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October 23rd, 2005, 10:34 AM
Animal cruelty law lacks bite: critics


The dogs are usually emaciated, dehydrated and crawling with fleas. Often, their bodies are a mass of infected sores; puss oozes from their eyes and feces mat their fur. In winter, they're found shivering in frozen pens; in summer, they gasp in the heat.

They're victims of puppy mills the underbelly of the business of breeding and selling dogs and other pets.

On Monday, in a Newmarket courtroom, Ralph and Rose Misener, described as "chronic puppy mill abusers," are to be sentenced for violating Canada's anti-cruelty law.

It will be just the latest chapter in the couple's 41-year record of seizures, convictions and penalties sanctions that critics complain were so weak they amounted to licences to continue in the unsavoury enterprise.

The Miseners, who over 40 years have surrendered about 800 animals to authorities, are Exhibit A when protection advocates argue Canada needs a tougher anti-cruelty law.

"They run a concentration camp for dogs," says Mike Draper, chief investigator with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who called them chronic abusers.

Later next week, in Ottawa, the House of Commons is to resume a seven-year effort to pass such legislation. Once again, it appears doomed to fail. Meanwhile, Ontario, with one of Canada's most ineffectual provincial animal-protection acts, is said to have no plans for change.

All this makes animal protection advocates sad, mad and determined.

"It's certainly frustrating," Draper says. The number of animals rescued by the society has doubled in the past five years, to 7,267 in 2004, he notes. The current law "allows offenders to continue to neglect animals and to repeat this cruelty, time and again," he says.

The current proposal, known as Bill C-50, is the fourth version of anti-cruelty legislation introduced by three ministers of justice since 1999. It would replace Criminal Code provisions that came into force in 1892 and were slightly amended half a century ago. Although alterations have been made as the recent variants appeared, mostly to appease specific opponents, including native people, all versions would:

Increase penalties for intentionally mistreating or neglecting animals. Maximum jail time would go to five years, from six months, and the current $2,000 cap on fines would be removed.

Let judges prohibit anyone convicted of cruelty from owning an animal for any period deemed appropriate. The current law sets a two-year limit.

Let judges order those convicted to pay restitution to an organization that cared for their seized animals.

Make it illegal to kill animals "with brutal or vicious intent."

Remove the requirement that prosecutors prove cruelty is the result of "wilful neglect." Instead, they'd have to show criminal negligence an easier test.

Make it clear it's illegal to train an animal to fight other animals.

Cease treating animal offences as property crimes.

The first version of the legislation died when the 2000 election was called.

The House of Commons passed the second and it was stuck in the Senate when the Parliamentary session ended in 2002.

The Commons also passed version three, with support from all parties.

The bill went again to the Senate, which insisted on amendments. The Commons rejected some of them. Then, the proposal was batted back and forth until the 2003 election call killed it.

Last May, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler introduced the latest version. Next week, it might finally be sent to the Commons Justice Committee, which could call witnesses and make amendments.

Then, it would need final approval from MPs before going to the Senate.

Odds are slim all those steps can happen before another election is called, likely in early spring.

To complicate matters, Cotler was slow with his legislation. Four months before it was introduced, John Bryden, a senator from New Brunswick, proposed a bill of his own. It would increase the penalties but otherwise leave the old law untouched. It must go through the Senate first and then the Commons.

All this has created a political cockfight.

Animal-protection groups support Cotler's legislation and abhor Bryden's, which, they complain, has become a rallying point for their opponents.

That side also agrees with tougher penalties but claims the Commons legislation would let radical animal-rights groups run roughshod over farmers, hunters, fishers and trappers, and threaten some medical research and religious practices.

"Giving the animal-rights community the means of attacking legal, law-abiding anglers, hunters and trappers can not be tolerated," the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters says in a "call to action" against Bill C-50.

That point of view appears to be gaining strength.

Until last year, many industry groups supported the tougher cruelty law. Conservative MPs voted for it in 2003.

But this year, the hunters' federation commissioned a legal opinion that concluded its members have reason to worry. The new law: "will have the ultimate effect of intimidating anglers and hunters" who will quit the sports "for fear of prosecution," the opinion states.

The federation convinced farmers, fishermen and other groups that they faced the same threat. They began to lobby members of Parliament.

"Initially, I'd stated that it appears all the interest groups are satisfied the bill will protect their traditional practices and they had no concerns with it," says Conservative justice critic, Vic Toews. But, "Over the summer, we heard a steady amount of opposition.... More voiced concerns."

"We would pass the Senate bill tomorrow," Toews says. But as for Cotler's law, he's no longer sure. "The government has to justify what it's doing. I don't understand why the bill is being brought forward."

Critics of Bill C-50 say their main concern is the provision that makes it a crime to kill animals "with brutal or vicious intent." Under the law, it wouldn't matter whether the animal dies instantly or lingers in pain.

This, the foes argue, would let animal-rights activists push for prosecution of those like anglers who dispatch fish with a blow to the head, researchers who kill mice in experiments, or Jewish and Muslim priests who engage in ritual slaughter of animals.

There's no definition of brutal or vicious, says Rob Cahill, of the Fur Council of Canada, who heads an industry coalition that's more moderate than the group assembled by the hunters' federation. "How does someone know whether how they're conducting an activity is brutal and vicious? It becomes very subjective."

Many animal-rights groups say fishing is criminal, Cahill adds. If that attitude is brought into the courts, "it could lead to big changes in what's legal or not."

Those on the other side say they have no interest in going after people engaged in lawful activities. If they did, Crown attorneys would refuse to pursue the cases, or judges would throw them out. The new law would actually make such private prosecutions more difficult, they say.

"The idea that somehow someone could be prosecuted for normal hunting practices is just absurd," says Shelagh MacDonald, program director for the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. "I understand (the critics') fears, but they're not grounded in the facts."

No court would allow frivolous cases, insists Liz White, of the Animal Alliance of Canada. And activists wouldn't bother with private prosecutions: "You don't make change by trying to lay criminal charges. I think it's wrong to raise chickens in tiny cages... But I wouldn't go through the criminal courts to try to change that."

On the other hand, animal-protection advocates argue, just as police must obey laws against assault, no one should be exempt from prohibitions on cruelty.

"We could accept some clarification, if that would make them happy," MacDonald says. But industry people "are asking for airtight wording that they'd be completely protected...and no one can ever be prosecuted."

With all the conflict, few expect either law will be passed before an election is called and before Parliament expires.

"It's awfully tight for time," MacDonald admits.

On top of the Conservatives' about-face, the Liberals don't appear willing to push hard for their law, White says. Some rural Liberal MPs also dislike the bill. While Cotler has said he wants it approved, "I don't think they'll expend any political capital to make it work. It's a political move, to say `We're trying.'

"It's a straight political question: which measures will get them lots of votes, and which won't?" And, White says, the cruelty law's "huge popular support," is not certain to translate into votes.

The alliance and other groups have formed a political party to keep the issue alive in the campaign.

None of this would be so crucial if Ontario had anti-cruelty laws like those in Alberta and other provinces, Draper says.

The current provincial statute applies mainly to animals bred for sale a condition that's often difficult to prove.

Toronto Liberal MPP Mike Colle, then in opposition, shed tears at a 2002 news conference after the Conservative government voted down his version of a new protection law. But Colle's party is now the government, he's a cabinet minister, and he doesn't discuss the issue.

Officials in the office of Monte Kwinter who, as minister of community safety, is responsible for the animal cruelty law didn't return calls for this story.

"I don't think there's any movement on that," White says.

This is why animal-rights advocates want movement:

At puppy mills, newborns are kept in good shape for sale. After that, "the whole goal is to spend the least money possible so it goes into someone's pocket," Draper says.

In 1964, police removed 56 dogs from Ralph Misener. Details are sketchy, but Misener, then 41, was convicted of cruelty to animals and obstructing police.

Five years later, he was back in court; this time, sentenced to three months in jail for failing to provide adequate care to animals in breeding operations now known as puppy mills.

More animals were seized from Misener and his wife, Rose, in 1976, 1977, 1989, 2001 and, most recently, April 2003.

The 2001 investigation involved 231 dogs. The outcome: short conditional sentences and three years probation.

Two years later, SPCA inspectors found 42 dogs on the Miseners' Vaughan farm, living in horrific conditions. They were housed in an unheated, partly collapsed barn. Snow had drifted into their pens, and they lay on thin blankets saturated with feces and urine. The couple were convicted yet again. They were to be sentenced on Oct. 17, but didn't show up in court. An arrest warrant will be issued if they fail to appear Monday morning.

"They're our longest-term problem," Draper says. "We've seen other cases equally bad. But with their history, they're well aware of what they're doing."

Judges are less inclined to impose jail time than they were when the Miseners' legal epic began, and the fines they can impose are inadequate, he says.

Court has been told puppies sell for an average $400. "If you have 40 female dogs, and each has 10 puppies, you're talking about a significant amount of money. What's a few thousand dollars (in fines)? It's really a tax. It's a small percentage of their income."

"If we had Bill C-50 in place, (the Miseners) wouldn't have abused all the hundreds of animals they did," MacDonald says "A judge could say: `You can never own any more animals.' "

And it's more than penalties, Draper says. On several occasions, Crown attorneys told him they wouldn't take the Miseners to court because they couldn't prove wilful neglect. If, as the new law would allow, they had to show criminal negligence, some cases could have gone ahead.

October 25th, 2005, 03:08 PM
The toronto star and sun both have stories on the court proceedings and the final ruling in todays paper.
6 months in jail for the man, Mr. Misener and 12 months house arrest of Mrs. Misener. Oh yes and lets not forget 2 years they are not allowed to own a pet. That is all the law allows for in terms of suspended someones right to own an animal. Basically the Miseners say the SPCA is just looking for money and using the media and the story to get donations and that they are lying. The judge in return said that by saying such things it shows they feel they have done nothing wrong. Neighbours who live near them now vow to watch them like hawks. This couple has had convictions over 50 years on running puppy mills and animal abuse.

PLEASE EMAIL YOUR MP regarding the passing of Bill - 50 it looks as though it will not make it through again before elections are called so please email to let your MP know that you consider this a priorty.

ITS BEEN 100 YEARS since this law has been updated!

October 25th, 2005, 03:25 PM
I don't know who my MP is for my area, I have only lived there for 6 months. Anne Mcllelan is the MP for the area I lived in last election. I know she has a heavy position as the Deputy Prime Minister. Maybe I should write her anyway?

October 25th, 2005, 03:28 PM
I am sure it wouldn't hurt. Any email to get it at least back on the radar would be beneficial.

Thanks Roxy!