Friday, November 2, 2007

This column's for you, Beautiful Joe

Niagara This Week - Friday November 2, 2007

By Doug Draper, Reporter's View

When I was a kid growing up in Welland, one of the books on a shelf in my family's home was titled after a dog named Beautiful Joe.

Since two of my best childhood friends happened to be dogs -- a beagle named Jeff, who lived at our house when wanderlust didn't have him chasing rabbits halfway across Welland and Port Colborne, and a Lassie-like collie named Jamie, who was a prize of the Jones family across the street -- I was drawn to the book immediately.

But it was a tough read. Beautiful Joe was a novel, based on a story of a real dog from Meaford, Ont., whose ears and tail were axed off by a cruel master before being taken in by a family that did all it could to erase the abuse with kindness and love.

If the story sounds familiar, it should. There was a widely publicized story this spring of a puppy in Windsor, Ont., named A.K. by the humane society people who rescued him. The pup was found "whimpering on a balcony" of an apartment after someone with a heart of stone cut off his ears.

Yet more than 100 years after Canadian author Margaret Marshall Saunders received an award from the American Humane Society for raising awareness about animal abuse through telling the story of Beautiful Joe, one Ontario government after another has done next to nothing to toughen animal abuse laws that have long been among the weakest in North America.

To this day, any animal can be mutilated to the point of death in Ontario and the most the perpetrator can expect is six months in jail and a $2,000 fine under the federal Criminal Code, compared to far stiffer jail terms and fines they would face in many other jurisdictions.

The province of Ontario has no anti-cruelty legislation of its own and more often than not, all animal abusers get is a slap on the wrist.

Take the case five years ago of two young men in Toronto who filmed themselves skinning a cat alive in the name of art. To quote from a graphic account in a September 2002 edition of The Toronto Star: "The duo had grabbed the stray cat off the street, then hung it by the neck, punching, kicking and stabbing the helpless animal before it was skinned alive, had an eye gouged, an ear pulled off and was slit open as it moaned in agony."

In many other jurisdictions on this continent, this duo would have faced hefty fines, serious jail time and a ban of having anything to do with animals for the rest of their lives.

But not in Ontario, where our lawmakers care so little that the judge presiding over this particular case felt comfortable saying: "There are worse ways that this cat could have died," before sentencing one of these creeps to 90 days in jail, to be served on weekends, and let the other one go for time already served.

No wonder we continue hearing about one episode of animal abuse after another in this province, including such recent ones in Niagara as Queen Waldorf, the German shepherd found near Chippawa Creek in Niagara Falls with weights tied to a rope around her neck, and Lady and Tramp, the two snow white shepherds found almost starved to death near the outskirts of St. Catharines.

It wasn't until the A.K. case that Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty made a pre-election promise to strengthen animal abuse laws in the province, a promise Conservative leader John Tory, who advocates penalties of up to two years in jail, $60,000 in fines and a lifetime ban on pet ownership, rightfully described as a "forgive-me-for-not-acting-for-the-last-four-years announcement."

Indeed, McGuinty's Liberal government of the past four years, like its Mike Harris/Ernie Eves Conservative and Bob Rae NDP predecessors, never made the connection, shown in countless studies by police departments (including the FBI) and other researchers across North America, that there is an almost one-to-one relationship between someone who will kick a dog or cat and go on to commit violent crimes against people.

Up to now, elected leaders in this province have shown little recognition of the possibility that part and parcel of living in a civil society is showing respect for those most vulnerable among us, including animals.

Saunders put it this way, through the eyes of Beautiful Joe: "Thoughtfulness toward lower creatures (makes) people more and more thought toward themselves."

McGuinty had a habit of breaking promises during his first four years. Those of us who believe it's time for Ontario to jump from the 19th to 21st century when it comes to laws for protecting animals should make damn sure his pledge to set tougher laws against animal abuse is one he doesn't break.

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