An Interview with Victoria Shroff about Canadian Animal Law

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“Wow, this used to be theory and now we’re actually seeing it in practice.” Pioneering Canadian lawyer Victoria Shroff on her book, Canadian Animal Law.

By Zazie Todd, PhD.

Vancouver lawyer Victoria Shroff is a pioneer of animal law in Canada. Her new book, Canadian Animal Law, is an accessible introduction to animal law that will be of interest to SPCAs, humane societies, and anyone who cares about animals, as well as lawyers and law students. I spoke to Shroff about the book, and why there’s grounds for optimism when it comes to the law and animals. 

At the end, you’ll find a discount code and competition to win a copy.

Zazie: First of all, what is animal law?

Victoria: The definition of animal law is any time when an animal and the law intersect. That’s the simple definition. It can be anything related to, for example, a dog barking in a back yard and disturbing a neighbour. That could be called municipal law. It could be a serious dog bite, and that could end up being something related to the provincial law. There are intersections with the law at the municipal, the provincial, and the federal level of law. 

An example of federal law might be something to do with whales in the ocean. That would be federal animal law. As some of your readers may know, in 2019 we had some big success with banning whales and dolphins in captivity in Canada. So we’ve had some good work done in federal animal law, and I continue to work on that too.

The cover of the book Canadian Animal Law by Victoria Shroff

Zazie: And you’re one of the very first animal law lawyers in Canada. How did you become an animal lawyer?

Victoria: I have always had an affinity with animals, since infancy. I started my life in Africa where I was born, and I basically have had animals in my household from the beginning; since before I was born actually my parents always had animals as well. When you’re born in Africa, it’s just a natural fit that you’re going to be interested in animals. I always was, and continue to be, heavily interested in animals and their habits and what they do and how they think, and their welfare, of course, always really impacted me. 

So I was practicing law for about three years and I had done a few animal files, but not full time. And a woman called Kristin Tillquist, who was BC’s very first animal law lawyer—in fact she was credited as the first animal law lawyer in Canada to have an exclusive practice that was just animal law—she said that she was leaving for California and would I like to take over her practice. And I said, absolutely! So I can date my practice to the year 2000 and it was really Kristin who inspired me and got the ball rolling. And then I’ve basically added to that ball as the years have gone on and brought teaching in and my writing in with it.

Zazie: So you now have a ton of experience and decided to write this book, Canadian Animal Law.  What inspired you to write the book?

Victoria: Honestly, I dedicated the book to animals, so animals inspire me just as they do in your work. They truly inspire me every day. I wrote the book for animals, and also my students, because they were saying “We’d really like to have your thoughts on paper, and we’d also like to have a very updated textbook.”  The textbook we were using was about 10 years old, and they said that they wanted something with more updated work and also they wanted my insight. 

Victoria Shroff's tuxedo cat approves of her book on Canadian Animal Law
Shroff’s cat approves of the book.

So I got some encouragement from students, and also from members of the public, not the least of which to mention is my editor. My editor was super encouraging and they’d never published a book like this at LexisNexis Canada before, it’s the first. So it was kind of time. 

Zazie: So you’re groundbreaking with this book.

Victoria: Well, there are other animal law books to be sure. There are some very good animal law books. But this one is unique in its kind and is also written in a very accessible way so that people from the public can understand it as well. I didn’t want to just write for lawyers and law students. I wanted to write for everybody because it’s part of my access to justice platform. The book is also an extension of that. 

I know it sounds a little heavy, “Why did you write a book?” “Access to justice!” But it’s true. It’s because of the idea of, let’s say somebody can’t afford a lawyer, maybe after reading my book they’ll have an idea of where they could go, or help spark some thoughts about what may help them or point them in the right direction.

“My favourite parts were seeing how, wow, this used to be theory and now we’re actually seeing it in practice.”

Zazie: I’ve got a few questions about different types of animal law to give an example of the range of material that’s in the book. Of course, a lot of people have pets, so how does animal law intersect with family law? 

Victoria: That’s a great question. It intersects quite a bit, more than people might think. Most of us believe that animals are family members, I think almost without question. There are so many polls that have been done over the last decade showing that, and if anything it’s just growing. It’s the vast majority [who believe that]. If you have an animal in your home, especially if you have cats, you realize that you have been invited into their home. I’m sure you’ll back me up on that.

Zazie: Definitely!

Victoria: And it’s the same thing with dogs, who are utterly reliant on you and looking up at you with their little upturned faces and just waiting for the can opener every morning. We are so privileged, I think, to live with animals as part of the family. But not just as members of the family, I think animals truly are members of the family. 

The way that animal law and family law intersect could be for example a pet custody scenario. For example where a family is breaking up, or roommates are splitting up and they’ve been like family with the pet. And the arguments start about who gets to keep the pet after the dissolution of the human relationship. So there can be some intersection there with family law.

It also intersects when there’s been violence, which is a very heavy topic indeed. There are situations when the family pet is weaponized against often the woman or the children in the family. And the family pet is harmed as a gateway to also harming the woman in the household. So in that scenario, again who gets to keep the pet, how things play out for what happens with the pet. And we always try to keep in mind the pet’s welfare. 

These types of cases can be settled via negotiation as well, but they can be done through the courts. Pet custody battles do happen, and they’ve been happening. Believe it or not one of the first pet custody battles, and it’s in the book, was Rogers v Rogers in Ontario in 1980. So it’s not just a modern phenomenon. We think pet custody is such a thing of the 2000s but no, no, no. It’s actually very old, including in this country. That’s just one that happened to be quite a high profile case. But we have had pet custody cases and joint custody’s been ordered or intermittent access, sort of like timesharing, which doesn’t really work well for cats as you know, but can work for dogs.   

Zazie: One of the intended audiences for the book is SPCAs and humane societies. Obviously they deal with animal cruelty cases. Is that the main way that they’re involved with animal law?

Victoria: I think so. I think they do have a lot of impact in the sector of cruelty, but I think more and more we’re actually seeing a revitalization of the animal welfare aspects in relation to the family as well. 

To segue back to the cruelty example, we’re seeing SPCAs and humane societies also understanding that women need a place to go with their pets, for example, when they’re fleeing violence. And the SPCAs and humane societies are once again stepping in with local community groups, trying to make that happen. And I say once again, because over 100 years ago when SPCAs first started in Canada, they were actually for women, children, and animals. It wasn’t just for animals. And then animals were brought in. 

So it’s a bit of a full circle, but definitely cruelty still remains a huge, huge concern. It’s by no means going down. Cruelty numbers are still going up in this country. All through North America, UK, we are still seeing an incredible amount of animal cruelty, and they do step in as SPCAs and humane societies. But we are also seeing for example in Ontario, the Ontario SPCA said that they were no longer going to do cruelty investigations. And it became a governmental process, which I actually think is probably a good idea, to make the government step up and be accountable for our furry family members.   

Zazie: Another big animal welfare issue is to do with tail docking and ear cropping, which vets banned in BC relatively recently. As an animal law lawyer, are you involved in that kind of thing, and do you write about that in the book?

Victoria: Absolutely. Another part of my platform is that I have been doing advocacy—lawyerly advocacy, I should add, not the standing out with a placard type of advocacy—bringing attention to these issues. This idea about cat declawing, tail docking, any kind of vanity or cosmetic surgery I think, should be outright banned. I believe we currently have 8 provinces and territories that have banned it through the veterinary colleges, and I’d like to see that put into the legislation as well. I think most vets are against it. All the vets that I’ve spoken with, both informally and formally, are very much against any kind of cosmetic surgery. 

It’s unfortunate that some people still think that their cat needs to be declawed when there are other solutions. If they want to keep their furniture from being scratched, there are other ways of dealing with it. Frankly, I don’t mind my furniture being scratched but not everybody’s like me and you, and some people really care. So they need to do behaviour modification which is where people like yourself come in and can teach them and show them that there are other ways besides having this brutal surgery, cat declawing, which is actually like an amputation. 

A vet used another word, but when I heard that the tool was called a guillotine clipper—that actually is the surgical tool used to remove the claw—and I said this, I was being interviewed on CBC’s Coast to Coast by about ten stations. I finally got to Vancouver and I spoke to Gloria Macarenko. I could hear her gasp when I said it was called a guillotine clipper. Because nobody thinks that, they think it’s just like a manicure. It’s not a manicure, it’s brutal surgery. And it takes away from a cat’s natural and normal behaviours and actually causes pain throughout the life of the cat. One of the issues that I’m working on right now is cat declawing. Like I said, working with federal groups. 

And we also have a national study group called the Canadian Animal Law Study Group that I founded a few years ago. We’ve got 27 members now, coast to coast, of the top animal law lawyers and also academics. We’re all working together to try to do these things. This is all off the side of our desks, it’s not a full time thing. But we are working on all kinds of animal welfare issues in addition to our normal practices.

Zazie: That’s really important work, thank you. So the book covers such a wide range of different types of cases and aspects of law. Which was your favourite part to write about?

Victoria: I really liked seeing how sometimes the meta-theoretical work that we’ve done in animal law over the last 20 years has come into reality. I think we wouldn’t have seen some of the fantastic judgements that we’re seeing happen now. I think speaking with people about the book and being able to talk with and interview people about their concerns in animal law, and seeing how the needle’s slowly shifting towards really understanding that animals matter in a very tangible way. And that sentient beings include four-legged individuals. It’s not just humans that are somehow the top of the species chart, it’s also 4-legged individuals, and of course 2-legged individuals in the case of chickens and such. My favourite parts were seeing how, wow, this used to be theory and now we’re actually seeing it in practice. 

An example might be in some of the farmed animal welfare outcomes. We’re seeing that we need to start talking about bigger cages and better ways of living for farmed animals. While they are alive, let’s at least make their lives better. And I don’t think a lot of this was on the table, at least in the same way, twenty years ago. I think we have a long, long way to go, don’t get me wrong. But we’re seeing tangible changes being made where people are really taking notice about animals and treating them more like sentient beings instead of automatons like they were treated fifty years ago. I’d say that fifty years ago animals were treated like automatons by most entities in animal welfare, sort of like an animal is a dumb thing, and this is how the law filtered its view of animals as well. But I don’t think that’s the case any more.     

“We should face the future of animal law in Canada with optimism.”

Zazie: You were involved in setting up an Animal Law Pro Bono clinic. Can you tell me something about that?  

Victoria: Back in about 2016 when I first started teaching at UBC law school, I had a number of students come to me after the course was over saying, “Can I do something in animal law now? How can I apply what I learned in the classroom? I’d really like to do something.” I gave mentorship to so many students over the years, even before I actually started teaching, but it really came to a head after the course had been taught and they wanted to continue. They wanted to learn something more and get their hands wet on something. 

So I started thinking, how can we make something help the community? My big thing underlying everything I do is access to justice, so I’m like: community, access to justice, the students… And then it was this idea of, let’s do a clinic. But it’s a pretty daunting task to put together a clinic. 

I had some students in my class a couple of years ago who were very keen to see if they could help and make this work. I suggested to them that we should actually try to go through the law students’ legal advice program, which had already been practicing since the late 60s in the hippie era. They had given this pro bono clinic and they’ve probably done over five clinics over the years that they’ve run in different sectors throughout Vancouver, providing assistance for low income people. I thought maybe we can figure out how to work with them, and we did. It’s really in large part thanks to the Law Students Legal Advice Program (LSLAP).  

And another person who was really instrumental in all of this was Professor Nikos Harris at the Allard School of Law. Although the School of Law is separate technically from the clinics, he was very helpful in saying student clinicians would be very welcome to do this and let’s figure out a way to make it happen. So we really got his help as well, and it wouldn’t have happened without him and LSLAP.  

Zazie: My last question returns to your book. What is the main aim for the book?

Victoria: My main aim is to raise the dialogue on animals and the law so that we can face the future with optimism. I actually have a little passage here at the end of the book if I may read it: 

“We should face the future of animal law in Canada with optimism. There are signs of hope, that the foundation upon which the property paradigm has been built is eroding, and that the old justifications for keeping animals locked in the property cage are evolving.”

And then I put in a quote from the Chief Justice of the Province. He’s the top judge in BC, and he was so kind to give me a quote, and also actually to come out to the animal law pro bono clinic a couple of weeks ago to give us his blessing. When I asked him about animals and the law, he said,

“It has to be acknowledged that animals are deeply entwined in our cultural, social, and economic lives, whether we are talking about animals as pets, animals as part of our industrial food supply system, animals as sentient beings in need of protection from inhumane treatment, or even animals involved in criminal offences.” 

I was so, so pleased to see this quote. You have no idea! I mean, the top court judge in the province saying these incredibly empathic comments about animals really made me feel very optimistic about the future of animal law, not just in BC but throughout Canada. And I do think we’re seeing a stronger movement. So I don’t want people to walk away going, “It’s all terrible, I heard about this dog in a dumpster.” It isn’t all terrible, there are things happening that are eroding those evils from happening and trying to make animals become on a much more level playing field with humans. I’m not saying they’re going to become humans, but I am saying they are going to be afforded some rights as well. They’re also going to be treated responsibly by humans because there’s no such thing as animal rights without human responsibility.

Zazie: That’s a lovely optimistic note to end on. Is there anything else you would like to say?

Victoria: I would encourage people to read the book if they feel any interest in animal law. 

Get 10% off the book with code Shroff10 on the LexisNexis website.  

There is also currently a contest to win a copy of the book. Details here.  

Victoria Shroff is credited as an animal law pioneer. She has practiced animal law in downtown Vancouver at Shroff & Associates for over 20 years and has been teaching animal law at UBC’s Allard School of Law since 2016 making her one of the longest serving animal law lawyers in Canada.  (Victoria Shroff | historyproject.law.ubc.ca https://historyproject.allard.ubc.ca/law-history-project/profile/victoria-shroff) Victoria also created and teaches the first animal law course for paralegals at Capilano University in 2019 where she is adjunct faculty.((60(ish) Seconds with: Victoria Shroff – Capilano University). With a deep affinity for animals and the law, Victoria has lived with animals all her life, handling cases involving domestic and wild animals.  Victoria’s work in practice and education of animal law has garnered significant media attention for ‘dangerous’ dogs, pet insurance, custody, cruelty, horse issues, fur farming, veterinary malpractice, wildlife issues, zoos and animals in society. In 2020 Victoria helped spearhead Canada’s first groundbreaking Animal Law Pro Bono Clinic (ALPC) at LSLAP Vancouver to foster access to justice for animals and humans. Victoria has appeared at all levels of court in BC and she and her team filed BC’s first landmark ‘dangerous’ dog case for leave (though refused) at the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Victoria established and chairs the national Canadian Animal Law Study Group. Recognized for her unique contributions as an animal lawyer-educator, she’s been a finalist for Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers in Canada multiple times, was given a prestigious SEEDS award by the International Society of Animal Rights, was a finalist for the YWCA Women of Distinction Award 2021, presented with a Canadian Bar Association Certificate of Appreciation, and winner of Hitachi Excellence Award for communication. Victoria writes about animal law issues and recently published a book called Canadian Animal Law for Lexis-Nexis Canada.   She regularly speaks at animal conferences, CLE’s and law schools around the world. Victoria has been mentoring students for years and founded and runs her own animal law and social literacy program in elementary schools called ‘Paws of Empathy‘ which she teaches with dogs. 

Contact Victoria Shroff at www.shroffanimalaw.com, UBC Expert’s Page: https://experts.news.ubc.ca/expert/victoria-shroff, Twitter @shroffanimallaw.

This interview has been lightly edited for style and content.

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