In a precedent-setting case, a Quebec Municipal Court has found a Montreal woman guilty of wilfully causing suffering or injury to an animal pursuant to s.445(1)(a) of the Criminal Code. On July 3, 2011, Marina Palakartcheva left her 5-year old bulldog, Ares in the back of her car while she was inside a nearby shopping mall. A passerby noticed the dog in distress and called 9-1-1. Two police officers showed up, smashed the window and tried unsuccessfully to revive the unconscious dog. The officers testified that the dog was so hot that when touched it was almost like touching a hot stove. The veterinarian that treated Ares testified at the trial that the dog died as a result of heat stroke and given the weather conditions of that particular day, even a 10-minute period in the car could have been fatal. During the trial, there were conflicting reports as to how long Ms. Palakartcheva was gone for. Ms. Palakartcheva testified that he had only been gone for about 30 minutes and had left windows cracked, however, according to the witness who called 911, she was gone for over an hour.
The case is remarkable for the reason that it now sets a precedent that the Crown no longer must demonstrate that the accused intended for the animal to suffer for there to be a conviction under s.445(1)(a) of the Code. As the law stands now, it is a crime to cause an animal pain through “wilful” neglect, a mental element that makes prosecution difficult as the Crown must show that the accused intended the animal to suffer. However, the court in the Palakartcheva case relaxed this mental element to include “recklessness” or “gross negligence”. In other words, although the Crown conceded that Ms. Plakartecheva did not intend for Ares to suffer, they submitted that her behaviour represented a marked departure from the standard of care, significant enough to warrant a conviction.
This verdict represents a big victory for animal rights advocates who have argued that the legislation surrounding animal cruelty is far too narrow and hard to prove, making convictions difficult. By allowing recklessness to be substituted for wilfulness, there is a much higher chance of successful convictions.
Although this case is certainly unique it does not represent the first time that a Canadian court has relaxed the intent requirement in an animal cruelty case. In a 2015 case from the British Columbia Provincial Court, Emma Paulsen a dog walker was charged with animal cruelty after 6 dogs died of heat stroke when they were left in the back of her truck. Ms. Paulsen initially claimed that the dogs had been stolen from the back of her truck, before later admitting that she had left them in the heated vehicle unattended, while shopping and returned to find they had perished due to the heat. In their submissions the Crown conceded that Ms. Paulsen had no intention to kill or injure the dogs, however, they argued her actions of leaving them in a hot car went beyond simple negligence and reached the threshold of willfully reckless. The Crown pointed to the modified subjective standard that is to be used and drew the Court’s attention to the fact that Ms. Paulsen, given her occupation as a dog walker, should have known better than to leave dogs in a heated vehicle. In the end, Ms. Paulsen submitted a guilty plea to one count of animal cruelty and one count of mischief and was sentenced to six months in prison. Along with the prison sentence, Ms. Paulsen received a lifetime ban on looking after others animals and a ten-year ban on owning animals herself.
The Paulsen and the Palakartcheva case signal a positive shift in how courts are starting to view animal cruelty. The new viewpoint is not dissimilar to the changes in the Code that were advocated by Nathaniel Erskine-Smith in the proposed Bill C- 24- The Modernizing Animal Protections Act. The Bill was aimed at substantive changes to Canada’s existing, insufficient animal protection legislation. One of the Bill’s most notable changes was to amend the Criminal Code to include an offence for people who cause unnecessary suffering to an animal by gross negligence rather than the current standard of “wilful neglect”. Despite overwhelming support from major animal welfare organizations, the Bill was ultimately defeated. However, the two cases mentioned above represent that the law is not settled in this area, and some courts have started to adopt the new standard, in cases where a marked departure from a reasonable standard of conduct has resulted in the suffering or death of an animal. Hopefully, these cases represent a trend in the jurisprudence towards more robust animal protection laws that are desperately needed in Canada. At the very least, these two cases should serve as a lesson that leaving your pet in a heated vehicle is an incredibly dangerous and irresponsible act and one that will not go unpunished.
Pet owners should never, under any circumstance, leave their dog in a car. The health and welfare implication of doing so have severe and fatal consequences. It is important for pet owners to understand the severity of this negligent and reckless behaviour. It has been recorded that on a hot day the interior of a car can have a temperature increase of 19˚F within ten minutes. Further, it was noted in a study conducted by the Louisiana Office of Public Health, that cracking the window had little no effect on the rapid and dangerous temperature increase of the interior of a car. A case that made headlines recently on the 680 news where an individual left their dog in a car and left the air-conditioning on. This careless and unfortunate act lead to the car catching fire and the dog dying. If you do not need to bring your dog in a car, leave them at home where they are safe.
From a medical standpoint, your dog is susceptible to extreme dehydration and heatstroke which occurs when your pet’s heat-dissipating mechanism is unable to accommodate the excessive amount of heat inside the car. Dogs thermoregulate their body through panting, and also through their paws which possess a minimal number of sweat glands. A dog trapped inside a vehicle on a hot day is restricted in its ability to effectively manage its body temperature. Within veterinary journals and textbooks, the accepted normal values for a dog’s body temperature is below 39˚C. When a dog is exposed to extreme temperatures and its cooling mechanism is not effectively releasing heat, even a 3˚C increase to their body temperature can be lethal. Therefore, on a hot day the air in a car is progressively increasing in temperature and being recycled, this prohibits a dog’s ability to decrease their body temperature. If this heat stress persists for an extended period of time a dog will eventually suffer vital systemic failures of the kidney, heart and brain. This multisystem organ failure will lead to death.
An animal, whether it be a dog or any other species, trapped in a hot vehicle, with restricted ability to move, breathe and remove themselves from confinement is a severe detriment to their welfare. From an animal welfare perspective, the affective state of an animal trapped inside a hot vehicle is severely compromised. The affective state of an animal relates to the freedom from hunger and thirst; pain, injury and disease; and fear and distress. Domesticated animals rely on humans to provide an environment that will ensure they will not suffer from unpleasant states such as pain, fear and suffering. As pet owners, it is our responsibility to ensure our animals are provided with proper management, responsible care and humane treatment. Leaving a pet in a car, is a failure on the part on the owner to show reasonable care and can leave them criminally liable.
Domesticated animals rely on humans to provide an environment that will ensure they will not suffer from unpleasant states such as pain, fear and suffering. As pet owners, it is our responsibility to ensure our animals are provided with proper management, responsible care and humane treatment. Leaving a pet in a car, is a failure on the part on the owner to show reasonable care and can leave them criminally liable.