Our neighbour killed our dog. Then the criminal justice system failed her and our family
There is much room for improvement in Canada’s animal welfare legislation
This is an opinion column by Hazel Hollingdale who is currently writing a book about her family's experience of losing their dog, Maybe, to an act of animal cruelty. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
When a neighbour killed our dog, my partner was just steps behind her. He heard our dog, whose name was Maybe, barking and then a gunshot. He rounded the corner to find our neighbour walking out from the bush, a rifle at his side. My partner asked our neighbour if he had seen Maybe, and our neighbour calmly stated that he had just watched her run toward our house. We spent the next two weeks searching our small community of Savary Island in deep snow.
When it melted, we found blood and the gore where he killed her, three metres from where he had stood with the rifle. He watched us from his truck as we collected the evidence. He had buried her on an empty lot with his backhoe, where she lay anonymous and alone in the frozen ground while we desperately searched. Later, he confessed to killing her in a rage, and peddled misinformation to try to rationalize why he had shot her in the head and lied to us. A neighbour he confessed to convinced him to return her body to us two weeks later.
Losing Maybe to this act of violence devastated us. Relationships with our animals are unlike any other. They are an inexhaustible well of love, joy, and humour and offer unconditional acceptance. Maybe was an extraordinary little being who bustled with an exuberance for life and love and made our family complete. Then he took her away from us.
The RCMP arrived nearly a week after we reported these events and told us that killing someone's dog was not a criminal offence. It is. Our neighbour was eventually arrested and charged under the section of the criminal code that makes it illegal to injure or kill an animal. Killing Maybe was, in fact, illegal.
This was the first of many misinformed responses from authorities. Time and time again RCMP officers, Crown prosecutors, and others in the criminal justice system minimized his acts and failed to understand their impact. The Crown attorney refused our requests to meet with him. It felt like to them, Maybe was "just" a dog and the devastation of this violent act on our lives was minimized. A week before trial, our neighbour negotiated a plea bargain that ultimately saw him not get a criminal record. He pleaded guilty to a lesser firearms offence, and the judge suspended probation. We've spoken with others whose animals have been killed and we've learned that the emotional upheaval and apathetic response from the criminal justice system are the norm, not the exception.
Animals are worthy of our respect and protection and there is much room for improvement in Canada's animal welfare legislation. A 2015 national research poll commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found 92 per cent of respondents support updating the Criminal Code to make it easier to convict animal cruelty offences. Some amendments have been made; in B.C. in response to the slaughter of sled dogs after the 2010 Olympics, and in the recent passing of Bill C-84.
Rochelle Stevenson, a professor at Thompson Rivers University who studies animal cruelty, notes that since 1896, animal protections have been listed under part XI of the criminal code, which deals with property offences. Dr. Stevenson suggests 124 years later, it is more in keeping with society's changing views of animals to instead have these crimes categorized and treated as offences against public morals.
Research shows animal cruelty is often a precursor to other violent offences and it's estimated that an average of 55 per cent of perpetrators of intimate partner violence commit acts of animal cruelty. In Canada, the SPCA has a unit trained to lead cruelty investigations and are vested with the power to recommend charges to the Crown. Despite this, less than half of their investigative costs are covered by government funding. By not treating these crimes with the gravity they deserve we miss important opportunities to intervene at critical times.
We are Maybe's advocates. She isn't here to speak for herself, nor could she if she was. Killing Maybe was not a property offence, because she didn't belong to us. We were a family. An animal's right to life and the lasting effects these violent acts leave on families should be factored into how the criminal justice system treats these offences.
There was a time that drinking and driving was considered harmless. Just a few years ago, sexual harassment and assault were regularly trivialized. Society has changed and animal cruelty laws and how they are enforced need to catch up to our collective values around animal welfare.
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