Dog breeder hearing draws political attention

A hearing for a retired woman from eastern Ontario is at the centre of a fight over how much power the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has to investigate alleged cruelty to animals.

Animal Care Review Board hearing pits rights of landowners versus animal rights

Hearing for east Ontario woman has turned political as advocates argue whether search of home violated her Charter rights. 0:58

A hearing for a retired woman from eastern Ontario is at the centre of a fight over how much power the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has to investigate alleged cruelty to animals.

Jessica Johnson, 64, of Lyndhurst, Ont., a former postal worker and part-time dog breeder, is accused to failing comply with a court order to fix the teeth of one of her 16 dogs.

She attended an Animal Care Review Board hearing in Ottawa today. The board is a quasi-judicial tribunal that hears appeals from those who have had animals seized or to whom orders have been issued under the OSPCA Act. 

Jessica Johnson said she felt violated when OSPCA agents entered her home in 2011 to investigate allegations she was not taking care of her 16 dogs. (CBC)

Her case has attracted political interest, with the Ontario Landowners Association as well as former OLA president and MPP Jack MacLaren rallying around Johnson's cause, arguing the OSPCA has overstepped its bounds and violated Johnson's Charter rights.

The OSPCA has hired prominent lawyer Clayton Ruby to represent the organization.

Agent entered through window

Johnson said she was having a nap on the sofa on May 18 last year when an OSPCA officer entered her house through a window and let in other enforcement agents. They'd obtained a warrant based on an anonymous tip left on an answering machine.

"Humiliating," Johnson said in describing the experience outside the hearing. "I'm a very private person. I felt violated. It's a terrible feeling. It's very embarrassing to have people come in your home and try to put you down."

The OSPCA enforcement agents ordered her to take her dogs to a veterinarian, but only one dog was found to have a serious health problem. Vicki, a Yorkshire terrier, had severe gingivitis, gum recession and tartar on her teeth.

Johnson was given two weeks to take Vicki to a veterinary dentist, but didn't comply, saying she didn't have the money. Johnson lives on a fixed income and said she can't afford to see a dentist herself.

'Don't keep 16 dogs' you can't care for: Ruby

Ruby said it is Johnson's responsibility to provide care for the animals under her care. 
Clayton Ruby said for the OSPCA Act to have any meaning, agents who have lawfully obtained a search warrant must be allowed entry into homes. (CBC)

"If you can't afford to pay for proper medical care and food for 16 dogs, don't keep 16 dogs," said Ruby. "That's not right to the animals, that's not fair."

Ruby said the agents entered the home in the company of police officers and with a search warrant. He said they entered through the window because the homeowner had locked her door. He said agents have to be able to enter a home to execute a search warrant for the OSPCA Act to have any power.

"It has to happen, and it happens only when a judge determines that the privacy interests of the homeowner must yield to the interests of the animals," he said.

Allegations of unclean home

Lawyer Kurtis Andrews, who is representing Johnson pro bono, said the OSPCA misled a justice of the peace to get a search warrant, claiming the house was full of dog urine and feces. Andrews said the OSPCA's own photographic evidence shows that to be false.

"There's a piece of poop on the ground. One piece. When they came in, she had been asleep and one of the dogs had pooped, which I imagine happens to a lot of people who have dogs," said Andrews.

Johnson said the case shows the pitfalls of granting police powers to a private charity like the OSPCA.

The hearing is expected to continue Wednesday.