After a Hamilton dog was left outside in record-breaking cold this week, incensed animal lovers in the city are calling for changes to the provincial SPCA Cruelty to Animals Act.

But while some cry foul over what they call a largely impotent piece of legislation when it comes to animal protection, provincial officials say Ontario’s laws are among the best in the country.

Fuelling the debate is the story of Tiger, a Portuguese Fila guard dog that was being kept outside overnight when wind chill temperatures plummeted to -38 C this week. After news about the dog broke, he was taken from his owner by an unknown third party. The dog has since been returned.

'It infuriates me that this is all OK. This is not OK.' - Jill Foote-Forsythe

Neighbour Jill Foote-Forsythe repeatedly alerted the SPCA to the conditions in which the dog was living, which she calls deplorable. She lives next to the concrete forming business on Glover Road where Tiger was chained, and routinely brought him fresh water and blankets.

But when she called the SPCA, Foote-Forsythe was told they couldn’t just remove Tiger, as the dog wasn’t in “immediate distress.” That’s just not good enough, she says.

“Nobody does anything — and these poor animals just don’t have a say,” she said “They don’t have a choice. And it’s not right.”

“We need to change this law. This cannot continue.”

In danger of dying

It’s true that according to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act that an animal must be in immediate distress for an officer to step in without a thorough investigation, says Brad Dewar, the investigation communications officer for the Ontario SPCA.

Essentially, that means a dog has to be in danger of dying for an SPCA officer to do anything on the spot. Otherwise, they have to go through the dog’s owner — which can sometimes slow down an investigation, says Hamilton/Burlington SPCA protection officer Vivian Laflamme.

“Sometimes there are restrictions for us,” Laflamme told CBC Hamilton. “Lots of times a dog has to become severe before we can be involved.”

Changes to provincial legislation might help the speed in which officers can protect animals, Laflamme said, stressing she was giving her personal opinion and not the official position of the local SPCA.

“It’s very difficult at times,” she said. “This job is very emotional — very rewarding — but also very emotional.”

'What's the point?'

According to the cruelty to animals act, every dog that lives outdoors in Ontario must:

  • Have a structurally sound enclosure to use at all times that has to be “adequate and appropriate” for the dog.
  • The pen or enclosed structure “must be in a state of good repair” and offer protection from the elements, including harmful temperatures,
  • The structure must be at least three metres long and let the dog move safely.
  • The dog must be tied to it.

But Foote-Forsythe says even those basic conditions weren’t met in the lot where Tiger was being kept. On Monday night, she visited Tiger and found him shivering, with snow inside his roughly 3 by 2.5-foot doghouse, and no food or water. She left him blankets to keep warm overnight. Tiger’s owner ignored repeated interview requests by CBC News.

When Foote-Forsythe returned around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, she found him “shivering uncontrollably.” His water was frozen solid. Even so, SPCA officials said they couldn’t immediately act.

That means changes are needed, Foote-Forsythe says. “The SPCA needs more authority and to be able to do something. What’s the point of having the SPCA if they can’t do anything for us?”

Even in the face of that, Dewar says Ontario’s SPCA act is one of the most comprehensive in the country. “Ontario really has one of the best pieces of legislation across Canada,” he said.

A front runner in animal rights

Seirge LeBlanc is the press secretary and issues manager for the minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, which is the ministry in control of animal welfare laws in Ontario. He says the Provincial Animal Welfare Act, which was brought in in 2009, makes Ontario a front runner in animal rights.

“We have the strongest animal welfare legislation in Canada,” he said. “We are doing more than ever before for animal welfare.”

LeBlanc says the act allows SPCA officers to protect animals as needed, and pointed to penalties of two years in jail, up to a $60,000 fine and a lifetime ban on animal ownership as effective deterrents for animal abuse that prove the province is serious about protecting animals.

But Foote-Forsythe says that when she sees an animal like Tiger out in the cold, she simply doesn’t believe the province and the SPCA is doing everything they can.

“It infuriates me that this is all OK. This is not OK.”