News Room

Rough ride for our furry, finned friends

Apr 01. 11

By Nicholas Read, Vancouver Sun

Sorry to spoil the party, but the fact is that from a non-human animal's perspective, the last 125 years have been nothing to celebrate. The "best place on earth" is anything but if you're a wolf, a cow, a lab monkey or a pig.

Ours, like every other "civilized" settlement in the world, has been built on the backs of animals. We may pretend to care, but for every "Mama's little darling" in a rhinestone collar and booties, hundreds of animals — domestic and wild, large and small, charismatic and not — suffer and die for our meat, sport, entertainment, fashion and industry every day.

Yet along the way there has been the occasional glimmer. The odd rod of light. Change has come — and not always for the worse.

So with that in mind, here are candidates for the 10 most pivotal events in the animal history of Vancouver and B.C. Good, bad, hopeful and not.

1) 1886: Since the incorporation of the city and the widespread industrialization of the province, 49 animal species have become extinct. They include the Dawson caribou, the greater sage grouse, the western pond turtle and the passenger pigeon. Today an additional 1,300 species and subspecies are in danger of disappearing, but only 68 (roughly five per cent) receive official protection. Worse, none of their habitats is protected. Even the living place of Canada's most endangered animal, the spotted owl — just a handful remain in the wild — is open to government-approved ruin.

2) 1895: The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act is passed and B.C.'s first anti-cruelty laws are drafted. A year later the SPCA is organized as a society in New Westminster, with the first Vancouver branch coming two years after that. Among the early cases investigated are two of knocking horses down with heavy lumber, four of "over-whipping" horses, one of a dog caught in a tram car, one of two cats tied together until they fought to the death, and 17 of poultry packed too tightly in boxes. The society itself underwent criticism in the 1990s for an alleged failure to enforce laws adequately and to act as a vocal advocate for animals. That criticism has since been muted and provincial laws protecting animals have been strengthened. (Federal laws remain a cruel joke.) There are even provincial crown counsel who specialize in animal abuse cases. But punishments, if they are meted out at all, are usually wrist slaps.

3) 1940: On the corner of 14th and E Streets in San Bernardino, Calif., Maurice and Richard (Mac and Dick) McDonald open America's first McDonald's. When Canada's first arches go up in Richmond in June 1967, people throughout North America are already accustomed to cheap meat — and lots of it. Goodbye family farm, hello agribusiness, and with it, an unprecedented level of animal suffering. Nationwide billions of cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, ducks and horses are subject to abuse and slaughter every year to feed our insatiable appetite for flesh. In the last decade, thanks to pressure from humane societies and in the absence of meaningful government rules, McDonald's and other fast-food giants have imposed their own minimal standards for animal care. Here in Metro Vancouver, the Vancouver Humane Society has enjoyed some success with its "Chicken Out" campaign, which promotes egg production according to organic standards, and the BC SPCA is attempting to improve some voluntary guidelines for farmers. But the number of farm animals brutalized and killed each year for food remains stratospheric — and insupportable.

4) 1964: A 4.6-metre-long, one-tonne female orca is harpooned and captured alive off Saturna Island and held at the Burrard Dry Dock in North Vancouver for 87 days. The hunt takes place on request from the Vancouver Aquarium, which wants to use the orca's corpse as a model for a statue. The whale, subsequently named Moby Doll, endures a miserable existence before dying of her wounds, but she affords scientists a first-time, up-close opportunity to study killer whale biology. Her plight also prompts a change in public attitude around what was until then a much-feared and maligned animal. That's the good news. The bad is that thanks to her unexpected survival, a whole new industry built around capturing and exploiting marine mammals for show — think SeaWorld and its ilk — is born.

5) 1967: The last Canadian company to operate a commercial whaling fleet on the B.C. coast closes its doors forever. For 19 years, the Western Whaling Corporation, based in Coal Harbour, operated six whaling ships that killed hundreds of blue, fin, humpback, sei and sperm whales to supply a hungry Japanese market. When the number of fin and sei whales plunges, the catch is limited mainly to sperm whales, a meat not to Japanese taste. So the company folds. To this day, Japanese fleets continue to hunt and kill whales in the Pacific — a slaughter Canada doesn't oppose — but not to the same degree. This has allowed coastal populations of grey and humpback whales to recover. However, other whales, particularly the blue and fin, remain rare.

6) 1976: On Aug. 7, the BC SPCA opens Canada's first low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic at its east Vancouver shelter to address an exploding pet population caused by expanding postwar affluence. Two years earlier, more than 71,000 surplus cats and dogs were destroyed in the Lower Mainland alone. Since the opening of this clinic, spaying or neutering one's cat or dog has become a hallmark of responsible pet guardianship to the point that in 1998 Coquitlam and Surrey passed the country's first municipal bylaws requiring pet owners to have their pets altered. There are now eight such bylaws in B.C. Taking the issue even further, Richmond became the first city in Canada to ban the sale of dogs and rabbits in pet shops last year.

7) 1979: Steveston's Gulf of Georgia Cannery, once known as "the monster cannery", ceases operation and becomes a warehouse for fishing nets. In 1994, the Government of Canada takes it over as a historic site. It is locked-door proof that the sea's bounty has limits. When non-native settlers arrived in what is now the Lower Mainland, the Fraser and other B.C. rivers teemed with fish. The next century and a quarter changed that. Any fish with commercial value — including salmon and herring — has suffered calamitous drops, thus jeopardizing the survival of other species that rely on them for food. Earlier in the year, starving eagles literally fell from the sky in the Comox Valley when an expected run of chum salmon failed to materialize.

8) 1991: Because of cruelty concerns raised by the Vancouver Humane Society, Saanich becomes the first municipality in B.C. to pass a bylaw prohibiting the use of elephants, lions, tigers and other exotic animals in circus performances. There are now 16 such bylaws in the province and they cover all major urban areas, including Vancouver and Victoria. Later, the issue gives rise to broader concerns around keeping and selling exotic animals as pets. Eventually, but only after a woman is killed by her partner's pet tiger in 100 Mile House, Victoria passes legislation in 2009 that lead to the province's first restrictions on keeping and trading large cats, snakes and lizards and others.

9) 2001: A dying NDP government does the right thing at the wrong time by imposing a three-year moratorium on the hunting of grizzlies on the eve of its fall from power. It's a Camelot moment. In what proves to be one of the most capricious and destructive decisions of his tenure, incoming Premier Gordon Campbell jerks his knee and lifts the moratorium, thereby condemning thousands of grizzlies to an early and violent death. Had Campbell allowed the moratorium to remain, grizzlies likely would not be at risk in the province, and the European Union would not have had to impose trade restrictions against B.C. for failing to protect an iconic wilderness symbol. As it is, hunting has become a no-go issue with both the Liberals and NDP thanks to a coterie of hunting enthusiasts in the province's biodiversity branch who continue to flout public opinion and champion it at every turn.

10) 2006: Vancouver becomes the first urban centre in Canada to ban rodeos within city limits. A year later, in another Canadian first, calf roping, steer wrestling, team roping and wild-cow milking — four of rodeo's most brutal practices — are dropped from the Cloverdale Rodeo. And attendance rises. Cruelty is so ingrained in rodeo that it's hard to imagine events outside the Lower Mainland following suit. Yet in February of this year the Calgary Stampede surprised critics by modifying slightly its calf roping competition and chuckwagon race, which killed four horses in 2010.

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