When Bill 136, the Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act (PAWS), was passed in late 2019, it was hailed as a breakthrough for Ontario in animal welfare. The Act brought the responsibility for ensuring the safety of Ontario animals under the control of the Province and promised investigators greater legal authority, and stiffer penalties for abusers, including up to two years in jail.
But after three years, how effective has PAWS been? Does the act really have teeth, or is it just a legislative paper tiger?
We dug through three years of case files and legal proceedings to determine just how effective PAWS has been at protecting Ontario’s horses. Here’s what we found.
June 2020 saw PAWS tackle its first equine case when a mare was removed from a farm after her owner failed to provide adequate shelter, clean paddocks, and adequate food and water. Specifically, investigators issued an Order of Compliance to have the mare’s badly overgrown hooves trimmed. When her feet had still not been trimmed a week later, the horse was removed and the owner ordered to pay shipping, board, and veterinary fees for the mare and other animals removed from the property.
In December 2020, PAWS investigators removed four equines and six chickens from a farm due to poor body condition scores and overgrown hooves. The chickens were later returned to the owner, but the four horses and ponies were seized and the owner was ordered to pay over $3,600 in vet bills and care costs.
2021 saw six of sixteen total PAWS cases involving equines.
Nine horses were removed from a farm in Brechin, Ontario, after investigators found them underweight, standing in 16-24” of manure, and without adequate hay and water. The owner blamed their condition on poor quality hay, but admitted they were overdue for feet and teeth. The horses were placed in foster care, and the owner was ordered to pay $24,000 in damages and veterinary care.
In August 2021, eight horses, including two elderly mares, were removed from a farm after the owners failed to provide shelter, dry bedding, and foot care when ordered to do so by investigators. One mare was euthanized shortly after being removed, and the owners were ordered to pay over $4,700 in veterinary fees and foster care costs.
In the highest horse-related fine levied to date, eighty-nine malnourished horses, including several pregnant and nursing mares, were rescued after investigators found horses living semi-feral in unsanitary conditions and badly needing vet care, including several with injuries, lacerations, and high parasite loads. All horses were removed, and the owner ordered to pay over $650,000 in vet and care costs.
A 21-year-old Thoroughbred mare with untreated lymphangitis in her hind leg was removed from her boarding stable when a barn manager reported the horse’s condition to the PAWS hotline. The owner appealed the decision to remove the horse, claiming the boarding facility failed to provide adequate care for the mare. The owner’s claim was denied, and the mare placed in foster care.
Another case included three mini ponies (plus nine pigs, five cattle, and a goat) removed from a farm in Cobalt, Ontario, due to inadequate and unsafe shelter.
In one unique case, two horses were seized and later returned to their owner. The horses were removed when investigators determined they had poor body condition scores, and one had an open sore on its back. The owner acknowledged that his horses were in poor condition, and the two mares spent four months in foster care. They were returned after the owner agreed to a payment plan to pay over $6,000 in fines for veterinary care and board.
Of 22 PAWS cases in 2022, only one involved horses. But it did see a repeat offender hit with a six-figure fine.
21 horses, including six pregnant mares and three newborn foals, were removed from a farm in Iona Station due to dangerous fencing and shelter, deep mud, unclean stalls, no available water, and lack of farrier and veterinary care.
Half the horses had a Body Condition Score below 4, and two were sent to Ontario Veterinary College at University of Guelph for treatment. One horse was euthanized, and a foal born to one of the pregnant mares died shortly after birth.
Investigation revealed the owners had several previous charges for neglecting horses, including a 1997 conviction from the Ontario Court of Justice, and a 2003 conviction under Ontario’s previous animal welfare law, the Ontario Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Investigators also presented newspaper reports indicating one of the defendants had been charged with neglecting horses in Kentucky in 2011 and 2013.
The owner’s appeal to have the horses returned was dismissed, the horses were placed in foster care, and the owners were fined over $100,000 in vet bills and care costs.
So far in 2023, PAWS has prosecuted one equine-related case involving 14 horses and ponies removed from a farm in Burks Falls after investigators visited four times in two months and saw no improvement in unsafe living conditions and lack of shelter.
Most of the horses were suffering from rain rot and mud fever due to “prolonged exposure to wet and muddy conditions,” according to the investigating veterinarian, and were in need of farrier care. The owner appealed the decision, and the appeal was denied.
Non-payment of fines
So, the animals are removed from the property and the owner is fined. But what if they choose not to (or are unable to) pay the levied fines?
Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, explained, “An owner or custodian must pay a statement of account, but can choose to appeal to the Animal Care Review Board (ACRB), which is an independent, quasi-judicial agency operating separately from Animal Welfare Services. The ACRB may choose to confirm, revoke or change a statement of account.
“If the individual fails to pay a statement of account within the required timeframe ‒ whether that be the original or one set by the ACRB ‒ the animal is forfeited to the Crown. The unpaid costs are then pursued though a collection agency,” said Ross.
As long as humans are responsible for the care and well-being of animals, there will, unfortunately, always be some risk of abuse or neglect. But with over 150 equines removed from neglectful circumstances in its first three years alone, Ontario’s PAWS Act is shaping up to be a worthy protector of Ontario’s equines.
To report animal abuse or neglect in Ontario, call 1-833-9-ANIMAL. For more information about PAWS, click here.