The top legal developments for human-animal relationships in 2021

A summary of the biggest news in animal law last year

Victoria Shroff

Animal and human lives and their competing legal issues are inextricably intertwined. Using some snapshots from 2021, I will illustrate how and why it is essential to recognize this.

Animals get political

In 2021, for the first time, every major Canadian political party put animals on election platforms.

Last year, ministerial mandate letters outlined commitments to curb the illegal trade in exotic animals, introduce legislation to protect captive animals, reduce agricultural emissions, ban the live export of horses for slaughter, and enact health mandates with legislation to end cosmetic testing on animals.

As chair of the Canadian Animal Law Study Group, a national group working on animals and the law, I, along with two of our members, was invited to federal parliamentary caucus meetings in 2021 to discuss animal protection. Some politicians are hearing animal lawyers and advocates.

Fur farming

Human and animal health overlaps.

Fortunately, the fur farming industry in B.C. took a fatal hit in 2021, thanks to the health ministry addressing the spread of Covid19 in mink and viral ping pong between humans and minks. Closures are welcome news for the thousands of minks raised and slaughtered for their fur. By 2025, B.C. will ban mink farms from operating in the province. As I previously wrote in Canadian Lawyer, factory farming animals for their fur is cruel, outdated and should be banned entirely.

Dogs labelled dangerous

Nothing underlies the human-animal bond like the relationships between people and their pets. Fortunately, in the two years since B.C.’s highest court clarified the law on dogs labelled dangerous in the watershed case of Punky Santics, with leave to appeal refused to the Supreme Court of Canada in January 2020, the majority of dangerous dog cases continue to settle both inside and outside courtrooms sparing the lives of dogs. (Santics v. City of Vancouver, 2020 CanLII 1843 (SCC)).

Pet custody

Divorce is increasing. Couple that with the fact that at least half of all Canadian households have one pet. What happens to the furry family member when spouses divorce? It’s safe to say Canadian law still considers animals as the personal possessions of humans. Animals are dealt with accordingly as if they were divisible assets like furniture.

The vast majority of all animal cases settle outside court, and pet custody cases are no exception. Over the 20 plus years I’ve been practising animal law, we typically broker private agreements with the parties, including joint custody, specifics as to expenses like food, vet care, play-care, and more, to everyone’s satisfaction. Clients prefer this route as it provides certainty instead of relying on courts which in all likelihood, however sympathetic, will still view pet custody disputes through the property lens.

Some good case law arose in Ontario in 2021, as in Coates v. Dickson, 2021 ONSC 992 (CanLII), where the court accounted for the relationship between family pets and their humans. Far from a new area of law, courts have been adjudicating “pet custody” cases, including for joint custody, for over 40 years (e.g. Rogers v. Rogers [1980] O.J. No. 2229). In my experience, joint custody is not always in the animal’s best interests, such as in the case of violence to either the pet, human or both.

Other countries have forged ahead in pet custody by treating animals as sentient, addressing an animals’ “best interests.” Spain is a notable example, where instead of viewing an animal as property, the pet’s welfare is paramount. Responsibility for the animal, emotional ties can all be considered beyond the pet as chattel, and both parties can be deemed “co-caretakers” by the court.

In the U.S. in 2021, New York joined a few other states in enacting legislation that allows a court to consider animal welfare in deciding what happens to the family pet in a divorce. I applaud these statutes for overcoming the “whoever paid for the pet gets to keep the pet” formulaic analysis, as it’s closer to treating animals like the sentient beings that they are.

Recognizing animals as sentient

Speaking of animal sentience, in late 2021, the Alberta Court of Appeal released unanimous reasons related to abuse toward a dog called Cinnamon. Using empathic wording, which recognized the unique importance of animals in society, the court stated: “...I agree that animals, sentient beings that experience pain and suffering, must be treated as living victims and not chattels. ...” (R v Chen, 2021 ABCA 382 para. 27). Also, see: Animal sentience legislation: Canada should follow the U.K.

In BC, there was a 2021 landmark wildlife case, R v. Stevikova, 2021 BCPC 235 (CanLII), where the court fined a person who deliberately fed bears contrary to wildlife laws $60,000, one of the highest in B.C. history. Three bears were put down as a result of the illegal feeding. In its sentencing, the court treated the death of the bears as an aggravating factor. (See: B.C. judge sets $60,000 fine on Whistler resident who deliberately fed bears to highlight deterrence) The court took note of the interconnection between human and animal welfare. High penalties in these cases send a strong message that animal lives matter.

Farm animals

In 2021, cases of farm animal abuse came to light, including companies receiving $300,000 fines for chicken abuse. This year, we must examine how we commodify animals for food production by spotlighting ag-gag laws and the welfare of farmed animals, including through transportation. 

Climate

Finally, as we welcome 2022, a word of warning: The climate crisis affects all species. No earth equals no animals, including humans. Every being on earth is ultimately interrelated.

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