OSPCA plan to drop livestock, horse investigations draws mixed reaction

Ontario's animal welfare agency's plan to hand over investigations of animal cruelty involving livestock or horses to the province is being welcomed by both rural lawyers and animal activists, even as it has also caught some by surprise.

Animal welfare agency's plan to leave livestock investigations to province a surprise to some

The group Animal Justice say the OSPCA should get out of enforcing provincial animal welfare legislation and leave it to the province. (OSPCA)
Ontario's animal welfare agency's plan to hand over investigations of animal cruelty involving livestock or horses to the province is being welcomed by both rural lawyers and animal activists, even as it has also caught some by surprise.

The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, citing a lack of adequate funding and financial losses, discussed leaving the enforcement of farm animals to someone else at a meeting last week.

The charity's officers have police powers and can lay both provincial offence and criminal animal cruelty charges, but because it is not a police force its officers aren't subject to Ontario's Police Services Act.

That's made it a thorn in the side of rural landowners, who have challenged its authority in several court cases.

Kurtis Andrews, a farm and animal welfare lawyer representing a client in a constitutional challenge against the provincial OSPCA Act, welcomed the agency's decision and said he would like to see the charity get out of investigating cases of animal cruelty entirely.

He says there's an inherent conflict of interest because of the possibility they could make decisions on who to investigate or not based on who is donating.

"If [the organization's] not actually influenced by the demands of its donors, certainly there is going to be a perception that it could be influenced by donors dollars," Andrews said.

Kurtis Andrews, a lawyer for an Eastern Ontario man who argues the charter rights of animal owners are being violated because of the sweeping powers of enforcement given to the OSPCA, says the timing of the OSPCA withdrawal could create more confusion. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Transparency questioned

However Andrews worries the agency's lack of a defined timeline to get out of livestock and horse investigations could leave people in limbo, unsure about who is responsible for enforcement.

"They've really put everybody in a difficult spot," he said.

"Quite frankly it's unfair to all those concerned, including the animals, because it takes time to make legislative changes."

Animal Justice, a national animal rights group, is also an intervenor in Andrews' court challenge.

It wants the OSPCA to also get out of investigations because of what is perceives as a lack of accountability and transparency. 

"[Ontarians] should have a government agency that's tasked with investigating these offences and prosecuting and laying charges, rather than trying to rely on a private charity to do this," said executive director Camille Labchuk.

"[The agency] should be fully public. It shouldn't be a private charity and it's time for the government to start to think about what that might look like."

The OSPCA is still investigating cases of animal cruelty, but the agency said in a statement Thursday it hoped the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs could take over enforcement and let them provide care for the animals in a supporting role.

That was news to the provincial government.

Bruce Roney, executive director of the Ottawa Humane Society, says it could be problematic to allow police agencies to take over enforcing animal welfare legislation since they may not have the proper training. (CBC)

Police can respond to calls

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional is reviewing the matter, wrote spokesman Brent Ross in a statement.

But he noted the agriculture ministry "does not have the authority to enforce provisions of the OSPCA Act" and that police agencies would be able to enforce animal welfare laws in the event the OSPCA cannot.

Ottawa police said in a statement officers have the authority to investigate animal cruelty complaints and lay charges, but would not address whether officers have the proper training to investigate those complaints.

The Ottawa Humane Society has had its own conflict with the OSPCA after the provincial welfare organization stripped the Ottawa organization of its powers to investigate animal cruelty.

But its executive director Bruce Roney doesn't believe police can fill the gap if the OSPCA vacate the role.

Investigating abuses of livestock is specialized and it's unlikely most police forces across the province have that type of training, Roney said.

"Police certainly have their hands full with human crimes and always in that situation, we're worried that crimes against animals will be given a low priority."