More than a month after pet rescue organizations across Canada sounded the alarm about an influx of animals being abandoned, at least one Canadian community is trying out a new approach: fining owners who abandon their pets.
The rural municipality of Ste. Anne, Man., located southeast of Winnipeg, passed a bylaw last week that would fine someone who abandons an animal $1,000 per incident. Depending on the case, the person fined could also be responsible for any costs incurred by the municipality.
And if someone abandons multiple animals, they could face multiple fines.
Randy Eros, a councillor and deputy reeve of the rural municipality, told Global News that finding abandoned animals in rural areas is not new, but that there’s been an increase since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This post-COVID lifestyle’s a little different than it was two and three years ago — people had time for pets,” he said. “It appears that that’s become a challenge for them and some people are doing the wrong thing and we wanted to make it very clear that this was not appropriate behaviour.”
Ste. Anne’s bylaw says those fines could apply if an animal is apparently ownerless and found outside; it the animal is found on rented or vacated properties without residents; or if an animal out in the public has an owner but they refuse to take charge of them.
Is abandoning an animal a crime?
Abandoning an animal is considered a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada, but it has specific wording that means the act of abandonment itself does not necessarily lead to legal issues.
According to the Criminal Code, an owner of a domestic animal, bird or “an animal or bird wild by nature that is in captivity” who abandons it “in distress” or willfully neglects or fails to provide suitable and adequate food, water, shelter and care for it could either face jail time of up to two years or a $5,000 fine.
They could also face imprisonment for no more than six months.
Eros said part of why the municipality decided to pass the bylaw despite federal and provincial regulations and laws in place was it was something the rural municipality can control.
“This is one of those things where you say, you shouldn’t have to have a bylaw that says this, but you do and it’s necessary,” he said. “We can say that this is not permitted, there are things that we can control within our bylaws and that’s one of them.”
Animal welfare lawyer Jennifer Friedman, who started her own practice called Canada’s Animal Lawyer, said the bylaw is a positive, proactive measure that will hopefully have a strong deterrent effect, but also noted it’s an added benefit on top of laws or regulations already in place.
She also told Global News that when it comes to Criminal Code, resources for animal abandonment prosecutions can be hard to come by, especially in a strained justice system.
“Municipalities are taking it upon themselves to evaluate the situation and what they can do to be proactive for their constituents and how can their municipalities specifically address this problem,” she said. “(This) is becoming a huge issue for not just the animals who find themselves being abandoned, but members of the community who have to address this problem.”
Can bylaws help?
Eros said the hope is that putting attention on the bylaw will spur the public to be more attentive.
“If they see it happening now, they know that there’s an option to call somebody and say, ‘I just saw this and here’s the licence plate,’ and we have bylaw officers that will chase it,” he said.
It’s not just municipalities, however, that take it upon themselves.
The Nova Scotia Society for the Protection of Animals (SPCA)’s chief inspector, JoAnne Landsburg, notes that under the province’s Animal Protection Act, an owner cannot leave an animal in a way that leaves them in distress, such as leaving them with no intention of returning or making food or water available to them.
But Landsburg said there also needs to be a look at what may be the root cause of abandoning an animal. She said with crises both in the cost of living and housing, “times are really tough.”
“There’s so many people moving into encampments and they can’t take their pets with them,” she said. “So perhaps they feel if they leave them there (at a rental), a landlord will find them and perhaps call the SPCA and we’ll take them into safety.”
The Winnipeg Humane Society points to Manitoba’s Animal Care Act as a piece of legislation that also contributes to addressing animal abandonment, abuse or cruelty. The organization’s CEO Jessica Miller said it allows anyone to make a complaint and someone who abandons the animal could be charged.
“There are so many ways that we can protect animals before this happens,” she said. “Dumping dogs is just not the answer, and dumping cats for that matter. We’re seeing both.
“I’m hoping that people can take this seriously, but more than be worried about the repercussion of doing it, use their heart and mind to know what the best thing to do for this animal, and it’s not dumping them in a rural area.”
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Both Miller and Landsburg say that while Canadians are facing difficulties, the solution is not to abandon their animals, and that rescues can help.
“There are societies, there are SPCAs, willing to take your pet and you’re not going to be charged for that,” Landsburg said.
There is also the chance that a bylaw like Ste. Anne’s shows a recognition of how important animals are.
“This could be huge in basically making sure the rest of Canada is putting animals on their map in every single province,” Miller said.