Opinion: Law needed to keep pets off the dinner table

Should people be allowed to eat their pets? It’s a question that has come to the fore after the Vancouver Island owners of a pot-bellied pig named Molly recently butchered and ate her.

It’s also a question that raises the issue of animal rights in general, pet ownership in particular and whether pets should be accorded special legal status.

The story of Molly is short and sad. She was one of 57 pet pot-bellied pigs rescued in 2017 by local officers of British Columbia’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

According to the Cowichan Valley Citizen, their owner was no longer able to care for them.

Molly was nursed back to health and eventually put up for adoption. The couple who adopted her in January promised to care for her. Specifically, they promised not to slaughter her.

Within a month they had changed their minds on both counts. They explained they did so because Molly didn’t get along with the family dog.

There was an immediate outcry following Molly’s death. The SPCA came under attack. The couple who had slaughtered her reported receiving death threats.

But according to Camille Labchuk of the advocacy group Animal Justice, what happened to Molly was perfectly legal in Canada. Animal owners are free to kill and eat their pets. The only stipulation is that the animal must be slaughtered humanely which, according to the SPCA, Molly was.

Indeed, the great irony of the Molly story is that thousands of pigs that are not pets suffer the same fate every day – without causing a great hue and cry.

The fundamental problem is that animals are treated under Canadian law as mere property whose lives are at the mercy of their owners.

There is nothing in Canadian law to prevent a farmer from slaughtering his livestock.

Similarly, there is nothing to prevent a pet owner from killing and eating the family dog. The debate over whether animals should be treated as sentient beings with innate rights rather than mere property is a fraught one. In Parliament, modest attempts to improve animal welfare have been derailed by interest groups fearful that these represent the thin edge of the rights wedge.

But as Labchuk, a lawyer, points out, there are intermediate steps government could take to deal with situations such as Molly’s – steps that need not invite a backlash from the animal use industries. She suggests a law banning the unnecessary killing of animals. This would exempt the farming and meat-packing industries. It would also exempt pet owners who euthanize their animals in order to prevent suffering. But it would catch people like Molly’s faithless owners.

Virginia has such a law, she says. California has another version that makes it an offence to kill any animal “traditionally or commonly kept as a pet or companion.” It shouldn’t be too difficult for Canadian lawmakers to come up with something similar.

Finally, the Molly story underscores some of the problems connected with keeping pets.

Pets, or animal companions as they are sometimes called, can perform a useful function. For most of us, they are the only window into the rich world of non-human animal life. They remind us that we are not the only beings on this Earth with both intelligence and emotions.

If we pay attention, they usually have something to say.

But pets can also be the object of fads. Pot-bellied pigs, for instance, became popular after movie star George Clooney adopted one. Those who buy pets on a whim are not always prepared to care for them.

Last summer, the Cedar Row Farm Sanctuary near Stratford publicly appealed to Ontarians to stop buying pot-bellied pigs. Too many were being dropped off at the sanctuary by owners who found that they could not deal with them. That’s because pot-bellied pigs are physically strong, opinionated and in some municipalities illegal to keep as pets.

This also plays into the Molly story. Certainly, her owners should not have eaten her. More to the point, they never should have offered to adopt her in the first place.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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