Four Canadian animal rights activists charged with trespass and mischief for breaking into a hog farm in British Columbia—where they obtained footage of alleged animal abuse. Activists reported the animal welfare violations, but now they’re coming into conflict with an unlikely rival: the province’s foremost humane society, the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA).
As Amy Soranno, Nick Schafer, Roy Sasano, and Geoff Regier attended their first hearing at the courthouse in Abbotsford on September 3, fellow activists protested outside the BC SPCA offices with a banner reading “BC SPCA Failing Animals.”
The BC SPCA believes it fulfilled its duty to protect the pigs, who activists found living with injuries and abnormal growths, among other revelations made during the independent investigation. The footage—which is graphic—shows workers beating pigs, and piglets forced to have their tails docked without the use of anesthetic. The humane society feels the activists are unfairly targeting them. But the activists claim that the organization failed both in its duty to enforce Canada’s limited laws on farmed animal welfare and in its duty to advocate on behalf of animals.
The case brings into focus the tensions that can arise between grassroots activists and humane societies that fill the role of law enforcers as well as advocates. In some cases, humane societies also serve as certifiers of “humane” conditions on farms. The case also raises the question: Is filling those various roles the best way for humane societies to protect animals? Or, in trying to cover all bases, do they risk reducing their effectiveness?
Advocates and law enforcers
Humane societies have been enforcing animal welfare laws since the world’s first animal welfare charity—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)—was founded in Britain in the 1800s. At the same time, their mission, broadly speaking, is to protect animals from cruelty and help to improve their quality of life. This involves preventive work including advocacy, for example, by publicly campaigning against certain practices or industries.
In the specific case of the Excelsior hog farm, the activists believe that this dual role means the BC SPCA prioritized working with the police over taking action to protect animals. Amy Soranno argues that the BC SPCA should have, at a minimum, taken “a public stance against the cruelty that took place, call[ed] for the BC Pork Producers Association to remove Excelsior’s part-owner Ray Binnendyk from its board of directors, and [made] a pledge to change the BC SPCA’s policies to ensure they don’t fail animals like this in the future.” Instead, she says, the BC SPCA did not investigate the farm thoroughly enough and turned one of the activists over to the police.
In an email to Sentient Media, BC SPCA explained that after the police requested their information on the Excelsior case, “Our Special Constables, as sworn peace officers, felt duty-bound to comply with a reciprocal enforcement agencies request.”
BC SPCA acted in a manner that the organization believes was consistent with its role as a law enforcer, but in doing so, it may have undermined its duty to protect animals first.
“If an SPCA that has law enforcement powers turns in a whistleblower who has documented suspected animal cruelty and neglect, it deters other would-be witnesses and complainants from coming forward,” says Alanna Devine, founding partner of Devine Animal Law, who spent 10 years as Director of Advocacy at the Montreal SPCA. “Ensuring that individuals that witness suspected animal cruelty, particularly in the context of industries that house animals that are entirely hidden from the public’s view and not subject to any form of regular inspections (i.e. industrial farms), is critical for ensuring that these animals are given some form of protection against illegal animal abuse. Without whistleblowers, their abuse will go undetected.”
But the necessity for whistleblowers to expose abuses on animal farms is also an indication that humane societies are unable to provide the level of oversight and law enforcement required to protect farmed animals, most likely because they are under-resourced.
“At a minimum, the SPCA must recognize that this case exemplifies the need for greater oversight of factory farms so that activists don’t bear sole responsibility for documenting abuse and neglect, and so that there is no excuse for not taking enforcement action,” says Delcianna Winders, Assistant Clinical Professor & Director of the Animal Law Litigation Clinic at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.
Even though turning in whistleblowers is a rare, if unheard of, move by a humane society, this is not the only problem that can arise as humane societies carry out law enforcement at the same time as advocacy work.
One difficulty humane societies face is that the laws they are enforcing may be terribly weak, to begin with. In Canada, farm animals have practically no legal welfare protections—though this varies by province—with the industry setting its own “Codes of Practice.” As a result, humane societies may end up enforcing industry rules, which prioritize workplace efficiency and productivity over animal welfare. In the U.S., there are no federal laws protecting animals on farms and most states exempt farm animals from anti-cruelty laws. The laws in the UK are minimal and vague and depend on certification schemes like farmer-run Red Tractor to ensure they are adhered to.
As Melissa Speirs, Farm Animal Welfare Manager at BC SPCA, told Sentient Media, “Our enforcement work is separate from our advocacy work as our constables are sworn in under the Police Act and are bound to enforce the laws as they currently are, not what we wish they were.”
Another issue is that being funded by donations means humane societies risk conflicts of interest. “What happens if an SPCA with enforcement powers gets a complaint about one of its important donors?” says Devine. “How can it be expected to be objective, or appear to be objective, in investigating the case?”
Donors could potentially include farms or meat-related events such as RibFest Kelowna, which has donated to BC SPCA. In the view of Amy Soranno, who, with her bright blue hair, has become a recognizable media spokesperson for herself and her fellow activists facing charges, “It is impossible for an organization like the BC SPCA to adequately protect animals while simultaneously doing business with animal agriculture. At [a] bare minimum, the BC SPCA must cut ties with the industry and advocate to end animal agriculture to sufficiently fulfill their mandate.”
But in order to effectively enforce the law, humane societies are constrained in what they can say and do publicly to advocate for animals. Even if the BC SPCA, for instance, were to take a stand against animal agriculture, this could potentially call into question its objectivity in enforcing the law. “Any good defense attorney is going to question the private agencies’ objectivity in enforcing the laws applying to an industry it opposes,” says Devine.
To address the inadequacy of laws protecting the welfare of farmed animals, some humane societies run farm certification schemes that insist on better conditions than the minimum required by law or, in Canada’s case, by the industry’s Codes of Practice. In Canada, the BC SPCA was until this year the only SPCA to certify farms. In Britain, the RSPCA runs the RSPCA Assured certification scheme.
Such schemes have proven to be problematic, and animal activists wonder how humane societies can work with an industry which not only involves some degree of suffering for animals even if standards are higher than legal minimums but also has a poor track record when it comes to abusive and neglectful behavior towards those animals.
But many humane societies believe their schemes are essential. “There is great value in third-party animal welfare certification programs, as they ensure farm animals are being raised to high standards of animal welfare,” says Speirs. “They have also impacted farm animals not certified by the program when the standards serve as a basis for updates to the National Farm Animal Care Council’s Codes of Practice and by demonstrating that consumers care about farm animal welfare.”
Yet the risk of conflicts of interest arises once again when humane societies are also in charge of enforcing animal welfare law. “What happens when a humane society gets a complaint about animal abuse with respect to a farm they have provided a “humane certification” for?” says Devine. “How can they even appear to be objective in handling this complaint? They can’t.”
What role should humane societies play?
Not all humane societies, nor even all of Canada’s SPCAs, have law enforcement mandates, and some are starting to see the advantages of being free of this duty.
Ontario SPCA transitioned out of enforcement work in 2019. At the Canadian Animal Law Conference which took place online in mid-September, General Counsel to OSPCA Brian Shiller gave a presentation in which he said, “Being freed from enforcement is a breath of fresh air. It allows for the OSPCA and other humane societies in the province to advocate for animals without fear that there will be a conflict of interest.”
OSPCA will now use its expertise to draft recommendations for a new Ontario Animal Protection Act to help the government provide the maximum legal protection of animals. Devine believes other SPCAs and humane societies should follow suit.
“Enforcement of animal protection legislation should be done by publicly funded government bodies,” says Devine, “while privately funded charitable organizations, like SPCAs, should be allocating their scarce resources to doing more preventive work, including advocacy.”
For activists like Soranno, something clearly needs to change in the way some humane societies operate. “More and more animal suffering will continue if the system doesn’t change,” Soranno says. “This suffering is on the hands of the BC SPCA, but it doesn’t have to be. The choice is theirs.”
Claire is an Associate Editor at Sentient Media and a freelance writer focused on animals, climate and the environment.