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Pigs are still property – but animal farming is a serious matter for ethical consideration

Anna Pippus is a Vancouver-based lawyer and director of farmed animal advocacy at Animal Justice.

It's official: Giving water to panting pigs on their way to slaughter isn't a crime.

Actually, it was never a crime. It's only criminal mischief to "obstruct, interrupt, or interfere" with the "lawful use, enjoyment, or operation of property."

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The exact words matter. Our criminal laws ban actual – not speculative, not approximate, not theoretically possible – behaviour.

When Anita Krajnc offered water to pigs on a transport truck on a hot summer day near an Ontario slaughterhouse, she wasn't interfering with the lawful "use" of the pigs. When the red light turned green, the pigs were taken to the slaughterhouse and killed for food. Business continued as usual.

Related: Judge acquits woman who gave water to pigs headed to slaughter

The intense international attention on the trial suggests that perhaps business as usual offends us more than the supposed crime of offering water to a thirsty animal. The public was more interested in why pigs were panting on a transport truck in the first place, and why prosecutors felt it was worth a significant chunk of the public purse to try to punish a Good Samaritan from providing momentary reprieve to a doomed animal in his or her last few minutes of life.

Laws and their enforcement typically track social norms, not the other way around. For a long time the social norm has been that animals are farmed as the property of humans. Their rights and interests didn't really factor into the equation.

Now, we're starting to understand that sentience matters and that yummy, cheap bacon isn't a good enough reason to turn away from animal suffering. We're starting to understand the farming of animals – the hows and even the whys of it – to be a serious matter for ethical consideration.

Our laws are excellent when it comes to protecting the rights of property owners. Protecting animals, not so much.

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In acquitting Ms. Krajnc, the judge found that the pigs were being used lawfully. In other words, nothing about the panting pig aboard the unventilated metal truck on a hot summer's day violated animal-protection laws.

Maybe. But transport laws prohibit exposing animals to suffering from weather exposure. The industry's own code of practice states, "all species will pant when overheated, animals standing with neck extended with open mouthed breathing is a dangerous situation." Footage and photos clearly show pigs in just this position on the hot summer's day in question. The truck driver testified that he didn't even check on the condition of the pigs when he got out of his truck to confront Ms. Krajnc.

Though the industry hasn't updated its trucks to better comply with regulations, it should. In a case dealing with farmed animals suffering to death from weather exposure in transport, the Federal Court of Appeal recently made the common-sense observation that regulations can require regulated parties to improve their operations and practices.

Ms. Krajnc's trial may be a catalyst for change. Increased scrutiny on the animal-agriculture system will result in enhanced law enforcement, because as our social norms change, so will our expectations – and as our expectations change, so too will law enforcement.

Ms. Krajnc was acquitted only for the technical reason that her giving water to the pigs didn't amount to an interference. Pigs continue to be property, transported on inadequate trucks for us to mindlessly consume endless quantities of cheap bacon. But this trial may shift the tide.

The next time someone offers water to panting pigs, let's hope prosecutors pursue those responsible for causing those pigs to suffer in the first place.

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Video: Toronto woman who gave water to pigs acquitted (The Canadian Press)
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