Article by Thomas Walkon in the Toronto Star
In Ontario, animal issues continue to gnaw away.
With rare exceptions, most politicians ignore them. Ditto most media. But the treatment of non-human animals is a matter that arouses strong passions within the electorate.
This is the context for a new report on the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Entitled, “OSPCA Act: A Better Way Forward,” the Dec. 18 report has a careful, lawyerly feel, which is perhaps not surprising since it was published by Animal Justice, an organization chock full of lawyers.
In part, the report is a response to two widely publicized events — the 2010 decision by the OSPCA to kill more than 100 animals at its Newmarket shelter because of an alleged ringworm epidemic, and the more recent Star investigation of conditions at Marineland, a Niagara Falls tourist attraction that features whales and dolphins.
But it is also a response to long-standing complaints — from all sides — about the OSPCA, a non-profit charity that is empowered to enforce both provincial and federal animal-cruelty laws.
Many farmers argue that the OSPCA has too much power. In particular, they object to the fact that inspectors can enter someone’s farm or back yard without a warrant and seize animals in distress.
Conversely, many animal supporters argue that the OSPCA doesn’t have enough authority and does far too little with what it has.
The society has no jurisdiction over animals in research labs, or under veterinarian care. Farmers are also exempt from legal sanctions as long as they follow so-called standard industry practices, which can include measures such as dehorning goats without anesthetic.
Even if farmers treat their animals worse than the standard industry practices require, the law is written in such a way that they won’t necessarily face charges.
Until Star reporters Linda Diebel and Liam Casey raised questions about Marineland, the OSPCA had shied away from investigating it and other zoos.
Finally, although the OSPCA’s decisions to seize animals may be appealed to an independent review board, there is no provision for overall government oversight of the society.
Critics say this omission became particularly evident in 2010 when the OSPCA euthanized animals in its Newmarket shelter to deal with a ringworm epidemic that, a later investigation found, had never existed.
In its report, Animal Justice recommends that the OPSCA be overseen by the community safety ministry and that, to avoid conflicts of interest, its investigative arm be sharply delineated from shelters it operates.
The report also calls for stricter standards for the treatment of farm animals as well as marine mammals in aquariums and zoos. The government has promised to produce draft standards for the care of marine mammals by June but has balked at requiring that zoos and aquariums be licensed.
“Actually, the (Animal Justice) recommendations are quite conservative,” noted Rob Laidlaw, executive director of the watchdog group Zoocheck. The OSPCA had no comment.
The suggestions come at a time when the cash-strapped OSPCA is becoming increasingly reliant on government largesse.
In 2012, it ran an operating deficit of about $5.6 million. Last October, in the aftermath of the Marineland controversy, Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur announced that the government will give the OSPCA an additional $5.5 million annually for two years, up from the roughly $630,000 it provides now.
The contract between her ministry and the society shows that $1.3 million of the new money is to train and operate special teams that will investigate zoos and aquariums, as well as farms and puppy mills. But the bulk, amounting to $3.2 million a year, is aimed at funding the kinds of investigations the OSPCA already does.
For the OSPCA, this is almost certainly good news. Animals, too, may benefit.
For politicians, however, it is a signal that animal issues won’t go away. Many voters are already seized with such matters. Increasingly, they are paying for them as well. Expect controversies over animals — and the OSPCA — to heat up.