Family charged in deaths of 13 horses could face jail after pleading guilty to animal cruelty charge

Victoria Small and her son, Jason, appeared in a provincial offences court in Newmarket Tuesday and plead guilty to charges stemming from a farm in Stouffville, Ont., where 13 horses were found dead last year, and 15 more were found starving.

Sentencing has been pushed to next month

Victoria Small, left, and her son Jason, right, pleaded guilty in a Newmarket, Ont., court on Tuesday to an animal-cruelty offence under the OSPCA Act. (John Sandeman/CBC)

A mother and her son pleaded guilty in court Tuesday to charges stemming from the death of 13 horses and the mistreatment of 15 more on a farm in Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ont., last year. 

Victoria Small, her husband, David, and their son, Jason, faced a total of nine animal cruelty offences following an investigation by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) in May 2018 at the rural property their company had been renting. 

The charges included allowing an animal to be in distress, failing to provide adequate food and failing to provide care necessary for general welfare between April 1 and 22 of that year.

However, the three only pleaded guilty to the charge of allowing an animal to be in distress.

David Small didn't appear in the Newmarket provincial offences court Tuesday due to medical issues, but a lawyer representing him entered his guilty plea on his behalf. 

"The good news is we don't have to have a trial," said Calvin Barry, the defence lawyer representing Victoria and Jason Small.

Since David Small couldn't attend in person, the sentencing hearing was pushed to next month. They are scheduled to be back in court on April 18, at which time victim impact statements will also be delivered.  

Under the OSPCA Act, the three could each face a maximum penalty of two years in prison, a $60,000 fine, and a lifetime ban from owning an animal.

Calvin Barry, the defence lawyer representing Victoria Small and her son Jason, says 'these cases aren't fun for anyone.' (John Sandeman/CBC)

'I'm disappointed' 

Michael Cheung, who owns the farm where the horses were found, attended the court session and said he was hoping to see the Smalls sentenced. 

"It's somewhat satisfying that they are finally admitting to guilt," he told CBC Toronto. 

Michael Cheung, the owner of the farm where the horses were found, alleges the Smalls also defrauded him of thousands of dollars. (John Sandeman/CBC)

Speedsport Stables, a family-run horse boarding business owned by the Smalls, had been renting the 10-acre farm and barnyard when the abuse occurred.

Neighbours discovered three dead horses in a trailer concealed by trees at the back of the farmland, which prompted the OSPCA investigation. Fourteen emaciated horses and a pony were taken off the farm and placed in new homes, while the carcasses of 10 other horses were found buried in a paddock at the property. 

Cheung also alleges the Smalls defrauded him out of thousands of dollars by selling him three young horses they didn't own.

"I'm disappointed that this is dragging out one more month, but that's OK," he said. "Until they get sentenced, there's really no relief." 

The horses were living in stalls filled with urine, feces and water. (Oscar Calvete)

OSPCA will no longer enforce animal cruelty laws

This development comes a day after Ontario's animal welfare agency said it will no longer investigate and enforce animal cruelty laws.

In a letter Monday to Community Safety Minister Sylvia Jones, the OSPCA said it will not sign a new contract with the province after the current one expires at the end of March.

Instead, the agency says it will shift into a support role in animal cruelty investigations, providing animal shelter, forensic evidence collection and veterinary services. 

"We want to see a system in place that provides maximum protection for animals," said Kate MacDonald, OSPCA's chief executive officer, in a press release. "Being an outside agency, we have been woefully under-resourced to provide legislation enforcement."

"Enforcement is the responsibility of government."

Last month's decision had found the government was wrong to grant police powers to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals without also imposing accountability and transparency standards on the agency. (Ontario SPCA)

Currently, the OSPCA has police powers, but that role came into question last month when an Ontario court judge found the agency's powers to be unconstitutional, and lacking in accountability and transparency standards.

The province appealed the decision.

'Things could get worse'

Brock University professor Dr. Kendra Coulter said she's not surprised by the OSPCA's decision. 

"For about a century, charities have been subsidizing the public sector by providing what is a public service on donor dollars," she said. 

"The era of private enforcement of animal cruelty laws in Ontario is over." 

She added that for the past couple of years, the OSPCA has shown signs of trying to move towards its animal care work, and away from the enforcement work. 

Brock University labour studies chair Kendra Coulter conducted a survey in January to learn more about working conditions in Ontario’s equine industry. (Brock University)

Now, she says the province needs to shift its focus to protecting the animals.

"This is first and foremost about animals, and we need a system that is properly resourced, officers that are properly trained and protected for the well-being of animals," Coulter said.

The OSPCA has said it will draft recommendations for a new Ontario Animal Protection Act, but it's not clear how the organization's current responsibilities will be distributed. 

"We're at a critically important juncture," Coulter said. 

"Things could get worse if there is not a clear plan put in place." 

With files from Greg Ross and Amara McLaughlin