When a horse owner heard through the equine community that three horses had died of malnutrition at an eastern Ontario farm, but no charges had been laid by the Ontario SPCA, she decided to take matters into her own hands and start gathering more evidence of animal cruelty.

On June 11, 2016, Karen Ayotte sent her 21-year-old foundation Quarter Horse, Bert, to Whisper Ridge Ranch to act as an equine spy. Ayotte had posted an ad on a horse site, stating she wanted to give her horse to a good home. Just as Ayotte expected, Whisper Ridge Ranch’s owner, Sandra Reed, who had been under investigation for animal neglect by the OSPCA, quickly responded saying she could take Bert in.

Ayotte made the tough decision to leave her horse there in the hopes of gathering enough proof of neglect so the OSPCA could investigate and lay charges.

When Ayotte sent Bert, he was in good condition, receiving a mixture of senior feed and sweet feed and “as much hay as he could eat.”

She returned 23 days later to find Bert had lost more than 100 pounds. “I don’t even know how that’s possible. Of course, a horse that age needs extra food. He’s normally lowest in the pecking order, so he was getting nothing,” she said, noting Bert was in group turnout and probably only offered a small amount of hay. “When I went into that field to check on Bert, I had never seen so many skinny horses in all of my life.”

Ayotte realizes what she did sounds a little nutty, but claims she always planned to check up on Bert, and even had an agreement with Reed that she could visit her horse whenever she wanted.

“I can’t turn a blind eye to animal abuse,” she said.

On Thursday, July 7, after 26 days, Ayotte returned to Whisper Ridge to collect Bert. She said she shared just a few words with Reed. “I didn’t bring this horse here for you to starve,” Ayotte claims she said. “And by the way, I set you up.”

“Her mouth just dropped.”

The next day, Ayotte called the OSPCA to report the condition of her horse. She says she was frustrated that she was never updated about the status of the investigation. However, the OSPCA says they never give updates to members of the public making complaints because the information is confidential in an investigation and only becomes public if charges are laid and a case is brought before the court.

Ayotte and others who had kept their horses at Whisper Ridge shared photos of the emaciated animals on a Facebook group called Save the Whisper Ridge Horses. It wasn’t until there was a major outcry on social media and Ayotte got local media involved that she says the OSPCA acted. “Bert going there helped get this exposed in the news. At least now more people are aware of what’s happening,” she said.

And Ayotte isn’t the only person who is unhappy with the Society’s handling of the case.

Faith Robinson lived at Whisper Ridge last winter between December and March and told multiple media outlets she witnessed three horses die. She claims that many of the horses were fed only a fifth of the feed needed and that frequently the barn would run out of feed, requiring her to reach into her own funds to keep the horses in food. She, too, went to the OSPCA with her concerns.

Robinson told Global News that she first took the evidence to the OSPCA in March, but was disappointed there was “minimal response.’”

The Investigative Process

The OSPCA confirmed Reed has been investigated in the past and officers investigated allegations of neglect yet again in July. In an email, OSPCA spokesperson Melissa Kosowan said her organization “conducted a thorough investigation at Whisper Ridge, which included bringing an equine veterinarian to the property multiple times to examine the animals. Concerns were addressed, but under the law we did not have grounds to lay charges or remove the animals.”

It’s this type of response that upsets people like Ayotte, who claim to have seen firsthand the neglect.

The Whisper Ridge case is just one that illustrates the complicated process of investigating allegations of cruelty and neglect. SPCA officers must navigate a complex legal web that takes a massive amount of time and resources, and critics say that animals suffer as a result.

Ontario SPCA inspector Brad Dewar said that SPCA officers have to approach each report in an unbiased way. “If it’s reported an animal is sick or injured or has been neglected in any way, we don’t go there with any preconceived idea. We go there to address a concern and to find out what’s actually happening on the property,” he said.

“I think the challenging aspect is the general public may not be as well informed as to what the laws are and as to when we can and can’t act,” he added.

The Law

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies criticizes Canada for having antiquated laws that make it difficult to prosecute cases of animal cruelty and neglect and prioritizes human property rights over the rights of animals. On their website, the CFHS takes issue with wording in the animal cruelty sections of the Criminal Code of Canada.

“The wording of ‘willful neglect’ requires proof that an accused intended to harm or kill his or her animal(s). Even in cases where dozens of animals have been starved to death – which requires a lengthy period of severe neglect – judges will usually conclude that the accused didn’t actually intend for the animal(s) to suffer or die and will find them not guilty,” the website states.

The bar for charges under the Criminal Code is high, and because of problematic wording like ‘willful neglect,’ many SPCA officers will instead opt to pursue charges under provincial animal cruelty acts, which are easier to prosecute, but do not carry the same stiff penalties – there is little to no jail time, the fines are lower and a provincial charge does not show up on a criminal background check.

Additionally, there is a huge discrepancy between animal cruelty laws and penalties from province to province. The Animal Legal Defense Fund released a report in 2015 ranking the provinces on their animal protection laws. One particularly problematic area is that in many provinces, officers need a warrant to inspect animals and properties. Laws are written this way under the pressure of protecting people’s rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedom, specifically their right to privacy and property.

This means a member of the community must call in a complaint of cruelty and neglect in order for the officer to have grounds to inspect. And a warrant can take time to be processed.

Officers can then enter the property, inspect, write orders (for example to increase feed or seek veterinary care). But once these orders are met, officers have no grounds to re-enter a property.

This conflicting goal in provincial laws (animal safety vs people’s rights) has led to some catastrophic neglect cases. In 2008, a horse farm 65 kilometres northeast of Edmonton was the site of one the worst cases of neglect ever seen in Canada.

When the SPCA finally intervened, the farm was littered with the corpses of 27 starved horses. Another 100 emaciated, but alive, horses were rescued by members of the Alberta horse community. The perpetrator, Axel Hinz-Schleuter, received only a $12,000 fine and a lifetime ban on owning horses. There was no jail time.

The arguably light penalty aside, more disturbing was that the Alberta SPCA had responded to numerous complaints of neglect of these horses since 2004. In 2005, Hinz-Schleuter was fined $1,000 for neglecting his horses and ordered to increase their feed supply.

Neighbours continued to call in to report neglect, but Hinz-Schleuter moved the starving horses to the back of the property, out of sight. With no outsiders able to monitor the situation and report complaints, the Alberta SPCA had no reasonable and probable grounds to enter the property, until the situation became dire.

In response to cases like these, the Alberta SPCA has increased communication with prosecutors and judges about what they need to better do their job. Alberta SPCA communications manager Roland Lines said that if a person is charged and it’s a severe case of neglect and the person is handed a prohibition from owning animals, the SPCA officer will encourage the judge to write into an order a ‘right of inspection.’ This would allow SPCA officers to enter a property without a warrant or formal complaint from the public.

But even the strongest laws in the world don’t solve another problem SPCAs face: lack of funding and resources. “Resources are certainly an issue,” said Lines. For all of Alberta, there are only 12 officers available to respond to calls of cruelty and neglect. “We’re driving more than 600,000 kilometres a year and our officers are working long hours to get their files done.”

Proposed Law Changes

In February 2016, Ontario Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Beaches-East York) introduced Bill C-246, a private member’s bill, into parliament. Called The Modernizing Animal Protections Act, Bill C-246 sought to make changes to weak areas of the Criminal Code that make it difficult to prosecute animal cruelty and negligence.

Of particular interest to horse owners was Erskine-Smith’s proposed change in the wording of ‘willful neglect’ in the Criminal Code. The offence would be changed to one of gross negligence, which would bring the animal protection laws in line with every other criminal negligence standard across the Criminal Code. “This change wouldn’t require one to have intended to be negligent,” said Erskine-Smith. “It requires that one was so negligent that it’s a significant departure from what a reasonable person would consider to be acceptable in our society.”

Erskine-Smith noted that negligence standards across the Criminal Code (pertaining to children and vulnerable persons) don’t require willful negligence. So, for example, parents who refuse to take their sick child to a doctor may not intend to harm their child, but if that child suffers or dies because he does not get proper medical attention, the parents could still face criminal charges of neglect. Under Erskine-Smith’s changes, animal owners would be held to this same standard. “All I was trying to do was make sure criminal negligence as it relates to animal cruelty had that same standard,” he said.

Despite Bill C-246 receiving support from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, the Canadian Association for Laboratory Animal Science and SPCAs across the country, it was voted down in parliament.

Interest groups like the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association were worried about the wording in some areas of the bill and expressed concerns it was a veiled attempt for animal rights activists to push an extreme agenda that would criminalize accepted animal use (such as killing animals for meat).

A specific point groups took issue with was Section 182.1(1)(b) which reads: Everyone commits an offence who, willfully or recklessly … kills an animal or, being the owner, permits an animal to be killed, brutally or viciously, regardless of whether the animal dies immediately.

“Three previous liberal justice ministers stood behind identical legislation and it passed the House of Commons three times, it was studied by two parliamentary committees and the Criminal Lawyers Association has said it would not have any impact on hunting and fishing and farming,” said Erskine-Smith.

He conceded the fact he’s a vegan from downtown Toronto probably didn’t give agricultural groups confidence in his bill, but says he’s positive that there will be future conversations and that a consensus can be reached among all groups to strengthen the Criminal Code.

The Road Ahead

For now, SPCAs must work within the existing legal framework and that requires alert community members who keep their eyes open, watching for cases of cruelty and neglect. “I can’t stress this enough, if you see something you need to report it right away because if it’s left for an extended period of time, it makes it very challenging to lay charges and it’s also allowing the situation to continue,” said Dewar. “You do not have to give your information to report animal cruelty.”

Ayotte has reluctantly accepted that all she can do is keep in contact with the SPCA and be active on social media. “It’s not my job to make sure more horses don’t die,” she said, “but I will keep reporting, because I have empathy and compassion and I care about those animals.”

Reporting Animal Cruelty

If you are concerned about the welfare of an animal in your community, contact your local SPCA and speak to the animal cruelty investigations department. If you do not have a local SPCA, contact the provincial SPCA.