Appeal Court Agrees Animals Are Sentient Beings Who Deserve Protection

Animal Justice just helped achieve a groundbreaking new legal victory for animals. The Alberta Court of Appeal confirmed the need for Canadian courts to protect animals from violent crimes when sentencing animal abusers—stating that animals are sentient beings who can suffer, and that animal abuse is an a offence of violence, not merely property offence.

Animal Justice recently intervened in R v Chen, a case where a man pleaded guilty to abusing his 10-month-old husky puppy, Cinnamon. He admitted to beating Cinnamon, causing severe injuries that included broken ribs, broken teeth, and extensive bruising. He was initially sentenced to a 10-year ban on owning animals and 90 days in jail, to be served on weekends. On appeal, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench scrapped the jail term and Mr. Chen was instead sentenced to house arrest.

The Crown appealed to the Alberta Court of Appeal, which reviewed the decision to impose house arrest. The major issue on appeal was how the principles of sentencing enshrined in the Criminal Code should be applied in animal cruelty cases. Because the Alberta Court of Appeal is a high-level appellate court, Animal Justice knew we had to intervene because the decision could have important country-wide implications.

Animal Justice urged the Court to focus not simply on punishments such as jail time, but more instead crafting sentences that protect animals from future harm, and provide reparations to address abuse that has already occurred. Jail sentences do little to protect animals from harm and redress the suffering they have already experienced, but a more nuanced approach can have a real impact. An appropriately-crafted sentence may reduce the chance that person will go on to commit further repeat abuse, and could include providing rehabilitation to help the person understand the impact of their actions; offering reparations or resources to care for an injured animal; and imposing a prohibition order to prevent a person from owning or living with animals in the future—making sure they aren’t in a position to harm animals again.

The Court of Appeal adopted many of Animal Justice’s arguments, and recognized the need for a nuanced approach to sentencing. The Court recognized that sentencing should consider the vulnerability of animals, as they are often at the mercy of their human caretakers and they are unable to report abuse themselves. We are particularly pleased that the Court noted the vulnerability of animals in commercial settings, where they are used for profit and typically kept behind closed doors, out of the view of the public. Given that the vast majority of animal suffering occurs in places like farms and research laboratories, this recognition is important.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal set aside the Court of Queen’s Bench decision and re-instated Mr. Chen’s original jail sentence, emphasizing that animals must be treated as living victims, not simply as property.

R v Chen has important policy implications for future animal cruelty cases. Courts must consider the animal’s interests when sentencing someone who has abused that animal. Sentencing for animal cruelty cases should involve not merely punishment, but also efforts to protect animals from future harm and reparations for injuries already suffered, and consider ways for offenders to recognize the seriousness of their actions.

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