British Columbia·In Depth

How 'emotional suffering' is part of animal abuse cases

Animal welfare experts are closely watching a series of B.C. cases in which groundbreaking testimony from a behaviourist has given voice to the suffering of abused animals.

Animal behaviourist's work on iconic B.C. cruelty cases has drawn interest from other jurisdictions

A German Shepherd like this one is at the heart of a 'groundbreaking' case in which the Farm Industry Review Board refused to return an animal to its owner for fear of emotional suffering. (Submitted)

They are the hardest animal welfare cases to prosecute.

No signs of physical injury, but complaints and observations from neighbours, evidence of harsh treatment and signs of punishment we instinctively know must be harmful.

But unlike situations involving humans, authorities haven't been able to put an exact voice to the suffering which is a key component of the laws surrounding animal abuse. Until now.

'Do you think this is abuse?'

In a series of groundbreaking cases, B.C.-based animal behaviourist Rebecca Ledger has garnered attention for providing evidence in assessment of the psychological impact of animal abuse.

The latest case saw the Farm Industry Review Board refuse to give a German Shepherd named Kello back to his owner based on Ledger's opinion the animal will "experience high levels of stress" if returned.

Animal rights activists have long argued for laws which consider the psychological as well as the physical impacts of abuse. (CBC)

The SPCA seized Kello in response to complaints the animal's 72-year-old owner, Tarmo Viitre, was seen berating him, whipping him with the leather end of a leash and leaving him in his vehicle unattended.

When an officer attended, Viitre allegedly struck the animal on the head in front of him, yelling "Do you think that this is abuse?"

"The problem as articulated by Dr. Ledger is that in returning Kello to the situation of abuse, the dog will not be able to overcome his conditioned responses in that environment, which will mean that the dog will be experiencing psychological distress almost from the moment of his return," the review board panel concluded.

Kello's owner is seeking a judicial review of the decision.

In his testimony before the board, Viitre argued that he "had never abused Kello, that he considered Kello to be a member of the family, and that his actions had simply been a method of training the dog."

No broken bones — but 'emotional suffering'

The SPCA's chief enforcement officer, Marcie Moriarty, says Ledger's expertise has seen intense interest from animal welfare agencies outside of B.C. because of the importance of the psychological evidence in a realm of the law where 'suffering' has been hard to prove.

"This of course is an area in child welfare that's been recognized for decades now. But to have access to this type of expertise, it's crucial," she says.

"We can present scientific evidence that even though there are no broken bones — there has been emotional suffering."

Prior to the Kello case, Ledger provided evidence in two of B.C.'s highest-profile animal abuse cases: one involving a dog walker convicted of animal cruelty and the other a CEO who was caught on video abusing a puppy.

Dog walker Emma Paulsen was convicted of of animal cruelty in the deaths of six dogs in her care and sentenced to six months jail time in January 2015.

Emma Paulsen was sentenced to six months in jail in 2015 after pleading guilty to leaving six dogs in the back of her truck where they died of heat stroke.

Ledger says she was tasked with preparing a report on the suffering the animals endured before they died. She relied on physical evidence including seating and bedding from the back of the truck which was found in the dogs' stomachs.

She says the animals would have suffered hyperthermia from the heat and a lack of water, which would also have left the dogs nauseous and panicked.

When dogs feel nauseous, they eat grass to try to vomit; Ledger concluded that's why the animals were trying to eat the bedding.

"What we try to do in these cases is to use all of these very separate pieces of evidence to explain to a judge how we think an animal is feeling," she says.

Concepts from child welfare

In the case of the CEO, Des Hague, Ledger analysed a much publicized video of the businessman kicking a small, cowering dog named Sade five times and swinging it up from the ground by its leash.

She also examined the animal itself, which appeared physically unharmed. But Ledger says the video told a different story.

Des Hague was fined $5,000 and banned from owning or controlling an animal for three years, after kicking a puppy five times in a Vancouver hotel elevator. (CBC)

The animal's body posture was low, its ears back; it was blinking a lot and avoiding eye contact. Ledger says the puppy tried to create distance between itself and Hague on the elevator.

"I think most people saw that video and had some kind of visceral response. They thought that's wrong. It's upsetting. They sympathized with how the animal might be feeling," Ledger says.

"But that was the first time in the absence of any physical evidence a case was taken to court and suffering was inferred based purely on behavioural evidence — even though intuitively, we all know that dog suffered."

Viitre's lawyer, Daniel Barker, questions the introduction of concepts taken from laws surrounding child welfare to deal with animal custody cases.

He says his client is happy to comply with any form of recommendations the SPCA can come up with "as long as it's with a view to working the dog back to him."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.