Canada passes new law cracking down on animal cruelty, bestiality

Parliament has passed a new law cracking down on animal cruelty that will list those convicted of bestiality on Canada’s national sex offenders registry.

Bill C-84 also changes wording in the Criminal Code to clarify that bestiality involves any contact for a sexual purpose between a person and an animal. The Code’s existing definition is understood to focus on penetration as the essential element in an act of bestiality.

When the bill was tabled in October 2018, the Department of Justice said the legislation aims to protect animals from violence and cruelty, and to protect children and other vulnerable individuals who may be “compelled by another person to commit or witness sexual acts with animals.”

Barbara Cartwright, CEO of the animal protection organization Humane Canada, called it a “great day” for animal welfare in Canada. She said putting offenders convicted of bestiality on the registry will protect animals from harm and reduce the risk of child sexual assault — because studies have shown that individuals who sexually harm animals are also more likely to prey on children.

“We’re thrilled with that, and this has never happened before in Canada, so it’s a huge step forward,” she said.

Bill C-84 responds, in part, to a 2016 Supreme Court of Canada decision that ruled a convicted sexual offender — identified only as D.L.W. to protect his victims — was not guilty of bestiality related to charges stemming from sexual activity involving one of his stepdaughters and the family dog.

In a 6-1 decision, a majority of the justices ruled that the Criminal Code provisions on bestiality did not adequately define which sexual acts with animals are prohibited. In his ruling, Justice Thomas Cromwell (who has since retired) urged Parliament to revisit the definition.

Preventing animal fighting

The legislation also prohibits promoting or profiting from fighting or baiting animals, as well as breeding or training them to fight. It also bars building or maintaining any arena for animal fighting; the current prohibition applies only to cockpits for cockfighting.

Cartwright said the updated legislation will help to tackle the growing trend of animal fighting, which is thriving underground and online and is increasingly linked to guns and gangs.

“This has put Canada in a leadership position for recognizing that animal fighting itself is morphing and the crime is becoming more pervasive and more damaging,” she said.

Cartwright pointed to what she called a “devastatingly awful” trend called “trunking”: two dogs are sealed together in the trunk of a car, which is then driven around as the animals fight to the death. The perpetrators eventually stop, open the trunk and tell an online audience how it turned out.

Justice committee amendments

The legislation received several amendments from the Commons justice committee, including the national sex offender registry requirement for offenders convicted of bestiality.

Other changes adopted from committee recommendations include:

  • Granting a judge discretion to make an order banning an offender from owning or living with an animal for a period of time up to a lifetime ban.
  • Giving a judge the ability to order that financial restitution be made to a person or organization that cared for an animal which was harmed by an offence.
  • Repealing a section of the Criminal Code that requires a peace officer who finds fighting cocks in a cockpit to seize and destroy them.

Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, called the legislation a “first step” but called for more action on animal protection.

“Ultimately, the bill is very narrow in scope and can only really be seen as a very small first step toward improving Canada’s animal cruelty laws,” she said.

Labchuk pointed to several gaps and flaws that persist in Canadian law.

More action needed

Ambiguity surrounding the offence of neglecting an animal often leads to inappropriate acquittals of puppy mill operators and farmers, she said, and it’s not clearly an offence to kill a wild or stray animal — only to cause unnecessary suffering.

The fact that animal cruelty offences are in the property section of the Criminal Code is “completely out of step” with how we think of animals now, she said.

“They may be legal property, but they are also sentient beings and beloved family members,” Labchuk said.

She also called for laws to address the treatment of animals in farms, laboratories, zoos, aquariums and circuses, and said “cosmetic mutilation” of animals through procedures like cat declawing, tail docking and ear cropping should be outlawed.

Labchuk said no statistics on these offences are available because they aren’t coordinated or collected, and the laws are enforced provincially.

The passage of C-84 comes on the heels of other animal-friendly bills recently passed in Parliament, including one banning the captivity of whales, dolphins and porpoises and another that ends Canada’s shark fin trade.

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