As I said last week, BC’s new Animal Health Act is crystal clear — unusually clear, which is nice for laypeople like Cabinet ministers and bloggers. Section 1 defines animals — as any member of the animal kingdom, including humans. Section 16 states that “any person,” including any member of the public, can be sent to jail for sharing the “specific location” of any animal, including a human; the identity of the owner of any animal, including a household pet; or the existence of any contagious disease carried by an animal. Section 17 then spells out an additional set of restrictions and privileges for the subcategory of “persons engaged in the administration of this Act.” The legislation is quite clear. You can read it yourself.
Which is why I don’t know whether I should be weeping, shivering in terror, or howling with laughter at the wave of rank stupidity which washed over the BC legislature when this appallingly incompetently written bill came up for discussion. Transcripts can be read here, here, and here, for starters.
Before we jump into the crazy, I want to get something very clear out of the way first. The animal kingdom actually has a very specific scientific definition. Animals are multicellular, eukaryotic, heterotrophic organisms. There are also other kingdoms, and each kingdom is a group of organisms that basically are unrelated to the other kingdoms: animals, plants, fungus, protists, bacteria, and viruses. Unrelated except in an evolutionary sense: each kingdom represents a separate divergence which can ultimately be traced back to some ancient, early common ancestor.
How does this rather elementary, high school-level biology stand up to scrutiny in the elected legislative assembly, the highest democratic body in the land? Catastrophically badly, I’m sorry to say.
The politicians first lurched into action like drunken brawlers on May 16th. The fighters in question were agriculture minister Don McRae (a former high school teacher, which is pretty terrifying given the BS he’s about to spew), NDP deputy environment critic Michael Sather, whose degree in biology is terrifying for the same reason, and NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham, an organic farmer. When I close my eyes, I imagine them all having the face of the Globe & Mail’s resident village idiot, Margaret Wente.
Now, then. We begin at the top of the legislation, with the abysmally poor definition of animal as not just farm animals or salmon, but also pets, mice, mosquitoes, and humans. Oddly enough, that didn’t seem to bother the NDP any more than it did the government. No, what bothered the NDP’s Sather was that the definition of animal as a “member of the animal kingdom” wasn’t broad enough to include fish.
Now, by all rights any minister with a university degree, especially from the University of British Columbia (where McRae went), should have instantly delivered a first-class beating to Sather for such a preposterous and obviously false statement. Instead, McRae appears to have been genuinely confused himself. Intead of simply (and correctly) telling Sather he was a moron, McRae launched into a long and rambling explanation:
when we’re talking about — under “animal”… an example could be… a cultured beneficial bacteria… I think that university biologists and learned individuals would all agree that fish are a species of the animal kingdom, and it is a generally accepted definition. It does capture aquatic creatures by all means, though some people may argue that. We were just laughing about the backbones of certain creatures. Bees don’t have backbones and neither do crabs, but they are also members of the animal kingdom.
Now, McRae is quite correct that bees and crabs are animals despite lacking backbones, and that fish are animals despite, well, whatever Sather seems to think they are. But “a cultured beneficial bacteria,” whatever that might be, assuredly is not an animal, for the surprisingly simple reason that it is a bacterium. (Note the grammatical issue, which would normally come second to scientific illiteracy except that McRae is a schoolteacher by profession.) Bacteria aren’t animals, and animals aren’t bacteria.
The house then rose for the night, and when discussion resumed the next morning, incredibly, it seems that not only were McRae and Sather complete imbeciles, but so were all of their staff members, none of whom bothered to bring their politicians up to speed on the basics of grade-school biology. So round 2, if you can believe it, was even better than round 1.
To that end, Sather came out swinging. The definition of animal wasn’t specific enough, he said. Yesterday, he said, the minister had suggested that bacteria could be animals. Well, he said, did that mean viruses could be animals under this law too:
I’d been talking to the minister about the definition of ‘animal’ that’s in the bill… Would it include viruses?… My recollection, when I took [read: slept through] my degree in biology, is that a virus is very difficult to classify as being in the animal kingdom or not.
Actually, no. It is quite easy to determine that a virus — not being multicellular, or in fact any kind of -cellular — is not an animal. Once again, Sather’s rank stupidity was lost on the highly educated dunderhead on the other side of the house, who admitted that viruses might well be animals too:
In theory, it is possible… The reality is we probably did not envision avian bird flu or mad cow disease or SARS to the degree they did in 1948 looking forward. We want to make sure we have the flexibility to address the unknowns as we go forward.
1948 is a reference to the passage of the first animal disease control act in BC, which did not define animal at all, but did define aquatic animal as a fish, an aquatic vertebrate, or an aquatic invertebrate (apparently overlooking the fact that a fish is an aquatic vertebrate).
Finally, Sather accidentally bumped into the right question, which was not whether a virus was an animal, but what the definition of disease was (since the Act defines the animals it applies to, but not the diseases it covers). McRae couldn’t answer this one either, offering a rather hazy overview of medical biology and then offering his rather surprising belief that the chief goal of medicine should be to control the spread of the symptoms of a disease, not the actual “cause of the disease,” such as a pathogen.
Next, independent MLA Vicki Huntington stepped up to the plate and demonstrated that she, too, is an incompetent dunce. Huntington asked pretty much the same question that Sather had: should the definition of animal be expanded to include aquatic animal? Patiently, McRae explained that “animal” already did, by definition, include aquatic animals. Huntington wasn’t convinced, and proceeded to prove to all seven people who actually read Hansard that she retains nothing of her education past the second grade:
I have never thought of a fish as an animal. I think that’s part of my confusion around the whole thing. The clarity of this legislation is incredibly important. I see no reason why there can’t be a subparagraph (c) that discusses the aquatic species as an animal and prescribes that for clarity.
Let’s be charitable and assume that despite her grammar Huntington actually is referring to several aquatic species, not that everything that lives in water is actually a single “aquatic species.” And yes, I think her confusion — and everyone else’s, including the minister’s — really does cover “the whole thing.” So she’s hit on an important truth, albeit by accident.
McRae, charitable gentleman that he is, leaped on the chance to educate her, saying the government’s job was to “communicate” to everyone the definition of animal:
Things that live in the ocean… are members and species of the animal kingdom. Academically, an “animal” captures all species on the planet. Fish are included. Bees are included. Jellyfish are included.
Oh, dear. So not only are bacteria and viruses potential animals, but so are plants. And fungus. When I said last week that the bill was so broad that it would make a daffodil or a banana into an animal, I just thought I was kidding. Apparently I was spot on. This was basically the end of the debate on the definition of animal. Nobody, in the entire legislature, remembered enough of their high-school biology to wonder aloud whether humans were animals, and nobody, it seems, decided it would be worth clarifying whether the minister just defined seaweed as an animal.
With the definitions out of the way, debate moved to the disease control regulations. It’s not worth summarizing in detail, but you might be interested to know that in the opinion of the B.C. government, because E. coli “exists everywhere” and isn’t causing “significant” disease, it’s not considered a public health problem with regard to managing the province’s food supply. Again, oh, dear.
Instead, the next section worth talking about is section 8, which regulates, absurdly, when a person “must not slaughter, destroy, or dispose of affected or harmful things.” McRae said he was only a high school teacher and did not understand what he called “legalese,” but assured the Opposition that his legal advisors insisted “things” was the appropriate term.
Now, the section is indeed a problem. It says that you cannot “slaughter, destroy or disopse of” any animal which is infected by a reportable disease or has been exposed to an “environmental toxin.” Because of the hopelessly broad definition of animal, as well as the absurd (and again scientifically illiterate) definition of “environmental toxin” as “a chemical,” this section effectively bans you from killing a mosquito without seeking the advice of a government-certified inspector. Of course, Sather is even stupider than McRae, so it’s not surprising that neither man seems to have recognized the obvious problems with such a law.
In contrast to all of this idiocy, the subsequent fight over section 16, the gag order that prevents you from announcing the location of a person or the identity of a pet’s owner, went by pretty smoothly. Once again, nobody clued in to the fact that both humans and household pets are animals.
But it is worth pointing out that another foolish exchange did occur. Section 16 clearly refers to “any person.” That’s the language. The minister assured us that it didn’t actually mean what it said, though: when the law says “any person,” what it actually means is “any government official.” There’s nothing in the act that would lead us to think that. Apparently in the future, British Columbians who want to know what is legal and what is not will have to understand not only the law that is written before them, but also whatever random thoughts might have been passing through the minister’s brain as he had the law drawn up.
There is one silver lining to this pathetic spectacle. In between the hopeless broadness of the definitions and the nonsensical pseudo-scientific bafflegab of the minister, the gag law is pretty much a dead letter even though it hasn’t even received royal assent yet. And so as long as phone books and pet store ads circulate freely, environmental NGOs will still be just as free to publicize disease outbreaks on fish farms.Tweet