Alberta's solicitor general backs tougher animal cruelty laws

Alberta's solicitor general is adding his support to the fight for tougher animal cruelty laws.

Rally held Saturday at Nose Hill Park after spate of cruelty incidents

Hundreds turned out for a rally in Calgary's Nose Hill Park Saturday to call for tougher animal cruelty laws. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

Alberta's solicitor general is adding his support to the fight for tougher animal cruelty laws.

After a spate of animal abuse cases across the province in recent weeks — including one involving an emaciated husky and kitten found with their mouths taped shut — many Albertans are expressing outrage at the possibility those responsible could get off easy and are calling for stronger laws to punish those found responsible.

"It's really important, I think, to engage awareness of all people in our city, just to ensure that what's happened to these poor animals just doesn't happen again," Alberta's solicitor general Jonathan Denis said at a rally held Saturday at Nose Hill Park. "The fact that you have so many people showing up here today shows me that this is a big issue for people in our city."

Denis says he is open to reviewing provincial legislation and hopes the federal government will do the same.

There are two laws under which those who commit animal cruelty can be charged.

Provincially, the Animal Protection Act addresses animals in distress due to neglect or abuse by their owner. The solicitor general appoints peace officers from the Alberta SPCA, the Calgary Humane Society and the Edmonton Humane Society who can issue penalties such as fines of up to $20,000 and restrictions on owning animals.

Federally, the Criminal Code of Canada addresses wilful acts of cruelty of neglect by either an animal's owner or by someone else. Police or RCMP investigate these cases and often work together with the local SPCA or humane society.

Maximum penalties can vary from five years in prison for wilfully causing pain or suffering to an animal to a fine not exceeding $5,000 for wilfully neglecting to provide adequate food, water, shelter or care.

In practice, there has been no precedent for handing out a five-year sentence, and most prosecutions take more than a year to complete.

Others have tried to strengthen law

It's not the first time Albertans have rallied to try to toughen animal cruelty laws.

In 2007, Myron Thompson, MP for Wild Rose, tabled four petitions on the issue with a total of 111,896 signatures in the House of Commons in Ottawa.

That effort was started by Thompson's constituent, Tamara Chaney, in response to the tragic death of two-year-old border-collie mix Daisy Duke who was tied behind a truck, dragged and then left for dead in a ditch in Didsbury.

Daisy Duke had to be euthanized.

In 2008, Parliament passed Bill S-203 to increase the penalties for people found guilty of animal cruelty.

However, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies says it left in place loopholes that make it very difficult to actually prosecute animal abusers.

Also, animal cruelty efforts in Alberta have historically faced opposition — particularly around issues of castration, de-horning and branding — from ranchers and those working in livestock industries. 

"Some things have been going on for centuries and these normal practices ... should be treated with the greatest respect," said Thompson in 2007. 

Culprits may be 'threat to our society'

In 2011, there were 24 convictions under the Animal Protection Act — three involved the welfare of cattle, 15 involved horses, one involved sheep and five involved dogs.

"We wanted to draw some attention to this very, very important matter," said Shalane Pryce, who organized Saturday's rally. "We believe that the culprits responsible are definitely a threat to our society."

A reward fund run by Calgary group Vets To Go received more than $75,000 in donations from the public.

Whoever comes forward with information in the case of a dead dog and kitten found in a Calgary alley with their mouths taped shut will receive $20,000 of that amount. 

The rest of the money will go towards establishing a national animal abuse registry and a training program for Crown prosecutors dealing with animal abuse cases.

If it's not claimed within one year, the money will be donated to the Calgary Humane Society's investigation unit.