Animals on factory farms left unprotected by new animal welfare law

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In a real head-scratcher, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in June 2016 that sexual contact with an animal was legal, as long as there was no penetration.

Whatever uncertainty that created for Canadians is now gone. The Trudeau government's new animal welfare legislation, passed by Parliament last month, stipulates that any sexual contact with an animal is illegal, and toughens up the rules against bestiality and other off-beat animal abuse practices.

One might conclude that, perhaps in response to increased public sensitivity, the government is cracking down on the worst mistreatment of animals.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While the new legislation will help protect a relatively small number of animals from unwanted sexual advances from their owners, it provides no protection whatsoever for the hundreds of millions of animals living miserable, pain-filled lives trapped inside our factory farming system.

Most people can imagine that these animals experience some unpleasantness the last day or two of their lives.

But few people realize that -- while there are some minimal regulations governing the transport and slaughter of animals -- there are effectively no laws protecting their welfare during the rest of their lives.

The powerful factory farming industry has managed to keep its animal practices largely beyond the reach of government regulation.

Instead, in a classic case of allowing the fox to guard the henhouse, governments have handed the industry the power to draw up its own "codes of conduct" to govern how the animals in its custody will be treated.

These industry-written codes permit some brutal procedures, including common practices such as sawing off the horns of cows and the beaks of chickens -- practices known to cause excruciating pain.

And Trudeau's new legislation won't stop any of this, according to U of T adjunct law professor and litigator Lesli Bisgould.

The new legislation is an update of legislation originally enacted in 1892 to ensure humane practices. Bisgould says the laws haven't been strengthened much in the past 127 years -- even though the family farm, where animals grazed in open pastures, has largely been replaced by today's industrial farms, where animals are confined in cramped quarters, with pigs and cows often chained in crates and cages too small for them to even turn around.

Typically, these animals experience the outdoors for the first time -- often after years of confinement -- as they're loaded onto trucks bound for the slaughterhouse.

"With increasingly mechanized operations hurriedly processing 700 million animals every year, the notion of humane practices becomes absurd," observes Bisgould in her powerful book Animals and the Law.

The failure of our legal system to keep pace with the new reality of farming is at odds with the considerable evolution that's taken place in popular attitudes toward animals.

While animals were historically seen as creatures with little resemblance to humans, modern scientists, starting with Charles Darwin, have identified a much closer connection between humans and higher animals. Darwin observed that the difference is "one of degree not of kind."

According to the eminent anthropologist Jane Goodall: "Farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined."

Of course, animals can't talk, compose piano concertos, or understand the laws of thermodynamics.

To their credit, however, they lack some of the worst traits found in humans -- deceitfulness, cruelty, greed, sexual treachery. It's hard to imagine an animal version of Jeffrey Epstein or Donald Trump.

Certainly the dividing line between humans and animals isn't as clear as once believed. Yet the legal divide remains vast -- on one side, humans enjoy extensive legal protections covering all aspects of our lives. On the other side, animals have virtually no protections, even against the infliction of extreme pain.

It's hard to see much of a moral justification for this vast difference, beyond the fact that we make the rules.

In recent years, concern about animals has become something of a hot-button issue among progressives. And the Trudeau government clearly wants to be seen to be in sync with this wave -- even as it leaves utterly unprotected hundreds of millions of animals trapped in horrendous conditions inside the secretive world of factory farming.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths was among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

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