Leading the Pack on Animal Rights Law

July 3, 2012

When the cellphone rang one night at 9:30, it was with bad news. The caller, Nicolle Huminuik, was a member of the Invermere Deer Protection Organization, a citizens group hastily formed to stop the cull of deer in the mountain city near Kootenay National Park. Huminuik said her neighbour had just given the city permission to use the yard for a Clover trap, a mesh cage with bait and a trip wire. Huminuik was distraught and wanted to remove the trap before deer were harmed. "I could completely relate," says her lawyer, Rebeka Breder. "But as legal counsel I told her she had no right to do it."

The IDPO formed in February after Invermere city council voted to cull 100 of the estimated 175 deer that were nibbling urban landscape and gardens into disarray. Some citizens also complained that does, protective of their fawns, were attacking dogs and people. The community split into camps that sparred on Facebook. The anti- group, outraged by the cruelty–deer bloodying themselves attempting escape, collapsing in exhaustion, then being dispatched hours later with a slaughterhouse bolt gun–searched for a lawyer to help them stop the cull. It couldn't be just anyone, IDPO cofounder Shane Suman says. They picked Breder not only because of her expertise in animal law but also for her "passion for animal rights."

She hasn't disappointed.

To laypeople, the provincial Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act would seem protection enough for wild creatures, but they aren't covered by that legislation, and "nothing under the British Columbia Wildlife Act says that you can't be cruel to wildlife," says Breder, an animal law litigator with Boughton Law Corporation and founder of the Canadian Bar Association's Animal Law section. She argued that common law gives citizens the chance to take part in the decision-making process on matters of community importance.

It was a gutsy move: there was no precedence that the right to participate applies to animal control and animal welfare-"This is where I need to do a lot of convincing to the court," she says. She was successful in securing an injunction from the province, but it was only temporary. By the time the cull permit expired, 19 deer had been killed.

The Invermere campaign remains for Breder a tragic chapter in a lifelong fight against the physical and mental harm humans inflict on animals-be they pet, domestic, or wild. Her formative experience began when, at age 13, while strolling along one of Montreal's many woodland lakes, she came across a dead duck, a bloody pellet hole marring its plumage. Clearly the creature was a victim of the hunters who would aim their motorboats at flocks feeding near shore and shoot the panicked birds as they took flight. Breder carried the body home and placed it in the freezer. Distraught, she researched the bylaws concerning duck hunting. One stuck out: hunters were not allowed to discharge firearms within a kilometre of municipal shorelines. For five years, until she turned 18, Breder attended council meetings, holding up the fowl in its plastic shroud as proof that a bylaw was being snubbed. She became known as Duck Girl, and she eventually won: councillors called for enforcement of the bylaw through fines. The protracted crusade taught a key lesson: the welfare of animals may be the underlying principle of a legal initiative, but existing law must be creatively applied for it to be upheld. And that, says Breder now, sipping a cappuccino at Café de France, the noisy little coffee shop across from Vancouver Supreme Court, "was the beginning of my legal career."

Breder is no animal-rights activist posting clandestine videos of abattoir horrors online or participating in shocking PETA stunts. Rather, she finds herself at the vanguard of a movement seeking to legally enshrine animals' basic rights to life, liberty, and well-being. It is a global crusade: recent successes include the EU's ban on battery cages for chickens, the outlawing of bullfighting in Catalonia, and California's prohibition of foie gras.

For many, laws that uphold animals' interests contradict a concept of dominance branded into our cultural DNA, the belief that non-humans lack rationality and language and thus deserve less consideration. Yet despite such prevailing attitudes, the law defining and protecting animal rights is a slowly rising tide mirroring a growing public sensitivity toward animals and their suffering.

Animal law cases take up about 30 percent of Breder's practice, which includes general corporate commercial litigation, municipal and administrative law, and environmental law. She helped draft a legal opinion for Vancouver's Shark Truth on whether municipalities in Metro Vancouver have the jurisdiction to ban products made from shark fins. So far, Port Moody has been the only city to do so. "This drive to advance the interests and welfare of animals is something I was born with," says Breder, who, when her cat Leonard was accidentally poisoned a few years ago, set up a desk outside his cage at the clinic to comfort him while he battled for his life. Leonard died, and the memory still brings tears to her eyes.
She's gone to court to save dogs accused of being aggressive or dangerous from euthanization, and a few years ago, she took on the case of a Belgian Tervuren show dog from Williams Lake named Shadow who was put down at age 14 after alleged negligent treatment for a broken leg by a veterinarian. Shadow's owner, psychiatrist Vona Priest, demanded compensation for damages-not to cover the substantial vet bills but to compensate her for loss of companionship. "I wanted some recognition of the bond between me and the animal," Priest says.

The allegation of negligence was never proven, so the judge didn't have to decide on damages. But Breder's efforts were not in vain. The court heard arguments that pets are intrinsically valuable as companions, an elevated status that she hopes will one day be enshrined in law. "Something huge happened: we had the opportunity to present arguments about how the law should view animals that technically are considered property," says Breder, who shares her home with a 62-kilogram Great Dane mastiff-cross named Tero, three cats (all rescues), and husband and fellow animal lover Pete Poulin.

She draws parallels between slavery and animals' legal status. At one time, slaves were considered property, valued not for their innate humanity but for their coerced labour; similarly, says Breder, domestic animals and pets are considered property-"chattel, the same as this chair I'm sitting on"-while it's open season on wilderness creatures. She goes so far as to liken the current legal status of animals to that of Canadian women before suffragettes won them the battle to be declared persons with rights and privileges. Something-a burning sense of righteousness-kept them going. Breder has that, too. "That flame has only gotten bigger." @animallawcanada


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