Beginning early next year, the Ottawa Humane Society will stop picking up stray or injured animals and focus its efforts on re-training dogs with behaviour issues to help more of them find permanent homes.

This comes after a judge dismissed the OHS's legal fight to get its voting rights reinstated after the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals decided that only board members can cast ballots, and not the executives of local animal shelters.

During the court battle which lasted more than a year, the OSPCA also stripped the OHS of its power to investigate animal cruelty — a restriction that remains in place. 

Deputy executive director, Sharon Miko is disappointed with the judge's decision, but says the OHS will not appeal, and instead change its policies to reflect the legal decision.

"We have to pull back and focus on where we have the greatest impact and make things less confusing for the public."

Miko says people are still calling the humane society to pick up injured animals who may have been abused, even though they were forced to lay off their six investigators after being stripped of power and funding by the OSPCA in July 2016. 

'Considerable confusion' over distribution of responsibilities

Following the humane society's suspension, OSPCA investigators based in Ottawa were supposed to investigate animal abuse, but city officials say many people didn't know who to call.

For example, during the summer the OHS would often get calls related to dogs trapped in hot cars, but were unable to respond.

"We can't rescue them, a car is private property and we have no authority to intervene in that situation at all. Our hands are tied. We have to refer them to police," said Miko, who adds callers have been frustrated because they don't distinguish between the humane society and the OSPCA, or even bylaw and police.

"They just want somebody to go."

In an email response to CBC News, Roger Chapman, the manager of bylaws and regulations for the City of Ottawa, wrote there was "considerable confusion" among members of the public as to which organization will respond and that bylaw services has had to redirect complainants to the right organization. 

To reduce the confusion, Miko says OHS has decided to stop the transport of all animals by 2018 and will instead focus on providing veterinary care for cats and dogs once they are brought to its Nepean shelter. Miko estimates that OHS staff pick up more than 1000 stray and injured animals each year. She says the shelter is also currently in discussions with the city and other partners to take over emergency pick-up operations.

The OSPCA acknowledges the initial confusion, but says its inspectors are responding effectively to animal abuse calls in Ottawa.

"It's working efficiently," says OSPCA lawyer Brian Shiller. "The OSPCA has been doing this work for 100 years. It has standardized policies in place related to investigating these cases, and it provides ongoing training of its agents."

Shiller says the OSPCA has four inspectors working in the capital, and although they usually don't work after 7pm, the public can call a province-wide emergency line — 310-SPCA — to report concerns.

Investigations of animal abuse

Although the OSPCA and six other affiliates are currently still fighting over who should pick up the legal bills, Shiller says he's relieved OHS didn't appeal. 

"It's never good for any animal welfare charity to be embroiled in litigation."

But other animal welfare advocates argue the OSPCA, and its affiliates, should not be granted the power to investigate any animal abuse cases.

Nick Wright, a lawyer with advocacy group Animal Justice, says a mounting number of complaints about the OSPCA regarding how it handles investigations shows that there is a problem, but a lack of transparency makes it difficult to hold the organization accountable.

"It's clear there is a problem, but whether it's a lack of officers in terms of numbers or how officers are being deployed or trained, it's something I don't have information about," says Wright. "Because the OSPCA is a private organization and you don't have the same disclosure that you can get with a government body."

Wright says that each year the OSPCA gets $5-million dollars in public funds. He argues that all current OSPCA investigators should instead become employees of the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. 

"If it was a government body we would have freedom of information legislation that would apply. We would be able to get much more data on what is being done right and what needs improvement. We could hold the government to account."