April Irving pleads guilty in one of the largest animal cruelty cases 'in this country's history'

April Dawn Irving has pleaded guilty to four counts of causing an animal to be in distress, in what the Crown calls one of the largest animal cruelty cases in Canadian history.

Warning: This story contains graphic details that may upset some readers

April Dawn Irving has pleaded guilty to four charges under the Alberta Animal Protection Act. (Milk River RCMP/AARCS)

April Dawn Irving has pleaded guilty to four counts of causing an animal to be in distress, in what the Crown called one of the largest animal cruelty cases in Canadian history.

Irving, 59, was facing 14 charges relating to animal cruelty, but the remainder — including one under the criminal code — were dropped after her guilty plea in Lethbridge, Alta., court on Wednesday.

"The Crown is satisfied she has accepted responsibility for one of the most comprehensive and voluminous cases of animal cruelty in this country's history," said Crown prosecutor Tyler Raymond.

More than 200 dogs seized

According to the agreed statement of facts, on Dec. 18, 2014, Irving took a dog to a vet and attempted to surrender it, while identifying herself under a fake name. The dog needed attention for a vaginal prolapse. It was severely underweight and malnourished, and was later euthanized.

Later that month, a peace officer attended her property near Milk River, Alta., to check on some animals. Irving agreed to surrender 60 dogs at the time.

In January, officials returned to seize another 140 dogs from Irving. The animals were found dehydrated, starving and chained in the yard. Five other dogs were found dead.

Some of the dead dogs were newborns whose carcasses were frozen solid. Inside her trailer were many dogs, and it was filled with debris, hair, urine and feces. One dog was found dead on top of her TV.

April Dawn Irving hides her face while heading into court in Lethbridge, Alta., on July 24, 2019. (Lara Fominoff/Lethbridge News Now)

Outside, dogs were tethered in pairs to short chains, and some puppies were kept in a poorly ventilated van with the floor covered in frozen excrement.

Only one dog had access to food, and there was no access to clean drinking water.

Several dogs also had wounds, and one that had recently had its leg amputated was chained outside with the wound still open.

She was charged but failed to appear in court in 2016. She was believed to have been living in Jamaica until resurfacing in Canada earlier this year. She was arrested in Manitoba in January and returned to Alberta to face the outstanding charges.

'Finally accepted responsibility'

"It's certainly satisfying to see that after a long period of time … Ms. Irving has finally accepted responsibility," Raymond said. 

Irving left the courthouse with her head draped in a pink and white scarf, covering her face, and a long matted mop as a wig. She was carrying a poster covered in a collage of photos of dogs and wolves.

When asked by reporters if she had any comment, or anything to say about her dogs, she said, "I love them, I love them."

All 201 dogs that were seized found new homes. A 2016 documentary focused on the animals' rehabilitation, with some of the owners even reuniting the dogs two years after they were adopted.

Irving has a history of animal cruelty. In 2010, she had more than 80 dogs seized from her property near Foam Lake, Sask., which resulted in a 10-year ban on owning more than two dogs at a time in the province.

A recent psychiatric assessment found she likely wasn't suffering from mental illness at the time the dogs were seized and that she was fit to stand trial.

Raymond said that while the Crown and defence were able to come to an agreement on the guilty pleas, they could not come to an agreement on a proposed sentence.

Sentencing is set for Sept. 30.

With files from Lara Fominoff of Lethbridge News Now