There is a common belief in Canadian society that all animals (including reptiles) are legally protected from suffering. This is only true to a very limited extent for some animals.
There are two types of Canadian legislation that law enforcement agencies use when addressing the issue of animal suffering. The first is the Criminal Code of Canada, which has two sections dealing with cruelty to animals. The laws in the Criminal Code apply across the country.
The second kind of legislation that somewhat addresses animal suffering is provincial legislation that establishes the provincial SPCA Act or otherwise addresses animal protection or welfare. Each province’s laws are different in this regard.
Unfortunately, both the Criminal Code and the various provincial laws tend to deal with animal cruelty in a retroactive fashion-punishing only certain kinds of harmful behaviour only after it has occurred. They do little to prevent suffering from occurring in the first place.
There are a range of problems with all of these laws that prevent them from effectively protecting reptiles kept as pets or in trade. They include the fact that the laws tend to be punitive, rather than preventative, offences are very limited and punishments are minimal. In fact, inthe case of commercial operators, any fines given on conviction for cruelty to animals could just be viewed as a cost of doing business.
Other significant deficiencies in our existing laws are that they do not contain animal housing and care standards and they do not allow for the keeping of certain animals to be prohibited.
There is one way however that local municipalities can help to protect reptiles under the law. By establishing by-laws that prohibit the keeping and sale of reptiles and other wild animals as pets, municipal governments can take a stand against animal suffering and protect their constituents at the same time.
The Criminal Code of Canada
The Criminal Code contains all of Canada’s criminal laws, including two sections meant to address cruelty to animals. These provisions are very modest in scope, most of them dating back to 1892.
When it comes to animal suffering in the reptile pet trade, the problem with respect to the law is not that there are one or two isolated incidents that could be the subject of particular charges. Criminal laws are meant to address specific incidents. Criminal laws however, are not the way to address institutionalized practices (e.g., trade, transport, and husbandry) that are widespread within a particular industry. In the reptile pet trade the problem is not that in one particular case, one particular animal was abused by its “owner.” The problem is the whole way of life that is imposed upon most of these animals all of the time, from birth or capture until death.
Provincial animal protection legislation is not an effective manner of addressing the problems related to the keeping of reptiles and other wild animals as pets. The Ontario Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals Act, for example, provides the authority for humane societies to assist animals in certain circumstances. OSPCA agents and inspectors are authorized to take certain actions in respect of animals that are determined to be in “distress”. The fact that OSPCA powers only come into force once an animal is suffering is one of the many limitations inherent in our current legal approach to animals.
Another problem is the fact that a great deal of reptile abuse and neglect is hidden behind the closed doors of private businesses or in private residences after the animal has been purchased.
In addition, humane society inspectors who are charged with enforcing the law may not be able to determine whether or not a reptile is in distress. Inspectors typically have little expertise in reptilian biology, behaviour or captive management, so they are ill-prepared to cope with situations of reptile abuse.
Due to the limited way our current federal and provincial laws deal with animal cruelty, the most effective way to control and govern the treatment of reptiles and other exotic animals is through municipal bylaws that restrict or prohibit their sale and keeping as pets.
Laws affecting international trade
No one really knows how many thousands of reptiles are imported into Canada each year or how many reptiles are currently kept as pets in residences and businesses across the country. The exact number is unknown because much of the reptile trade is unregulated and untracked.
Some level of protection is afforded some reptile species through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), an international agreement to which Canada is a Party (signatory nation). CITES aims to protect certain species of animals and plants against over-exploitation through international trade.
Each Party to CITES requires that all import, export and re-export (“re-export” means the export of a specimen that was imported) of species covered by the Convention be authorized through a licensing system.
Each Party must designate a Management Authority to administer the licensing system and a Scientific Authority to advise them on how trade will affect the status of wildlife populations. CITES does not regulate the trade in animals that are not listed on any of its three appendices; trade within national boundaries; or trade in species not threatened by trade (even though they may be threatened in other ways).
In addition, there are concerns that some signatory nations issue export permits without sufficient knowledge of the species status in the wild and/or without verification of the authenticity of the export permit applicant’s information.
Another problem is that many countries do not vigorously enforce CITES regulations at border crossings, so significant numbers of reptiles may be transported in uninspected legal shipments or in undetected illegal shipments. Poor enforcement may be due to lack of funds, lack of inspectors, inadequate training, corruption and other factors.
Regardless, the majority of reptiles are not covered by CITES, so their trade is not regulated by it. They are at the mercy of those who buy, sell and trade them.
Canada’s animal protection laws are weak and need to be updates and strengthen. Current legislation does little to protect reptiles as pets or in trade. Zoocheck recommends that anyone concerned with the welfare of reptiles or other animals contact their elected representatives in all levels of government to voice their concern and encourage improvement in Canada’s animal protection laws.