Proposed Quebec legislation would impose heavy fines and jail time for serial animal abusers and go so far as to criminalize flushing live goldfish down the toilet.
"If you have a goldfish you have to take care of it," said Quebec Agriculture Minister Pierre Paradis, who tabled the legislation Friday. "Don't get a goldfish if you don't want to take care of it."
The bill states that "animals are not things. They are sentient beings and have biological needs."
For many people, that might seem obvious, but in Quebec an animal currently has the same legal rights as a piece of furniture.
"The biggest change (in the bill) is that up to now, an animal in Quebec is considered as a movable, like a piece of equipment," Paradis said. "It goes from that to being a sentient being."
Paradis believes his bill will transform Quebec from the jurisdiction with some of the least strict animal-welfare rules in North America — it is considered the puppy-mill capital of the continent — to one with some of the toughest.
He said he was inspired by Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia, which he noted have the strongest animal-welfare laws in the country.
Paradis also looked to France, which updated its own laws last January to change the status of animals to sentient beings from their prior status of movable property.
The bill has separate rules for pet owners, farmers with livestock, owners of pet shops, or people who sell animal-based products such as furs.
Pet owners "must ensure that the animal's welfare and safety are not compromised," meaning domesticated animals have to receive "care that is consistent with (their) biological needs," the bill states.
Farmers must guarantee that their animals are "treated with dignity as much as possible" from the moment they are born to the day they are slaughtered.
But farm animals don't get the same protection as pets. They must be treated "in accordance with generally recognized rules," the bill reads.
That, says the head of animal advocacy for the SPCA in Montreal, means chickens, will still be allowed to be kept in enclosures no wider than a sheet of paper — called battery cages — for their entire lives.
"Whatever the (food) industry does on a wide scale is exempt," said Alanna Devine.
"I don't know if this means they'll be treated with dignity and respect."
She said the bill is unclear regarding the status of many wild and exotic animals and those found in zoos.
Devine's interpretation of the bill is that someone who shoots a squirrel in a park, for instance, is not covered in the legislation.
Despite wondering about how the bill be enforced, Devine called the legislation a "positive step."
Paradis said there will be no new money for inspectors but that his department has enough people to ensure the bill's provisions can be enforced.
The legislation gives inspectors the power to demand to see an animal if they have "reasonable cause" to suspect the pet is being mistreated.
They can also obtain a warrant from a judge to enter a home and seize animals.
First-time offenders face fines as low as $250 and as high as $250,000.
The fines can double and triple for repeat offenders. Judges will have the discretion to sentence serial violators of the proposed law to jail for up to 18 months.
Devine agrees with the fact that even goldfish owners should be subject to the law.
"We know scientifically that fish are sentient and can feel pain," she said. "If animals are capable of suffering then they should be included (in the bill)."