There are some things you never forget. The sound of hundreds of dogs barking in cages so small that they are unable to turn around. Left for days without food or water, they become driven to attack and eat each other. There is no daylight, sometimes there is no light whatsoever. The corpses of dead animals remain in cages beside their brothers and sisters. The smell of feces and decaying flesh is so overwhelming, rescue workers wear protective masks. These animals live their entire lives without any human love or affection.
This is the reality of our Canadian puppy mill. Here, animals are often treated as commodities to be traded and sold, not as living creatures who feel pain, distress and loneliness.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” Mahatma Gandhi famously stated. According to this model, Canada’s greatness must seriously be called into question.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, which was founded in Canada and has grown to become one of the largest animal welfare charities in the world, recently published a report that compared animal rights laws in 13 industrialized countries. Canada ranked at the bottom on all fronts.
“Those who might seek to measure Canada’s moral progress by our treatment of non-human animals would be deeply disappointed,” said Dr. John Sorenson, author of About Canada: Animal Rights. Sorenson teaches critical animal studies at Brock University and his book takes a serious look at the exploitation of animals in Canada, focusing on the agriculture, fashion and entertainment industries. “As Canadians, we should be deeply ashamed of how animals are treated here.”
Canadians seem to suffer from a type of moral confusion when it comes to the rights of animals. Certain customs, like the seal hunt and individual acts of cruelty against pets are condemned and considered to be abominable, yet the practices of factory farming and animals being used for entertainment in circuses and rodeos are widely accepted. Even practices of which the majority of Canadians would disapprove, like the mass production of pets in squalid conditions, continue to occur because the country’s laws don’t reflect these ideals.
Recently, the residents of Granby, Quebec were appalled after the discovery of a dog and her litter of puppies abandoned with nails embedded in their heads just before Christmas. The most horrifying part of this story, though, was not the act of cruelty itself, but the fact that if found, whoever committed this violence would merely be subject to a small fine and would likely still be permitted to be a pet owner. This is due in part to the Canadian animal welfare legislation that has not been significantly modified since it was written in 1892.
Canada’s archaic laws need changing
“In general, our animal-cruelty laws are antiquated, remaining essentially unchanged since the 19th century,” said Sorenson. “Even the most modest proposals to update them have been stopped by an effective alliance of animal-exploitation industries, including agribusiness, breeders, equestrian associations, hunters and vivisectors.” A bill was passed in 2008 to “improve’ these laws but the only changes that were made were to increase fines according to inflation.
IFAW reports that 99.075 per cent of acts of cruelty to animals go unpunished in Canada.
There has been an increasing trend worldwide to improve and instate laws regarding animal cruelty and in the past few decades many countries have made changes to their legislation, but Canada has not.
“We impose some minor penalties on individual sadists who torture and kill animals for their own entertainment but in terms of industry practices you can get away with almost anything in this country,” said Sorenson.
This is a result of the way the Canadian Criminal Code is written. It specifies that only “willful neglect’ can be prosecuted. This means that it has to somehow be proved that the animal cruelty was premeditated for there to be any legal action. As a result, very few animal abusers are being penalized because they can claim that the mistreatment was unintentional. Many of the other countries involved in IFAW’s survey have provisions in place to ensure that people who neglect animals are prosecuted, whether there was wilful intent or not.
The puppy mill capital of North America
The Animal Legal Defense Fund published a study in June 2010 measuring the differences in provincial laws across Canada. Provinces were split into three tiers and Quebec was placed at the bottom with Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
“Unfortunately, Canadian laws pertaining to this area are archaic in nature and deal primarily with issues of property such as not poisoning your neighbour’s animals. Therefore the laws are incredibly out of touch with the current values of the public,” explained Humane Society International campaigner Lauren Scott. “Also, although this has seen a slight shift in recent years, Canadians do not tend to make animal welfare issues a priority when deciding who to vote for in terms of political representation.”
Scott, who is currently invested in the issue of puppy mills in Quebec and has been involved with several puppy mill raids in recent years, agrees with Sorenson that it is these outdated laws that permit animal cruelty.
This issue received a lot of attention in the media a few years ago due to a string of raids that exposed the deplorable conditions where the animals were kept. There were cries for action by many welfare groups along with the public. But since then, nothing seems to have changed. In Quebec there are no mandatory incarceration periods and people are very rarely given jail time for their crimes. Maltreated animals are not required to be seized from their owners even when they are convicted of abuse or neglect. This means that known animal abusers are often given small fines and are permitted to keep their pets.
Quebec has been called the puppy mill capital of North America, with the majority of the dogs being exported to other provinces and to the United States. Its weak provincial animal welfare legislation, combined with inadequate enforcement, which has allowed the province to become a puppy mill haven.
Dog breeders in Quebec do not require a licence to run their businesses, which ultimately leads to many instances of malpractice, and it is the only province in Canada that does not allow provincial SPCAs to enforce provincial animal welfare laws. Plus, mass breeders stand to make more of a profit in the province because they can get away with anything. The Humane Society International estimates that there are more than 2,200 clandestine breeding operations in the province.
The existence of ineffective penalties
In Quebec, a first offence of individual animal cruelty gets you a maximum penalty of a $600 fine, with subsequent offences never extending past $1,800. The maximum fine amounts for commercial instances of cruelty are $1,200 for the first offence and a $3,600 fine for subsequent offences. For a puppy mill owner, a few thousand dollars is an insignificant amount that will barely impact their operations, with the cost of the fine quickly earned back by selling a few litters of puppies.
In October 2008, a mill was raided in St-Lin, Que. Acting director of Montreal’s SPCA, Alanna Devine, described the conditions to the CBC at the time: “If you want to envision what hell would look like, you know, certainly for the small dogs, dogs stacked on top of dogs, very little access to food or water, excrement and feces everywhere. It’s so disheartening to see what we are capable of doing in the name of profit.”
During the raid, 150 dogs were rescued and the owner, Francesco Coelo, was fined $3,300 and sentenced to 180 hours of community service. Coelo was also banned from owning more than three animals at a time. It begs the question of why a man who pleaded guilty to multiple acts of animal cruelty should still be permitted to keep any animals in his care.
In order for the Humane Society to obtain a search warrant to investigate a potential puppy mill, they must first convince a judge that there is strong evidence of animal cruelty. Quebec only has 10 animal inspectors whereas Ontario has 200.
The goal of puppy mills is to produce as many dogs as possible at the lowest cost. Dead animals are left to decompose, dogs are given little or no veterinary care and are left to starve, often going days without food or water.
“This cruelty goes on behind closed doors, often in the basements or sheds of individuals living on the outskirts of cities. Therefore there tends to be an out of sight out of mind mentality, whereby the public feels less of a need to act on cruelty when they do not witness it firsthand,” said Scott.
Mistreatment in agriculture
This mistreatment is not restricted to puppy mills. There are no consequences for the torture and mistreatment of animals that are bred for farming purposes either.
It is estimated by UN Food and Agriculture statistics that over 696 million animals are killed for food every year in Canada. The vast majority of these animals are raised in factory farms where the conditions would make anyone lose their appetite.
Many of these animals are beaten or shocked into submission. They are transported thousands of miles without food or water to slaughterhouses where they are boiled, burned or cut into pieces while still alive. Killing animals beforehand costs more money. Processing the animals as quickly as possible is the only goal of the industry and the quality of life of these cows, chickens and pigs means nothing.
Thousands die from overcrowding, stress, disease and extreme temperatures. Chickens are genetically bred and given hormones so that they grow so large that their legs can’t support their own bodies. Their beaks and feet are removed without anesthetic so that they won’t attack each other. Male chicks are useless in the egg industry so they are ground up alive or suffocated within hours of hatching.
Sorenson described his experiences at a slaughterhouse: “It was nightmarish, filthy, a place of unspeakable cruelty to animals and one that turns human beings into monsters.”
Most North Americans have come to accept the exploitation of animals in agriculture because they enjoy eating meat. What they might not realize is how horrifying the conditions are in factory farming and that it does not necessarily have to be this way.
The future of Canada’s animals
Caring about animal rights is something that is treated with distain in modern culture. The idea that animals even deserve to have rights is considered to be comical, with people joking about whether squirrels deserve the right to vote.
Sorenson believes that even though we have become accustomed to a culture of animal exploitation, animals should have rights for the same reason that humans should have rights: out of a sense of compassion, fairness and justice. “Animals’ lives are important to them,” he said, “they want to live as much as we do, they experience pleasure and suffering as we do. Why would we want to deny to others the same enjoyment of life that we wish to experience ourselves?”
The big unanswered question here is why. Why haven’t Canada’s animal welfare laws been changed since the 19th century? Why isn’t there more awareness about the nonexistence and ineffectiveness of the Canadian laws? Why does Ontario have an exponentially higher number of animal welfare enforcers than Quebec? Why are Canadians allowing these shocking acts of cruelty to take place? There may not be answers to these problems now, but there are actions that the public can take to show that they are not willing to support these industries of mercilessness and exploitation. “The challenge lies in getting the appropriate laws passed to protect animals, and the public needs to be involved in this process,” said Scott. “Only the public can put an end to the demand, and ultimately an end to these horrific operations.”
For more information and to find out how you can get involved visit
1892 – The year in which the Canadian animal welfare legislation was last modified
99.075 – per cent of animal cruelty crimes that go unpunished in Canada
2,200 – estimated number of clandestine breeding operations in the province of Quebec