Victoria Shroff is credited as being one of the first and longest serving animal law lawyers in Canada. In addition to running her Vancouver-based law firm Shroff & Associates, Victoria has served as an adjunct professor at the Allard School of Law, teaching the animal law seminar. Victoria is often approached by the media to comment on animal law issues and is the founder of a social literacy and animal law program called 'Paws of Empathy’.
What first sparked your interest in pursuing law? What inspired or influenced you to pursue this niche area of legal research?
I started off in law because my bedtime stories were straight out of case law. I am a fourth-generation legal practitioner (skipped one generation due to the war) and recall spending my spring breaks watching my dad in trial court, that is how much I loved it and how I got immersed in the law at such a young age. Having been born in Africa, not far from the Serengeti, I have also always had a deep love of animals. So growing up, I knew one day I wanted to find a way of merging my love of animals with my love of the law.
Then, at the end of 1999, I got an opportunity from Kristin Tillquist, who was then the pioneer of animal law in Canada and a fellow alumna. She had decided to move to California and gave me the chance to take over her animal law practice in Vancouver. I was finally able to merge my personal and professional passions into one synergistic career for myself and have been running with it for the last 20 years! I am so deeply fulfilled with my career today, and that is definitely something I try to teach my students.
I think another huge component is that I love helping people, and that is because I was brought up in a family that had a long tradition of service. Beyond my legal practice, I also operate my Paws of Empathy program where I bring a dog into the classroom and teach elementary children about animal law and why it is important to treat animals with kindness. I believe that without the foundational education of how to treat animals, and the understanding of animals’ intrinsic worth, the law will be useless as society will continue to see animals as property under the law, with little consequential difference than that of a table or a chair.
You recently filed a case for leave to the Supreme Court of Canada defending animal rights—can you tell our readers a little bit about Punky’s case?
I was brought into Punky’s case after the file had already gone to appeal and the facts were already in. Susan Santics and her dog Punky, our clients, were unrepresented at trial and therefore I immediately knew this was an access to justice for animals case. In fact, this was the first time in Canadian history an application regarding animal law/dangerous dog matter had ever gone for leave to the Supreme Court of Canada.
On August 23, 2019, a Court of Appeal judge weighed in on the facts of Punky’s case and found that our case did in fact have enough merit to warrant the leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. This was a victory for animal law because it sent the signal that animals matter. We also received this 11th hour reprieve on the day that Punky was to be killed. Therefore, whether or not we actually get heard at the SCC, to have come this far already, is already a huge development in and of itself.
What do you feel it is about this animal law case, specifically on dangerous dog matters, that was so unique that it was able to make it so far in the judicial process?
I think it is a combination of factors. First, I feel that animal law is now operating in a transformed legal environment. I did some of the very earliest BC cases for dangerous dog matters back in the early 2000s, and when I compare the judicial and societal reception to animals under the law, I see that things have seriously shifted. We are moving towards a greater social recognition that animals hold a very sacred place in our lives. Countless surveys have shown that people believe their animals to be family members.This idea is starting to sink in given that we are now at a time and place where a person can fight for her dog, her family member, and won’t be thrown out of court.
Legally and academically, perceptions have also shifted. In 2019 alone, countless Canadian animal law victories were achieved such as the banning of shark fin exports (Bill C-68), the inclusion of animal cruelty under bestiality offences in the Criminal Code (Bill C-84), and the passing of the 'Free Willy' bill prohibiting the captivity of whales and dolphins.
All these are examples of how academically, legally, and socially, we are starting to move closer to the fundamental understanding that animals need to be treated not as an “others” but as living beings that deserve rights and protection under the law.
What has been your biggest professional accomplishment since graduating from law school?
On August 22, 2019, I stood up in front of the British Columbia Court of Appeal and fought for the rights of animals and for Punky’s life. In drawing from some prominent animal law cases, I was able to read in some brilliantly crafted dissenting quotes from Chief Justice Fraser, Justice Abella and Justice Hoegg, that together showed us a way forward for animal law. To be able to do this was such a proud moment for me. It was a privilege to stand up in BC’s highest court and speak about animals and their rights. I believe that this was something that could never have happened 20 years ago. I also want to thank my entire team that worked on this file, some of whom include some of my former students from the Allard School of Law.
What do you feel is the biggest hurdle today in advancing animal welfare?
Getting animals out of the property category and into the sentient property category is how we are going to see the really big shifts occur. If animals were not considered property, we wouldn’t see cases where the state can remove a dog, a sentient being, and kill it on the say-so of an animal control officer without a factual and evidentiary matrix proving there is no possibility of rehabilitation. We also wouldn’t see pet custody cases decided on who has the better ownership claim to the animal.
Where do you see the legal landscape of animal rights in 10 years?
I think that we are in a real Gestalt moment, not just for animal law but in terms of a growing global awareness of the interplay between animals, plant-based living and climate change. I think the positive changes we are seeing in animal law today are not merely a fad, but part of a larger intersection between environmental, Indigenous laws, and social justice . We are beginning to see global victories—from Canadian animal law cases starting to recognize needs of animals, the banning of fur-trapping in California, arguments for legal personhood for animals in India and USA—change is happening on a global scale. I believe that these separate legal forces will begin to coalesce, and we will see a real stronghold emerge. I always say that animals are one of the last disenfranchised groups to have their voices heard—it’s not that animals aren’t talking, but we are now only just starting to listen. This is why I feel confident in saying that we are in a transformed legal environment. I think it’s a global phenomenon that we need to accord a level of respect to animals. If a corporate entity can have legal rights, how can a living animal be denied the same level of recognition?
Profile originally published in the February 2020 Allard School of Law Monthly E-Newsletter.