A North American animal welfare group has given P.E.I. a failing grade for its animal protection law.

But the P.E.I. government says a new law should be passed soon that will address those shortcomings.

"The bottom tier really is the very worst places in Canada for animals," said Sophie Gaillard, a lawyer with the Animal Legal Defence Fund (ALDF). P.E.I. has consistently placed in the bottom half of the rankings, since ALDF started reviewing provincial laws in Canada in 2008. 

Sophie Gaillard, Animal Legal Defence Fund

Sophie Gaillard is the Canadian spokesperson for the Animal Legal Defence Fund and works as a lawyer for the Montreal SPCA. (Submitted)

Provinces that got top marks included jail time as a possible penalty, increased penalties for repeat offenders and mandatory reporting of suspected cruelty by veterinarians, said Gaillard.

All those things are coming in the new Animal Welfare Act, according to agriculture minister Alan McIsaac.

Alan McIsaac

Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Alan McIsaac says the new Animal Welfare Act has been more than five years in the making. (Stephanie Brown/CBC)

Stiffer penalties

"We've looked all across North America basically to find out exactly where the strongest acts were and we hope now that we will measure up to be one of the best," said McIsaac.

The Act will replace the Companion Animal Protection Act and has been more than five years in the making.

Two kittens at the P.E.I. Humane Society

These two kittens are among several recently seized by the P.E.I. Humane Society. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

Dwight Thompson, program and legislative specialist with the agriculture department, helped write the new Act.

High profile cases

He said two high profile cases on P.E.I. prompted the writing of the new legislation.

In 2010, Bud Wheatley, owner of an online pet shop, was sentenced to five months in jail for animal cruelty after 80 dogs and cats were seized from his property in Covehead, P.E.I.

Late in 2014, provincial agriculture officials seized 41 horses from the property of Tawni Frank and George Smith on Byrnes Road near Morell, P.E.I.

The pair were charged with animal cruelty. The case is still before the courts because Frank and Smith have failed to appear in court. In Oct. 2015, their lawyer at the time told the court he thought they had moved to the United States.

Thompson said in rewriting the Act, the province also considered suggestions made by ALDF.

Dwight Thompson, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries

Dwight Thompson helped write the new Animal Welfare Act, provincial legislation to protect animals on P.E.I. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

"They identified the better legislations across Canada and so we could also have a look at those and model some of our stuff after those as well," said Thompson. "It gave us a guide on how we should approach animal welfare."

Some highlights of the new Act:

  • an increase in possible fines from $200 to $5,000, to a range of $500 to $10,000;
  • jail time of up to six months; 12 months for second offence;
  • recognizes extreme anxiety in animals;
  • mandatory reporting by veterinarians of suspected cruelty.

The new act also introduces specific regulations for food, water, shelter and exercise that animal control officers can use to determine whether an animal's needs are being met. Authorities believe the new act will make it easier for inspectors to enforce the regulations and step in if an animal needs protection.

"One of the shortcomings of the existing legislation is that the threshold to act was very high, like the level of distress," said Thompson. 

"What the new legislation does is it basically lowers that threshold by looking at things such as the actual care that's being provided at the time that the inspector is there to see whether or not it's appropriate, and if it's not the inspector can act at that point, rather than having to wait until the animal is actually in some form of distress."

Gray cat

An adult cat awaits adoption at the P.E.I. Humane Society (Sally Pitt/CBC)

The P.E.I. Humane Society was one of the groups consulted when the province rewrote the legislation.

More neglect complaints

The society says it is handling more neglect complaints.

"Those numbers have increased considerably in recent years," according to executive director Marla Somersall. 

The act was passed by the P.E.I. Legislature in July 2015 but has not yet been proclaimed.

Alan McIsaac says staff are fine-tuning the regulations and fines. But he says, it should become law "within a couple of months."

Marla Somersall, P.E.I. Humane Society

Marla Somersall, executive director of the P.E.I. Humane Society, says she's seen a noticeable increase in the number of complaints about the humane treatment of animals in recent years. (Al MacCormick/CBC)

Calls to upgrade federal laws as well

Those advocating for stronger animal protection laws had hoped a bill before Parliament earlier this year, would make it easier to prosecute cases under the federal Criminal Code.

Advocates say with changes, similar crimes could be handled in a similar way across Canada and make it easier to track repeat offenders. However the bill failed to pass in October.

Orange cat at PEI Humane Society

This adult cat is one of several awaiting adoption at the P.E.I. Humane Society (Sally Pitt/CBC)

Gaillard agrees the federal laws do need an upgrade.

"If the criminal code provisions were strengthened and convictions made easier to obtain, then a federal prohibition on animal ownership would apply across the country and would be much easier to enforce in cases where people are moving across the country," said Gaillard. 

She said the federal law hasn't seen any significant change since 1892.

Kitten awaits adoption

This kitten is awaiting adoption at the P.E.I. Humane Society (Sally Pit/CBC)