Horsing Around at Homecoming: The (Bigger) Problem of Animal Abuse

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Screenshots of the incident.

Over the Homecoming weekend, a Queen’s student was kicked to the ground by a Kingston police horse named Murney, after the student slapped Murney’s hip. A video that captured the incident has since gone viral, as major news networks picked up the story and generated significant public discussions.

However, missing from these discussions is an important issue underlying the physical assault of a police horse: a deep-seated disrespect that humanity as a whole has shown to the fellow animals with whom we share this world.

To make sense of this, we need to first consider the criminal charge the student faces for slapping the horse, which reveals disturbing inconsistencies in the way our laws protect different animals in Canada.

In July 2015, the Harper government amended the Criminal Code and enacted the Justice for Animals in Service Act (better known as “Quanto’s Law”), after an Edmonton police dog named Quanto was stabbed to death by a fleeing suspect in 2013. The aim of the law was to offer police, military and other service animals greater protection from violent attacks, above the lamentably low standard of protection provided by the broader animal cruelty laws. And Quanto’s penalties are rather hefty, anywhere between fines of up to $10,000, to a minimum of six months and maximum of five years in prison.

While Quanto’s Law was swiftly passed in a year, another proposed bill that also sought to improve protections for animals was not so well-received. Bill C-246 (Modernizing Animal Protections Act) was defeated in Parliament on October 5, 2016 at second reading.

The disparate treatment between Quanto’s Law and Bill C-246 should be alarming for a nation of people who care about animals and social justice. Despite a survey conducted by Environics Research Group showing that 92% of Canadians support updating the Criminal Code to facilitate convictions on animal cruelty charges, the provisions on offenses against animals in the Criminal Code have remained practically unaltered since 1892.

If passed, Bill C-246 would have achieved minimal improvements by strengthening the Criminal Code to protect animals from offenses such as bestiality, being “brutally and viciously” killed, gross negligence, animal fighting, as well as banning the sale of dog and cat fur, and banning the import of detached shark fins. Crucially, Bill C-246 would not have affected the ruthless, legally sanctioned violence against vast majority of animals exploited by humans for the profit of various industries, such as hunting, agriculture, or research. Yet, even such weak reformist efforts to help those animals whose lives we as a society already claim to value have failed.

Perhaps one could argue that as contributing members of society, animals who provide services to humans indeed deserve better protections. However, if we acknowledge the oppressive historical foundations on which the police and military have exploited animals (particularly dogs and horses) to dominate both racialized/marginalized humans and nonhuman animals, it becomes clear that Quanto’s Law was never passed to actually “protect” police and military animals. Instead, legislations such as Quanto’s Law only work to further legitimize police/military exploitation of animals, justify putting their lives in danger, and to expand police and military power by creating yet another way to target and penalize political dissidents and marginalized peoples; legally, animals’ lives are only worth protecting if they serve as property to uphold oppressive social structures and institutions.

Furthermore, the argument to justify protecting animals on the basis of “service” to humans falls apart if we pay attention to all the animals who are forced into servitude, and do not receive legal protection or recognition of social membership status at all.

Annually, in Canada, over 750 million farmed animals (excluding 90 million “tonnes” of fish) are forced to contribute their bodies to feed human consumption, over 3 million laboratory animals are forced to contribute to our scientific knowledge, while many wild animals languish in captivity, providing humans with entertainment in zoos and aquariums. Almost all of them spend their lives dwelling in deplorable conditions. What do we owe these animals? Should we continue treating them as mere “things” and property despite all the knowledge of their complex inner worlds? Is it even necessary to continue exploiting them?

If we find that question difficult to answer for those exploited beings, maybe we could at least answer it for the service animals closer to home, which brings us back to Murney the horse.

Numerous cities around the world have either ended or begun phasing out the use of horses to service humans. Philadelphia, Boston, and San Diego are among the major cities in the US that have retired all of their police horses. In 2014, Salt Lake City banned horse-drawn carriage for tourists, and activists in cities such as Victoria, Montreal, and New York have been demanding the same. Stressful environments and aggressive use of horses (such as breaking protests and riots) have caused humans to suffer injuries from being trampled, and pose many dangers for the horses themselves.

It might be an obvious point that if we kept animals out of harm’s way, rather than inflicting harms on them, the world could be a better place for both humans and animals, but for the sake of billions of animals exploited by humans, including Quanto and Murney, it’s a point worth emphasizing.

Darren Chang is an MA student studying political philosophy at Queen’s University and a member of Queen’s Animal Defence.

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