When we see dogs tethered, caged, kennelled, or left alone in backyards day after day, it rightfully tugs at our heart strings and may even cause us emotional distress. We are further frustrated when we report the situation to the SPCA or humane society and they respond that the law does not allow them to act because the basic necessities of life (food, water, shelter, and veterinary care) are being provided. However, I wonder whether this is necessarily the case.
Although there may be the occasional animal protection worker who apparently either does not understand the law or decides not to enforce it, I trust that most animal protection officers are intimately familiar with the legislation and do what they can to protect animals in accordance with it. But I also believe more can be done. Skilled animal protection officers and prosecutors may be able to convey to judges that animals may still be suffering despite having all their physical needs met. Testimony from veterinarians or animal behaviourists might be used to demonstrate that pacing or other “stereotypic” behaviours could constitute evidence of psychological, emotional, or mental distress in an animal. Failure to provide an animal with ALL the “Five Freedoms” is failure to ensure the animal has everything s/he needs to have a good quality of life.
We need to understand, however, that expanding legal definitions of distress may have financial implications for enforcement agencies. For instance, I assume one of the reasons SPCAs and humane societies work to educate individuals about how to properly care for their animals (in less serious cases, of course) prior to seizing those animals is because they do not have enough space or money to care for all the animals that might be seized. Expanding legal definitions of distress could lead to more animals being seized and, subsequently, enforcement agencies requiring more resources from the government unless fines or restitution could be collected from the people whose animals are seized.
Nonetheless, regardless of cost, we need to work toward creating legislation that ensures animals are given everything they need to live their lives in accordance with the Five Freedoms, including the fifth Freedom requiring “conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.” We can help by telling our municipal, provincial, and federal representatives that we want animal protection legislation to recognize that a person’s duty of care for animals should include an obligation to ensure the animals are not subjected to undue mental, emotional, or psychological distress.