OSPCA wants out of horse, livestock cruelty probes due to funding shortage

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Ontario’s animal welfare agency plans to pull back from investigating cruelty cases involving livestock and horses as part of a restructure that insiders say may eventually see all its resources go toward shelters and rescue programs.

The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose officers have police powers and can lay both provincial offence and criminal animal cruelty charges, said lack of funding and years of financial losses had led to the decision.

« We’re looking for help and we’re challenging the status quo, » said OSPCA spokeswoman Alison Cross. « Otherwise these challenges will never be addressed. We have to restructure. »

Sources say the OSPCA has been quietly discussing the merits of remaining in the animal cruelty investigation field altogether, citing increasing costs and the collapse of several high-profile cases, such as a probe involving Marineland, which have contributed to poor public perception of the organization.

Last week, the OSPCA called in its animal welfare officers from across the province for a meeting at its headquarters in Stouffville, Ont., north of Toronto. There, CEO Kate MacDonald laid out the organization’s plans for the future.

« During our meeting we felt it was important to begin our discussion on our new focus we’ll be undertaking over the next year, » said OSPCA deputy chief Jennifer Bluhm.

Part of the plan MacDonald discussed at the meeting was farming out animal cruelty protection of large farm animals to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Not notified of plan, province says

That was news to the Progressive Conservative government, which pays the OSPCA $5.75 million each year under an agreement that stipulates the agency is responsible for running a call centre to respond to animal cruelty tips, a major case team to investigate complex cases, a registry of zoos and aquariums and specialists to investigate those facilities, as well as animal cruelty coverage of First Nations and northern Ontario.

A government spokesman said the OSPCA had not notified the province of its plan. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs assists with inspections and investigations related to farm animals when requested by the OSPCA or police, but it does not have the authority to enforce the provisions of the OSPCA Act, Brent Ross said in an email.

« In the event the OSPCA no longer performs these duties, police services have authority to enforce animal welfare laws, » he said.

The OSPCA said it has for years operated its enforcement arm at a significant financial loss and had to balance the books by pulling from its donor dollars that it uses to fund its other operations, which include shelters and rescue programs. The OSPCA said that will stop by 2019.

The agency brought in $7 million from donations and fundraising last year, according to its 2017 financial report. It took in about $2.4 million in municipal contract fees and $2.1 million in shelter and veterinary revenue. The report states animal care and protection cost nearly $14 million.

The OSPCA said it continues to respond to livestock cruelty concerns, but hopes that the provincial government will take over that role.

However, some of the officers who attended the agency meeting last week said they were left with the impression that the move was imminent.

« We are no longer all things to all animals…We are no longer investing in investigations, » MacDonald said at the meeting, according to two officers who were present but did not want their names used for fear of being fired.

« It sounds like we’ll become a dog and cat cruelty organization, » one of the officers said. « Those are much easier to deal with. »

No organization can do work alone​: OSPCA

When asked about the CEO’s remarks, the OSPCA said it strives to be a leader in animal welfare, but that no single organization can do the work alone.

« As we restructure, the Society will turn to other industry experts to assist in addressing concerns for animal welfare, » Cross, the spokeswoman, said.

There are currently 71 officers who respond to animal cruelty concerns across the entire province, down from about 200 a decade ago.

The OSPCA started as an animal shelter in 1873. In 1919, it entered into an agreement with the provincial government to enforce animal cruelty laws through legislation that created the OSPCA Act. The OSPCA received little government funding until 2012 when then-Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty decided to augment their enforcement abilities and give them more than $5 million annually to carry out those new responsibilities.

A 2016 report titled Difference Makers: Understanding and Improving the OSPCA’s Animal Cruelty Investigation Network found that the majority of officers are poorly paid, work in the field alone often facing dangerous circumstances, and are responsible for « extremely large geographic regions. »

One of the authors, Kendra Coulter, the chair of labour studies at Brock University, said funding for the OSPCA is insufficient.

« The idea of using donor dollars to help fund the enforcement of public laws, to me, is very problematic, » she said. « (But) I don’t think abandoning large groups of animals, many of whom are the most vulnerable, is the appropriate response to financial constraints. »

Coulter also criticized the entire set up of a private charity using public money to enforce the law, citing lack of transparency and accountability.

« It’s an organization with a board and upper management that makes a range of decisions on how to spend public money and the public has few opportunities to better understand how those decisions are made, » she said.

Financial struggles

Internal documents show the agency has been struggling financially for years.

In November 2016, it was forced to disband its major case management team, a centralized group of specialized investigators tackling complex cases like dogfighting rings and allegations of cruelty at zoos and aquariums, according to an internal memo.

The agency said the team was struggling to keep up with more than 15 complex cases per year, so it decided to instead deploy specialists throughout the province, a tactic that was more efficient.

Mike Zimmerman, a former manager of animal welfare with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services who was involved in the drafting of the 2012 agreement, said the agency crying poor was a false argument.

« They were doing investigations entirely on their own income when the government said we’d like to help with that and provide money for additional services and strategies, » he said. « And they’d had little government money going back to 1919. »

Zimmerman said under the 2012 agreement, the government was never meant to provide all the funds for enforcement, adding the OSPCA fundraises on the backs of their cruelty investigations.

« They’re operating in a way that ignores their primary reason to be, which is to protect animals in Ontario — all animals, » he said.

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Liberal government tables bill to toughen laws on bestiality, animal cruelty

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Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould tabled legislation today that would strengthen laws around animal cruelty and bestiality.

At a news conference Thursday, the minister said the bill aims to protect vulnerable children and animals from « terrible » acts, while not interfering with legitimate breeding, veterinarian, agricultural or hunting practices.

Bill C-84 responds, in part, to a 2016 Supreme Court of Canada decision that ruled a convicted sexual offender, identified only as D.L.W. to protect his victims, was not guilty of bestiality following charges stemming from sexual activity involving one of his stepdaughters and the family dog.

In a 6-1 decision, a majority of the justices ruled that the Criminal Code provisions around bestiality did not adequately define which sexual acts with animals are prohibited. In his ruling, Justice Thomas Cromwell urged Parliament to revisit the definition.

Bill C-84 changes the wording in the Criminal Code to clarify that it involves any contact for a sexual purpose between a person and an animal.

Wilson-Raybould said the government had « fairly extensive » consultations with a variety of stakeholders to respond to the court ruling.

« It took some time, » she said.

A Justice Department summary of the proposed changes says the amendments will protect animals from violence and cruelty and will increase protections for children and other vulnerable individuals who may be « compelled by another person to commit or witness sexual acts with animals. »

The legislation also expands protections for animals, including activities related to animal fighting.

The bill would prohibit:

  • Promoting, arranging, assisting, taking part in or receiving money for the fighting or baiting of animals.
  • Breeding, training or transporting an animal to fight another animal.
  • Building or maintaining any arena for animal fighting. Current prohibitions are limited to building or maintaining a cockpit, which is a place used for cockfighting.

« Bill C-84 represents a common ground approach to ensuring the protection of children and animals from cruelty and abuse, » reads the Justice Department document.

New law too narrow

Wilson-Raybould could not say how prevalent the practice of animal fighting is.

« It does exist, and where it does exist we want to have laws in place to prevent it, » she said.

Camille Labchuk, a lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice, said the new law took too long to bring in, and it is too narrow in scope.

« Disappointingly, the new legislation only contains very minor measures related to bestiality and animal fighting. These provisions are welcome, but they should have been introduced as part of a larger package of desperately needed animal cruelty reforms, » she said in a release. 

« Animal Justice will seek amendments to Bill C-84, as it does not currently give judges the ability to ban bestiality offenders from owning animals in the future — something that is standard for other animal cruelty offences under the Criminal Code. »

In December 2017, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel tabled a private member’s bill to amend the Criminal Code to define bestiality as « any contact by a person, for a sexual purpose, with an animal. » 

The existing definition of bestiality in the Criminal Code is understood to focus on penetration as the essential element involving a person and animal.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith proposed legislation to ban the import of shark fins and the sale of cat and dog fur in Canada. It also attempted to amend Criminal Code provisions related to animal abuse, negligence, fighting and bestiality, but it was defeated in the House of Commons.

In the Criminal Code, offences against animals have not changed substantially since 1892, except for some increased penalties.

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