Birds of a Feather Fight Drones Together: Are Canadian Skies Ready for the ‘Flying Squad’?
Last week, Dutch police became the world’s first force to train and employ an army of eagles to combat the growing rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, more colloquially known as ‘drones’) within the Netherlands. Series of tests had been organized since early 2015, determining whether eagles would be the most appropriate interceptors of unauthorized drones invading restricted and sensitive spaces (for example, drones flying too close to airplanes or airport spaces, etc). Last Monday, the Netherlands-based company specializing in the eagles’ training, Guard From Above, assured the public that all tests have been successful (Agence France-Presse, 2016). Like other countries in the West, it is clear that the Dutch government in particular has been looking for ways to counter the undesirable use of drones, from using specialized rifles to shoot down drones, to implementing robotic net-drones whose mission is to catch unauthorized drones with large nets or shoot “drone death rays” which overheat hostile drones’ electronic systems (Reagan, 2016). However, what becomes worrisome is not the effectiveness of this new police strategy—if anything, the use of eagles is a “low-tech solution to a high-tech problem” according to Dutch police spokesman Denis Janus (Agence France-Presse, 2016).
Rather, when we start to consider how such surveillance-based policing methods intersect with animals and their respective rights, it calls into question how police animals as bio-technologies of state agents and their services are treated and protected from unreasonable harm, stress and cruelty (Braverman 2013, 2015). Animal and (socio-)legal scholars alike have argued that our current federal animal cruelty laws in Canada are “antiquated and narrow” (Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, n.d.; Pask, 2015), and while other countries may consider Canada as one of the more social progressive and socially conscious countries, such freedoms for humans are hardly extended to animals. Organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies have denounced the Canadian Criminal Code provisions as woefully “Victorian” and highlight the difficulty of prosecuting cases of animal neglect with our current standard of “willful neglect” (Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, n.d.). While countries such as Great Britain and New Zealand have taken measures to update or enact effective animal cruelty legislation, Canada’s anti-cruelty laws (introduced in 1892 with little to no amendments) ensure that even today, Canada “is no safe haven for animals” (Sankoff, 2012, p. 294).
Generally, the current federal legislation under the Criminal Code are sections 444 to 447, of which include indictable and summary charges for animal cruelty. Section 445, however, is particularly important here, as it holds anyone accountable who “kills, maims, wounds, poisons dogs, birds or animals that are not cattle and kept for a lawful purpose…” and provides a litany of additional offences including “wilfully causes or, being the owner, wilfully permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal or bird” (Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, s. 445). Furthermore, section 445.1 indicates that “[e]veryone commits an offence who wilfully causes or, being the owner, wilfully permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal or bird” (Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, s. 445.1).
Moreover, animal laws in federal legislation have been included under a section entitled “Part XI – Wilful and Forbidden Acts in Respect of Certain Property” (Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46). However, this classification fails to recognize animals in Canada as ‘sentient beings’ and instead treats them as personal property, which becomes problematic when considering cruelty to wildlife or any animal that is not ‘possessed’ in the same manner as agriculture or companion animals (Pask, 2015). And while legislative reform recognizing this sentience is possible, scholars have been skeptical of Canada’s candidacy for these reforms in the near future (Sankoff 2012).
Furthermore, the issues with unnecessary pain, suffering or injury and the ‘wilful intention’ of the animal owner cause great concern for those scholars or activists advocating for the rights of the birds in question. Lund (2016) raises several key issues in his National Geographic article concerning the use of these alleged ‘winged warriors’ by police agencies. First, bald eagles (the primary raptor of Guard From Above) are not native to Europe, so the relocation of these animals to a new ecological system may cause unnecessary stress on the birds. Second, drone blades, especially the carbon fiber ones, may cause serious damage to the eagle as it attempts to intercept and take down rogue drones: “If an eagle were to misjudge its attack, or if the drone operator were to take evasive or defensive maneuvers, a bird could be struck by the blades and seriously injured or killed” (Lund, 2016). To this end, Dutch police have contacted the Dutch Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) to investigate the possible impact of the drones’ rotors on the eagles’ claws. However, the results are still not yet known of the degree to which the eagles are harmed (Reagan, 2016), ultimately raising concern for the unnecessariness of harm imposed onto the eagles during rogue drone interception.
Third, despite the claim by the Netherlands-based company that it is relying on birds’ “animal instincts” to attack the drones (Regan, 2016), Lund cites Kent Knowles, president of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, stating that normally bald eagles do not take prey out of the air in the wild: “This type of hunting isn’t natural at all” (Lund, 2016; italics in original). As Knowles explains: “It’s dangerous because drones are not like anything bald eagles or other birds of prey find in nature…I don’t think they have any understanding of what drones are.” Finally, the bald eagle is extremely sensitive to human activity, and the population was on the brink of extermination in the late 20th century in the United States (Canadian Raptor Conservancy, 2016).
This population has slowly re-stabilized and repopulated old territories since the 1960s and was officially removed from the Unites States’ Endangered Species list less than ten years ago, in which Lund questions whether the implementation of the birds by police agencies re-jeopardizes the eagles’ species altogether.
In effect, it is yet to be seen whether Canadian police agencies will consider eagles as a viable method to counteract unauthorized drones—indeed, countries such as Germany, France, and cities like London, England have all contacted Guard From Above to find out more about the ‘flying squad’ (CTV News 2016; The Week 2016). However, what remains apparent is the need to update our anti-cruelty laws to reflect modern social views governing animals and their rights to protection from unreasonable harm, stress, and injury. Most would agree that Canadian anti-cruelty laws still leave much to be desired in terms of animal sentience, protection and enforcement by justice officials (Pask, 2015).
While unauthorized drone usage in Canada has not reached the same level of frustration seen in the Netherlands, it is not a far cry to suggest that UAV regulators in Canada cannot ignore the possibility that such risks could occur as drone technology evolves and becomes more complicated (British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, 2015). This could generate additional safety concerns over the possibility of gaining unauthorized control of a drone and the potential conduction of illegal or dangerous activities. Therefore, while cautious legitimate drone usage could benefit Canadian police agencies (if the alternatives-to-drone measures mentioned above are not within their purview), we must remember to safeguard the eagles’ wellbeing as we embark upon increased air security. Until Canada updates the animal cruelty legislation we have in place, our skies are not ready to handle this type of ‘Air Force’ (pun intended). For the time being, it would be best to leave our feathered friends alone.
Agence France-Presse. (2016). “Eagles v Drones: Dutch police take on rogue aircraft with flying squad.” The Guardian: September 12.
Braverman, I. (2015). “More-than-Human Legalities.” In Patricia Ewick and Austin Sarat (eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Law and Society (Wiley Press), pp. 307-321.
Braverman, I. (2013). Passing the sniff test: Police dogs as biotechnology. Buffalo Law Review 61, pp. 81-168.
British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. (2015). Submission to the Notice of: Proposed Amendments to the Canadian Aviation Regulations for Unmanned Air Vehicles. August: pp. 1-21.
Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. (n.d.). Federal Legislation. Available at http://cfhs.ca/law/federal_legislation/.
Canadian Raptor Conservancy. (2016). Bald Eagle. Available at http://www.canadianraptorconservancy.com/birds_eagles_bald.php.
CTV News. (2016). “Dutch police use eagles to combat rise of unauthorized drones.” September 12.
Lund, N. (2016). “Let’s Not Force Eagles to Fight Rogue Drones.” National Geographic: February 5.
Pask, J. (2015). Detailed Discussion of Canada’s Anti-Cruelty Laws. Animal Legal & Historical Center: Michigan State University College of Law.
Reagan, J. (2016). “Talon Tactics: The Anti-Drone Raptor Cometh…” dronelife.com: February 1.
Sankoff, P. (2012). The Animal Rights Debate and the Expansion of Public Discourse: Is it Possible for the Law Protecting Animals to Simultaneously Fail and Succeed? Animal Law, 18, p. 281-320.
Thielman, S. (2016). “Eagle-eyed: Dutch police to train birds to take down unauthorized drones.” The Guardian: February 1.
The Week. (2016). “How police are using eagles to intercept enemy drones.” February 8.
Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46.