From time to time, two news-worthy stories intersect in such a way that they just cry out for comment.
Much has been made in the media these past few weeks of the high-profile arrests of several prominent members of the Toronto Humane Society (THS). These accuseds have been vilified in the public consciousness and stained by the ultimate mark of shame for any animal lover — charges of cruelty to animals.
Reams of ink have been spilled outlining the deplorable conditions and poor state of health many of the animals were found in yet the central tenet of this investigation appears to revolve around what can best be described as a philosophical dispute. When is it more cruel to allow an animal to live than to make it die?
The power of the State to criminalize and imprison individuals should be used sparingly and only in cases of clear moral wrong-doing coupled with demonstrable harm. Where reasonable people can differ over the optimal solution to an intractable question, the criminal law ought to remain well outside the boundaries of such a discussion. Indeed, s. 445.1 defines criminal cruelty to animals as anyone who “wilfully causes or, being the owner, wilfully permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal or a bird.” Although we are a long way away from a trial, and it is difficult to speculate as to the ultimate nature of the evidence, it seems plausible that THS executives will argue that they are being victimized for refusing to murder animals in the hopes of easing the animals’ suffering. Whether a seriously ill cat is better served by being ‘put down’ (as we euphemistically call it) or whether it should be left to die naturally is a question that should not be answered in a criminal courtroom.
While I am rarely a proponent of trotting out the over-used slippery slope argument, the second story which caught my attention this week seems to indicate we may already be careening wildly down that aforementioned incline.
The National Post cites a Reuters report that two Australian reality TV stars have been charged with cruelty to animals. It appears that Italian Chef, Gino D’Acampo and British actor, Stuart Manning, sought to make the best out of a bad situation during their recent run on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Outta Here. After having the good fortune to catch a rat during their wilderness abandonment the two enterprising contestants turned it into a tangy risotto which was then happily eaten. Aussie authorities believe the cook-out was a ratings stunt and therefore cruel although it is admitted that the rat was indeed eaten by the pair.
Is this where our misguided attempts to extend the criminal law into every facet of our lives has lead? Have we not just criminalized every night but Tofu Tuesdays on the Food Network? Of course the rat was eaten for ratings — it’s a television show! Betsy the cow was happily devoured on Iron Chef last week but I certainly hope the LAPD isn’t planning a raid on Kitchen Stadium even as I write these words.
Without being too glib about the serious allegations in the THS case, I would remind police and prosecutors that before the State crushes the lives and reputations of citizens presumed to be innocent, we ensure that the conduct that forms the basis of our charges be more than simply objectionable or questionable. It must be criminal.