B.C. has a higher awareness of animal rights than anywhere else in
Canada. The reasons aren't entirely clear
Nicholas Read, Vancouver Sun
Published Thursday, May 24, 2007
We may take it for granted here, but in the rest of the country the
interest we in the Lower Mainland take in animals is regarded as
exceptional. Enviable in some circles; weird in others. But certainly,
by any standard, exceptional.
"Certainly, Vancouver is ahead of anywhere else in Canada when it
comes to animal issues," says Julie Woodyer, campaigns director for
Zoocheck Canada, a Toronto-based organization.
"We have discussions about it all the time here. When an issue comes
up, and it doesn't matter what it is, we always say 'We wish we were
arguing this in B.C.' "
Calf-roping has been banned from the Cloverdale Rodeo after one had
to be killed, due to an injury at this year's event.
By that, she really
means the Lower Mainland and Greater Victoria where animal rights have
always had a resonance they haven't had anywhere else in Canada.
The decision by the Cloverdale Rodeo Association on Tuesday to ban
roping events from all forthcoming rodeos -- the first major rodeo in
Canada to do so -- is only the latest in a long line of examples.
Consider that next Monday, Richmond will vote to become the first
city in North America to ban the use of eggs from caged hens in all city
facilities. If the law passes, the city will also encourage all
residents to buy only organic free-range eggs -- eggs more humanely
produced than in other systems.
Derek Dang, one of the Richmond councilors sponsoring the vote,
expects the motion to pass six to three and possibly unanimously.
Vancouver is considering a similar policy only months after park
board commissioner Spencer Herbert pushed through a motion requiring all
city-owned kiosks to sell only sustainably caught seafood.
Meanwhile, Langara College has become the first post-secondary
institution in Canada to serve only eggs from free-range hens in its
cafeterias. The University of B.C. is working on a similar initiative.
WHY HERE? HARD TO EXPLAIN
In April, the Vancouver Art Gallery was forced to close an exhibit
involving live reptiles and amphibians after complaints by the Vancouver
Humane Society and the B.C. SPCA.
At Easter, B.C. Petcetera stores announced they'd no longer sell
rabbits as pets -- the only Petcetera locations in Canada to do so.
That was a decade after the same stores became the first and only
pet-supplies chain in the country to voluntarily end the selling of
exotic pets, such as snakes and lizards.
In February, Vancouver city council, which hadn't hosted a rodeo in
more than 10 years, made sure it would not do so again by becoming the
first city in Canada to ban rodeos altogether.
They did that at the same time they voted to make Vancouver one of
more than 20 B.C. communities that regulate the selling and keeping of
some exotic animals -- Langley being the first in 1994.
In 1990, the district of Saanich became the first jurisdiction in
Canada to pass a bylaw prohibiting exotic animals -- elephants, lions,
tigers, and such -- from taking part in circus performances on city
Now, there are more than 30 such bylaws around the province, but the
vast majority are still in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island.
In 1983, Vancouver became the first city in the world under
then-mayor Mike Harcourt to declare an official Animal Rights Day. In
1993, it became the first city in Canada to vote to close its zoo, in
And last year, the Greater Vancouver Zoo in Aldergrove had the
dubious distinction of becoming the first major zoo in Canada charged
with cruelty to animals over the treatment of Hazina, its hippo.
But ask people involved in animal issues on both sides of the fence
why here and not elsewhere, and they have trouble explaining it.
B.C. SPCA CEO Craig Daniell, who previously worked at the Ontario
SPCA for three years, says the situation in Vancouver compared to
Toronto "is like night and day."
But ask him why, and he isn't sure.
Vancouver Aquarium president John Nightingale, who's often found
himself debating the ethics of keeping marine mammals captive, says it's
probably historical, though he can't pinpoint what triggered it.
He also suggests that a strong economy gives people here more leisure
time and therefore more hours to give thought to issues outside of
putting bread on their tables.
Moreover, "If it hits close to home, there seems to be a lot of
resistance to the idea," Nightingale says, citing the controversy around
off-leash parks for dogs. "If it has less to do with large numbers of
people -- the Cloverdale Rodeo, for example -- people shrug their
shoulders and say 'Makes sense, I guess.'
"There's been activism around the rodeo for years, but there was no
public groundswell around it."
He believes that it's only when issues don't personally affect people
that they're willing to let something pass. And that Vancouver's
so-called leadership in this area is more a matter of a loud few getting
their way than a reflection of public concern.
Vancouver Coun. Kim Capri, who led the rodeo and exotic animal
initiatives, also cites "privilege" as a possible factor. "Is it because
we have the lifestyle we have that we're able to look at other species
and have more awareness of their vulnerabilities?" Capri asks. "We can
consider the choice of paying more for an egg from a free-range hen
here. That's a statement about privilege."
She also says part of the reason her initiatives got through was that
some members of council saw it as a favour to her at the time, knowing
that while these concerns mattered a great deal to her, they were of
much less import to others. Almost everyone interviewed cited media
interest as a major factor, as well. The media in Vancouver love animal
stories, they said, controversial or not.
"When I first came here, one of the first things I was involved in
was the seizure of some exotic animals near Kaslo," Daniell says. "It
was amazing to see how long that story was covered by the media. Not
only was it on the front page, but it ran for a couple of weeks.
"In Ontario, it may have been covered, but it would have been buried
and only for one day."
Rob Dykstra, the chair of the journalism department at Langara, says
it doesn't surprise him that Vancouver media respond to animal stories
because animals live everywhere on our doorsteps.
"We go back into the mountains so we get bears and cougars descending
down upon us," Dykstra says. "We've got whales next to us in the ocean.
I think the whole idea of wildlife is very prevalent here, and because
of that it's very much in our consciousness. And because of our wild
image and our frequent contacts and preoccupation, to some extent, with
wild animals, whenever an animal is in distress, there's kind of a
conflict presented. So when you have that conflict, you have a story."
Mark Miller, a documentary filmmaker for Discovery Channel and Animal
"In what other big city in Canada do people live with back fences
that back right onto a park?" he says. "We're in the faces of animals
all the time. And as a result of that interface and sometimes conflict,
they're a major part of the fabric of our community."
Of small communities too, Miller adds, but in those communities the
ethos is different. Animals aren't sentimentalized in such places;
they're used and, in some cases, abused.
But that doesn't explain the apathy of such places as Toronto.
Woodyer offers this explanation: "I think that in Toronto and Montreal,
there is such a strong focus on money that that supersedes everything,
including the suffering of animals."
But of everyone interviewed for this piece, it was only Mark Wexler,
a professor of ethics at Simon Fraser University, who was prepared to
provide anything close to answers.
He explains our fascination and forwardness with animals as an
expression of spirituality in an environment where organized religion
holds much less sway than it does in other parts of the world.
"Here in Vancouver, for whatever reason, we have less formal religion
and more spirituality, particularly around the reverence of nature," he
says. "In other words, we're friendly towards nature and we're friendly
"This is not to say people who belong to formal religions don't have
pets and aren't nice to them. But they have an outlet for that
spirituality in their church. That is the way they outlet their
Here and in other cities in Cascadia, specifically Seattle and
Portland he says, it's in a reverence for nature that we express our
"We see in animals and in the way we treat them a perception of our
own loving kindness."
And this is particularly true in cities, Wexler says. "The more
you're cut off from [animals], the more you see them as an attachment to
nature and the land.
"If we were farmers, we wouldn't support cruelty to animals, but we'd
have a different tolerance of it. As urban people we have a lower
tolerance for cruelty because we beatify nature, and animals become a
target of that beatification."
Also, because animals never deserve the ill treatment they receive,
they are easy to politicize, Wexler says. "They represent a very clear
notion of what's good and what's evil. The evil being that animals don't
have control over their destiny, but we do."
Finally, animal issues are fairly easy to resolve legislatively, he
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