Animal cruelty: Is jail a reasonable punishment?

When it comes to animal cruelty, what warrants jail time? Finding a suitable punishment is a complicated conversation to have for both animal law scholars and animal advocates alike.

'The penalties are there. It's just a matter of having those handed down,' says SPCA investigator

When it comes to animal cruelty, what warrants jail time? (CBC)

Nova Scotia handed down its first jail sentence for animal cruelty earlier this month, after the man's second animal cruelty conviction. It follows recent jail sentences for cases in British Columbia and Ontario.

But when it comes to animal cruelty, what warrants jail time? And are there better alternatives? Finding a suitable punishment is a complicated sticking point for both animal law scholars and advocates alike.

Professor Vaughan Black, who teaches Animals and the Law at Dalhousie University, said animal cruelty sentences in Canada have been getting harsher ... and that's included jail sentences.

"Speaking as someone who thinks the law could do a lot more for animals, it's nice to see something happening," he said. "It's a little frustrating that that's the only area in which there has been any visible progress."

Black, who is also an advisor for Animal Justice Canada, said jail time can be a reasonable punishment. He thinks these harsher sentences are "bound" to have a deterrent effect on would-be offenders.

Hoarding 'complex' to punish

But that all depends on the situation, with one possible exception being animal hoarding. Though it is a form of animal abuse, Black calls it a "complex" phenomenon.

"There is an open question as to whether animal hoarding is, at least in some cases, something that's more appropriately dealt with through mental health responses than the criminal law," he said.

Nova Scotia handed down its first jail sentence for animal cruelty earlier this month for a situation involving 19 cats. Here, one of those cats is shown with an empty food bag. (Nova Scotia SPCA)

Gary Patronek, an adjunct professor who studies hoarding at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said a hoarder's intent can be very "fuzzy" and they often don't intend to hurt animals, like in other instances of animal cruelty.

"I've had these conversations myself where I've stood in the doorway and there's dead cats on the floor or starving dogs and the person looks at them just like you and I would be looking at your own pet," he said. 

"They're completely oblivious to the fact of what's going on. They're not really trying to hide it. They look at it. They look at the same thing you and I see and they see something entirely different."

Restorative justice?

Patronek's focus is on preventing animal abusers from doing it again. In cases of hoarding, Patronek thinks a restorative justice approach might work better to prevent further abuse than jail time would.

The Nova Scotia SPCA said the recent 30-day jail sentence in Lower Sackville, N.S., where Michael Cairns kept 19 cats in poor conditions, was not an example of hoarding.

Investigator Jo-Anne Landsburg said Cairns had some unspayed and unneutered cats that soon multiplied — none of which he provided proper care to.

If you don't learn the first time, hopefully a jail term will correct that the second time.- Jo-Anne Landsburg, Nova Scotia SPCA investigator

Landsburg called it an "extreme situation" with a warranted sentence given it was his second animal cruelty conviction. "If you don't learn the first time, hopefully a jail term will correct that the second time. I think it's definitely appropriate."

Landsburg said no mental health issues were brought up during Cairns' defence so an alternative sentence, like counseling, probably wouldn't have been considered.

"I think anybody that has been diagnosed and comes forth with that as part of a defence, I certainly think it should be taken into consideration and I would not oppose to a different type of sentencing for their particular conditions."

'The penalties are there'

Landsburg has also noticed that sentences have been getting harsher, with more lifetime bans given out.

It's a consistent trend across the country, said the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), with provinces increasing fines when they adjust their legislation. The group puts out a list ranking animal protection laws in each province and territory — Nova Scotia fares well, ranking second best in Canada.

Sophie Gaillard, the Canadian spokesperson for the ALDF, credits Nova Scotia's strong penalties with the high ranking. However, she thinks the punishments that are given out have to depend on the type of abuse. In puppy mill cases, a "fine may not be enough of a deterent."

"It depends on the nature of the mistreatment," she said.

Nova Scotia ranks highly in this year's Canadian animal protection laws rankings, put out by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. (Animal Legal Defense Fund)

Landsburg doesn't think jail is the answer in every animal cruelty case either, pointing out how bans can be effective as they can prevent the offence from happening again.

"The penalties are there. It's just a matter of having those handed down," she said.

"I think this jail term is certainly a good indication of where the sentencing for animal cruelty charges is going in Nova Scotia."

About the Author

Haydn Watters

Haydn Watters is a Toronto-based journalist. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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