Sentencing for Seal Bludgeoning in PEI: Ask Hard Questions, Insist on Real Answers

On 13 June, Provincial Court Judge Nancy Orr sentenced three teenagers for having bludgeoned to death 65 nursing seal pups and their mothers on a remote beach in eastern Prince Edward Island. Under s. 445.1(1)(a) of the Criminal Code [1] and s. 7 of the Marine Mammal Regulations[2] under the Fisheries Act [3] Judge Orr sentenced each of the two youngest boys, aged 15 and 17, to fines of $1,000 and two years’ probation, and the eldest boy aged 18 to fines of $1,500 and two years’ probation.

For an offence that was so brutal and deliberate, the sentence seems disappointing. Penalties for animal cruelty are notoriously meagre, but Judge Orr was constrained even further by the fact that two of the boys were minors and protected by s. 39.(2) of the Youth Criminal Justice Act [4], which provides that a court shall not impose a custodial sentence if there is a reasonable alternative. In this case, Judge Orr held that as they had no previous history of unlawful or violent behaviour, and since remaining with their parents was available, continuing to do so was a reasonable alternative. She also held that because she was bound by a need for parity in sentencing, she could not in fairness impose a custodial sentence on the third boy, who was only a few weeks older than the 17-year-old, and who had not been the instigator. According to submissions, the 15-year-old had been the instigator, continued killing after the other two stopped, and ultimately killed 58 of the seals himself. Judge Orr did question why two older boys were willing to go along with a 15-year-old, and why they stood by while he killed almost 60 seals himself, but ultimately she accepted this scene of events.

Nor were Judge Orr’s statements particularly satisfying. According to her submission, provincial Crown Attorney Lisa Goulden found no similar case involving both a large number of animal victims and minors as defendants that could serve as a precedent. That being so, one would have hoped for a stronger statement, but instead Judge Orr sentenced both minors, and then referred to their sentence as the precedent for the adult case. In her decision, she did describe the boys’ actions as “serious” and “unacceptable,” and referred to the resulting public outrage as “understandable,” but overall she placed far greater focus on the strain that the boys’ actions had caused to their families and community.

But while the decision was unfortunately typical, this case has helped to underscore some of the irreconcilable contradictions that exist in human attitudes towards other species and the ways in which our current laws continue to perpetuate those contradictions. It highlights the failure of laws that define cruelty not by the pain and suffering inflicted on animals, but by whether or not that infliction has received the legal sanction of being “necessary.” It highlights the failure of laws that do not define “necessary.” And it demonstrates the inevitable consequences when courts do not acknowledge these failures, and do not challenge us to consider these contradictions, but merely accept them.

These contradictions were well illustrated in how this case unfolded at the local level. The boys themselves are from a small and isolated rural community. They live amongst hunters and fishermen, many of whom consider seals to be a nuisance; it is no secret that some of them shoot seals. The youngest boy stated in his submission that “seals are like mice running through the cupboards. I hear it all the time. I thought I was doing the fishermen a favour.” The eldest gave a similar account, stating that no fisherman likes seals.

The immediate local response to the killings was that this massacre was unlike the seal hunt, and therefore wrong, but no one was adequately able to explain why. Pierre-Yves Daoust, the wildlife biologist at the University of Prince Edward Island who conducted the necropsies on the seals, clearly struggled with this problem. He told the local media that the killing “gives ammunition to the animal rights groups,” condemning it himself not because of animal welfare concerns but because of what he referred to as the waste of leaving the seals’ dead bodies to decompose.[5] Daoust himself has been actively involved in the seal hunt on behalf of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans[6] and is well known amongst animal advocates as a critic of the hunt’s opponents.[7]

In her submission last week Goulden, the Crown Attorney, was equally unwilling to tackle the uncomfortable matter of how we compartmentise violence towards animals. She focussed almost exclusively on the charges under the Marine Mammal Regulations, stating that the maximum fine under the Fisheries Act of $100,000 demonstrates how important the government views the fishing industry, and recommended that any sentence include community work that promotes the industry. She also recommended that because the boys enjoy hunting so much, an appropriate sentence would also be to ban them from hunting for a defined period. In reference to the Criminal Code charges, Goulden identified a number of previous cases, some of which she described only as “kind of disturbing.” Nonetheless, she recommended a minimum sentence based on the fact that the killings were out of character for the boys. Ultimately her conflicting recommendations included the promotion of an industry that kills but also a ban on killing, with no significant acknowledgement of the real victims of the crime.

This case has brought a number of issues uncomfortably close to home for many people. In doing so, it is not unlike the recent public killing of a chicken by a student at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Both events demonstrate that if we are to provide any meaningful protection for animals under the law, we must be willing to ask the difficult questions at every step of the way. What is the real difference between a 15-year-old battering an animal’s skull in with a hockey stick, and a fisherman doing the same with a club? If these boys had bludgeoned 65 kittens, would the court have been more willing to condemn it? If the killing of these seals was cruel in the ethical rather than merely the legal sense, then we must ask why our laws and the sentences given under them do not reflect that. We must not only continue to ask these hard questions but insist on real answers.

Written by Elizabeth Schoales, BA, MA, PhD, LLB (Candidate) –  Atlantic Canada Representative

End Notes:

[1] Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46; s. 445.1(1): “Every one commits an offence who (a) wilfully causes or, being the owner, wilfully permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal or a bird”.

[2] Marine Mammal Regulations, SOR/93-56; s.7: “No person shall disturb a marine mammal except when fishing for marine mammals under the authority of these Regulations”.

[3] Fisheries Act, RSC 1985, c F-14.

[4] Youth Criminal Justice Act, SC 2002, c 1.

[5] See for example “DFO Investigates Possible Seal Slaughter,” The Guardian (Charlottetown) (31 Jan. 2013), online: http://www.theguardian.pe.ca/News/Local/2013-01-31/article-3167569/DFO-investigates-possible-seal-slaughter/1 and  “Seals Found on P.E.I. Shore Were Bludgeoned to Death,” CBC (1 Feb. 2013), online: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/story/2013/02/01/pei-dead-seals-bludgeoned-584.html.

[6] See for example Daoust et al, “Animal Welfare and the Harp Seal Hunt in Atlantic Canada” in The Canadian Veterinary Journal, vol. 43 no. 9 (Sept. 2002) pp. 687-94, online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC339547/.

[7] See for example Daoust, “Letter to Editor,” Seals and Sealing Network (15 April 2011) online: http://www.sealsandsealing.net/view.php?id=333&type=2.