face blown off is unbearable. She was just one of close to 100 sled dogs killed in Whistler by a dog-sledding company facing a drop in demand for its tours post-Olympics.

This apparently economically motivated decision has sparked widespread public outrage. That a company could order an employee to kill 100 healthy animals for business reasons has struck many as shocking -and rightfully so.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t share this sensibility. The legal status of animals is a bleak one, offering dogs such as Nora and her peers almost no protection. It needs to be changed.

Animals are considered property under Canadian law which means that their owners, whether human or corporate, can largely buy, sell and dispose of them as they would an outdated computer or broken lawnmower.

Outdoor Adventures, the legal owner of the sled dogs killed at Whistler, was very likely within its rights to direct the dogs’ disposal, much as they would any other business asset.

Furthermore, dog-sledding is an unregulated industry in Canada. No standards exist to protect sled dogs from being killed once they’ve become economically “useless” to their owners when business slumps.

The Criminal Code is not of much help to animals in this situation, either. Although the code’s anti-cruelty provisions mandate that owners provide certain basic necessities of life to their animals, except for a few narrow exceptions it doesn’t prohibit owners from killing their animals when they want to.

The general catch-all provision in anti-cruelty law that protects against “unnecessary” suffering may be of more assistance.

This is because what is held to be necessary or not usually reflects prevailing cultural norms about how we should treat animals.

That public outrage was directed at how the sled dogs were killed -in front of one another and painfully -gives us some sense that we as society think this treatment is unacceptable. The nature of the killing, then, might possibly meet the legal threshold of “unnecessary” suffering and thus be considered cruelty.

But had the sled dogs been killed painlessly -say, in a vet’s office -current law would not have deemed this criminal, even though the dogs would have been discarded for economic reasons.

This is because the law permits owners a wide rein over their animal property, regardless of anti-cruelty laws.

In this case, we are told that the vet who was asked to kill the sled dogs declined to kill healthy animals. The vet had the moral sense that the law lacks.

As a basic first step to improve protection for animals, there needs to be tighter regulation as to how sledding and other businesses which use animals for profit can treat them once the animals lose their economic value.

But even this type of moderate change in the law will not likely come without a wholesale shift in how the law views animals.

It is difficult to value animals in and of themselves while they continue to be classified as property. As property, the animals are legal non-persons -objects which are not seen as having interests independent of their owners. The law easily recognizes ownership rights but objects don’t have rights.

In this regard, the law must catch up to public sentiment about dogs and animals that have a higher cultural status than other animals in our society.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Many print and broadcast reports of the killing have referred to the action against the sled dogs as a “slaughter.” And a brutal slaughter it was.

Yet many other animals are killed every minute in Canadian slaughterhouses in no less bloody situations without sparking the outrage generated by the killing of the dogs.

Recognizing the need for sled dogs to be better protected should also invite us to think more deeply about the legal status of all animals and how to do a better job of valuing them not as economic means, but as living creatures whose lives should matter.

Maneesha Deckha is associate professor of law at the University of Victoria and an animal law scholar. In 2006 her seminar on animals, culture and the law won the U.S. Humane Society’s Animals and Society award for best new course.