Animal cruelty laws rarely result in jail time: lawyer

A Winnipeg lawyer with a background in handling cases involving animals says jail time is unlikely when it comes to cases involving animal cruelty.

2 separate cases of animal cruelty reported in Manitoba this week spark calls for punishment

Rusty was taken from his home near Winkler Friday night and was found dead the following day. His owners suspect he was stabbed with a screwdriver before he was dragged behind a vehicle. (Supplied)

A Winnipeg lawyer with a background in handling cases involving animals says jail time is unlikely when it comes to incidents involving animal cruelty.

"One of the main challenges in prosecuting animal cruelty cases is just how difficult it is to get a conviction," said Kevin Toyne.

"The laws that are available to go after the people who are doing these things may not be as strong as they should be and are not necessarily the easiest laws on the books to enforce."

Earlier this week, a family in the Winkler, Man., area found their family dog dead on a dirt road near their home. They suspect their dog, Rusty, was taken from their yard, stabbed and then dragged behind a truck until it died.

That same weekend, a woman in the Minto, Man., area found the remains of a dead goat with its hind legs tied and its ears removed in a ditch near her home.

She later discovered a miniature horse in the same area left in a similar fashion, followed by three coyotes and a raccoon, all with their ears missing.

The RCMP are investigating both the Winkler and Minto cases.

The incidents have sparked outrage from people in both communities, and a GoFundMe account was started in the Winkler case to provide a reward for information leading to an arrest.

Hilda Wiebe holds the screwdriver and a piece of tow rope she believes were used in her dog's death. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"I really hope that we find whoever did this, and that it never ever happens again, because nobody deserves that. No animal deserves that," said Hilda Wiebe, one of Rusty's owners.

But Toyne says a conviction involving jail time in an animal cruelty case is rare.

He says the burden of proof is very high in Criminal Code cases and prosecutors will often seek punishments under provincial legislation, such as Manitoba's Animal Care Act.

"Those laws don't have the same type of penalties that you have in the Criminal Code, and a lot of people think that those penalties aren't strong enough, given some of the horrific instances of animal abuse that happen," said Toyne.

He says while provincial violations could carry jail time, more common punishments are a fine, probation or restriction on animal ownership.

According to the province's website, Manitoba's animal welfare program investigated 952 cases in 2016. Over half of those cases were dismissed and less than two per cent resulted in tickets or prosecutions.

Toyne also says a lack of resources to investigate and enforce legislation keeps many cases from ever reaching a courtroom.

"The entire justice system is under-resourced."

Views on animals changing

Toyne says animal welfare laws are often difficult to apply because animals can be viewed differently according to their species and their use.

There's significant "wiggle room" in both the Criminal Code and provincial laws that allows for commercial animals to be treated differently than pets, he says.

Winnipeg lawyer Kevin Toyne has worked on a number of animal welfare cases. He says the burden of proof is very high in Criminal Code cases and prosecutors will often seek less-severe punishments under provincial legislation. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"People look at different types of animals very, very differently. So something that would be very troubling for most people for a companion animal, like a dog or a cat, is something that people would find acceptable if it's done to a horse or a pig."

Toyne says when Canada's animal welfare laws were drawn up, views on animals were very different than they are today.

"There have been a number of discussions about how society's views on animals are changing and as those change, the way in which the law treats animals will change," he said.

"For now, animals are property and the law allows you to inflict a certain amount of abuse on them before the law will step in."

He says one of the main challenges to toughening animal cruelty laws is in how we define animals and how we use them.

"Otherwise you may actually be criminalizing a large part of the agricultural sector, a large part of the research sector, a large part of the breeding of companion animals sector," he said.

Efforts to change Canada's animal welfare laws have made some progress over the years, but many feel more can be done, Toyne said.

"People obviously want these cases to be treated much more aggressively and have much harsher penalties than are currently being imposed by the justice system."