The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but rather, "Can they suffer?" - Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), English philosopher
As a pet owner, I face a dilemma. While I like the idea of having one of those "Pets inside" signs in the window in case a fire should break out when there was no one home but our beloved pooch, I worry that such a sign would be like bait for burglars with a penchant for being cruel to animals.
Call it a cynical side-effect of working in the news business - where you tend to hear more about human perversions than the average joe - but I know there are people like that out there, as much as it disturbs me to think about it.
I grew up out around the bay with animal-loving parents who allowed us - over the years - to have hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, a snake, a seagull, frogs, a white mouse, a pair of retired lab rats, a dog, several cats and lord knows how many injured birds.
I grew up on a literary diet of "Black Beauty," "Old Yeller," "All Creatures Great and Small," and "Owls in the Family."
We were taught to treat animals gently, like the members of the family that they were.
And a love of animals is something G. and I share, which is why I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to find us hurtling across a very busy golf course in a golf cart recently, with a box of 12 cheeping ducklings on my lap.
We had heard that a flock of motherless ducklings had been spotted in the neighbourhood and so went to look for them.
We found them, tiny and vulnerable, huddled together in a clump in a park, where they could easily have been snapped up by cats.
While G. and Willie the dog kept watch, I ran back to the house for a laundry basket, a blanket and a bowl of water. We waited and waited to see if Mother Duck would appear. Nothing.
And so we put the ducks in the basket and hopped in the car bound for Humane Services ... which was closed and would not open for two hours.
On the way back home, one of the ducklings jumped out of the basket and scuttled under the passenger seat and into the back of the car with Willie - who, fortunately, was curious but not hungry.
Back at the house, our neighbours loaned us a garden pond insert and some bird seed, and we filled it with water in the backyard and let the ducklings swim.
We were struggling to keep the inquisitive little critters from hopping out, as they seemed determined to do, when all of a sudden we heard a distinct, nasal voice calling.
Turns out Mother Duck wasn't dead after all, and was in the yard next door, looking for her babies.
When G. tried to gently herd her in our direction, she bolted and flew across the street to the golf course, which is where we suspect they had all come from in the first place.
Which is why we bundled the ducklings up again and - with the help of a kind young man in the pro shop, who commandeered a cart - navigated our way through the Sunday golfers to the pond, where we released the brood and hoped their mother's strong instincts would lead her back to them.
(A subsequent visit to the pond led us to believe that's what happened, though we could not be 100 per cent sure they were the same ducks).
While the experts tell you it's generally not a good idea to interfere with abandoned animals, in this case there was no initial sign of an adult duck in the vicinity and we didn't want the defenseless ducklings to be gobbled up by predators.
Sometimes nature needs a helping hand, just as pets depend on their owners - and society in general - for protection.
Even though in dog years, Willie is now older than G. and I, he is like a child to us.
He is a joyful, innocent, trusting, loving member of our household who absolutely relies on us for his care and well-being.
The thought of a stranger breaking into our house and scaring, injuring or killing him is more than I can bear to imagine.
I also can't imagine what would be adequate punishment for such a crime - essentially, the brutal killing of a member of someone's family.
So it will be interesting to see what the punishment will be if the 17-year-old charged in the beating death of a three-year-old beagle during the theft of an ATV in Conception Bay South last month is convicted.
In April, the provincial government announced it is updating its animal health and protection legislation to reflect modern "societal expectations and attitudes towards the care of animals."
Hopefully, that will mean much stiffer penalties for those who are cruel to animals.
As the legislation - circa 1978 - now stands, the punishment for abusing an animal is a fine of between $50 and $200, or, if you don't pay, up to 90 days in jail, or the fine and the jail time.
Meanwhile, the federal government might consider beefing up its own laws.
According to the Criminal Code of Canada, an adult found guilty of stealing something worth more than $5,000 - like, say, an ATV - faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Killing a family pet? Eighteen months or less. And those are adult sentences.
In the case of the recent suspected arson at the O'Brien farm in St. John's, where several cats and kittens died in a barn fire, the Criminal Code does not specify any particular punishment for killing animals incidentally as a result of setting a fire.
Instead, the code only addresses arson that shows a disregard for human life or property.
An animal is neither.
Something has to change.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com