Speaker Spotlight: Dr. Rebecca Ledger

Image od Dr. Rebecca LedgerDr. Rebecca Ledger is a British Columbia-based animal behaviour and animal welfare scientist. She teaches animal behaviour, welfare and law at Langara College, runs a consultancy that provides expertise to local governments, humane organizations, veterinarians and pet owners, and writes an animal welfare column for the Vancouver Sun.

In recent years, Rebecca has pioneered the use of behavioural evidence in cases where animals have suffered psychologically. Having been retained on 30 cases to date involving more than 40 individual animals, the process she has developed has allowed humane organizations to successfully gain warrants, lay charges and prosecute cruelty cases involving dogs and cats, often in the absence of any physical evidence.

Dr. Ledger is one of the expert speakers presenting at the 2017 CFHS Canadian Violence Link Conference in Ottawa December 4-6. Below, she fills us in on her fascinating work and what she'll be teaching at #LINK2017.

CFHS: Can you tell us about how you got onto this particular career path?

RL: I graduated in 1992 with a degree in animal biology and was hoping to be able to work in the animal welfare sphere. There weren't many professional career choices at that point, but then the University of Edinburgh launched a new Master's program called Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare. It was the first of its kind in the world, and it was like angels sung when I read the description of the program. It was intended to give post-graduate students a scientific understanding of animal behaviour and welfare. This was a revolutionary course because it focused on the fact that behaviour provides a very functional insight into how animals are feeling, whether they be wild, companion, on farms, in laboratories, or in zoos and aquariums.

CFHS: What would you say to people who think that we don't know enough about animal behaviour to prosecute cruelty based on behavioural evidence?

RL: We will never know everything about how animals feel, but we do know enough to proceed successfully with prosecutions. I've done work with the animal cruelty investigators here in BC, and for many years I would see a lot of cases get prosecuted where there was only physical evidence of harm to animals. There was an assumption that the courts would only take physical evidence seriously. Unfortunately, this is a misconception that has also been perpetuated by some scientists who have studied animal emotions, because there's a lot of inference involved in the study of animals and how they feel. At this point, we have plenty of physical, neurological and behavioural evidence of what constitutes suffering. In fact, the focus of how we define suffering is now, in part, the negative psychological states that animals experience as a result of physical harm, rather than the physical condition that leads to that harm.

CFHS: How did you start applying your animal behaviour knowledge to criminal cases?

RL: In 2014, I was approached by Eileen Drever, one of the senior animal cruelty investigations staff at the BC SPCA, about a case involving a Doberman puppy named Sade who was videoed being yanked and kicked inside a hotel elevator in Vancouver. The SPCA seized the dog and found no evidence of physical harm. Yet, anyone who sees this video, their visceral reaction is that the dog was suffering. But, at that point – as far as we could tell – there had been no cases in Canada where charges were laid based on only behavioural evidence that an animal was suffering unnecessary harm. Eileen called to ask if it was possible to put together a case. And I believed we could – it was just a matter of laying out the scientific evidence, why the dog might be suffering, and how it was demonstrating its suffering. Charges were laid, and the gentleman involved in the case pleaded guilty. That was in 2014. Very recent.

CFHS: Was that the first Canadian case involving only emotional and psychological suffering of animals?

RL: I believe so. We couldn't find any cases that used only behavioural evidence and no physical evidence of harm to animals. We could find no case law that this had been done before.

CFHS: You're the only one doing this type of work in Canada. Why do you think that is?

RL: I think it's because it’s such a new and fresh field, and we're just now starting to pursue these cases. It's a matter of getting the word out and teaching people the process and giving other experts the confidence to articulate clearly why animals are suffering when there's no physical evidence. Many people don't know that the science has caught up and is giving us the confidence to make these inferences. We now know, with a great deal of certainty, that animals have the brain structures and nociceptive capacity to experience certain negative feelings, and those negative states cause suffering.

CFHS: Can you tell us what you're going to be presenting on at the Canadian Violence Link Conference in Ottawa in December?

RL: Sure. At this point, I've been retained in more than 30 cases involving psychological suffering in animals. After doing that many cases, what we've realized is that there's a process that we can teach others, including specific questions that allow us to extract the scientific information that we need to infer psychological suffering in animals. That's what I’m excited to talk about at the conference – to provide investigators, prosecutors and expert witnesses with a tool that will allow them to go through the same process that we’ve successfully been applying in our cases. I've taught this process throughout Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and I’ll be teaching it in the United States next year. It’s a very usable system that clarifies how to proceed when presented with cruelty evidence.

CFHS: What are you most looking forward to at the Violence Link Conference?

RL: There are going to be so many great opportunities to have discussions with other professionals at this conference – to give us new ideas and new tools to further our work. A lot of cross-pollination of ideas. I'm really looking forward to that.

To read more about the ground-breaking evidence process that Dr. Ledger is presenting on at the CFHS Canadian Violence Link Conference in Ottawa on December 5, go here. To see the full conference program, go here.