Kendra Coulter is Professor of Management and Organizational Studies at Huron University College at Western University and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.
Edmonton and Calgary are not only linked by Highway 2 and an epic hockey rivalry. Both cities are home to leaders who take the enforcement of animal cruelty laws seriously.
This tale of two cities offers lessons for communities everywhere about the value of partnerships and illustrates how protecting animals is also about protecting people.
Many Canadians consider their animals to be family members. Canada’s Criminal Code outlaws many kinds of animal abuse and neglect, and most provinces also have legislation designed to protect animals from cruelty.
Law enforcement is normally a core governmental responsibility. Yet in most of the country, the enforcement of animal welfare laws has been off-loaded to non-profit – well-intentioned organizations that do their best with massive caseloads, minimal financial resources and uneven levels of public support.
Calgary reflects this larger pattern. The Calgary Humane Society’s small but dedicated team is the first responder for most concerns about animal well-being in the city.
Investigating suspected cruelty is challenging, unpredictable and, at times, dangerous work, regardless of which organization is responsible. Animal harm exists on a spectrum and officers find vulnerable people struggling to care for themselves and their animals on the one end, violent and even fatal abuse on the other, and many complex situations in between.
To further complicate the work, animals are often not the only victims. People may begin by hurting animals before expanding to humans, meaning effective intervention can stop future violence. Animals and people are also often abused simultaneously.
This alarming and well-documented pattern of subsequent and/or simultaneous abuse is called the human-animal violence link. A recent University of Windsor study found that 89 per cent of women surveyed who were in domestic violence shelters said their animals had been threatened or physically hurt by the abuser.
Leaders at the Calgary Humane Society recognized and then responded to these challenges.
Robust safety protocols were developed for investigations, including attending properties known to be risky in pairs, more safety equipment and mental health support, and increased communication between officers in the field and dispatchers.
Now the humane society also collaborates with a veterinarian with expertise in forensics and the Calgary Police Service.
Although no animal cruelty unit has been established within the police service yet, an officer has chosen to make animal cases a priority on top of their other responsibilities, providing training to their colleagues and serving as a bridge between the humane society, forensic veterinarian, and Crown attorneys.
Edmonton has a similar but also different approach. In 2019, the City empowered specialized peace officers within its animal care and control service to enforce the province’s Animal Protection Act, thereby making investigations a public sector responsibility.
At the same time, Edmonton Police Service constables were encountering alarming animal abuse cases and wanted a comprehensive law enforcement response, especially for Criminal Code violations.
Canada’s first dedicated animal protection unit in a local policing service was officially created in late 2021. The Animal Cruelty Investigation Unit (ACIU) is housed within Edmonton Police Services’ serious crimes branch. Now, the city’s peace officers, ACIU and Crown attorneys collaborate and tailor their responses to the severity and specifics of the case. This also augments the protections and resources available to the city’s peace officers.
First responders in both cities work with animal owners and caretakers to solve and prevent problems whenever possible, but now they have a larger set of resources, justice system supports and communication and diagnostic tools available to respond to cases across the animal harm spectrum because of these commitments to partnership.
Both cities have seen more attention paid to horrific cases of animal abuse in recent years that may not have been taken seriously in the past. Charges and convictions are up. This does not necessarily mean there is more animal abuse, but rather that more of it is being investigated and recognized as not only illegal and damaging to animals, but also as a potential gateway into ongoing or future crimes against people.
Charges are not the only measure of effectiveness either, but highly disturbing, violent behaviour demands expert attention for the protection of animals, children and women.
There is no one size fits all model for humane law enforcement around the country. Dedicated, public, provincial animal welfare services have the advantage of province-wide coverage and greater worker protections, as is the case in Ontario.
But in all communities that recognize how animals and people are both trapped in webs of family violence, and want to set a higher standard for animal welfare, the reforms in Edmonton and Calgary drive home the value of thoughtful collaboration.
Partnerships and the sharing of responsibilities maximize reach, particularly when working in contexts of scarce or dwindling resources. Such collaboration allows officers to more effectively and safely do their difficult yet life-saving jobs, work that helps protect animals and our shared communities from harm. ACIU’s unofficial motto is “to protect and serve all of us,” a highly worthy goal.
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