Law

The Horse Welfare Crisis in Ontario and Beyond

Animal welfare enforcement is in flux in this country, and in some areas, in crisis. People want to know where to turn when they see horses in trouble.

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By: Karin Apfel |

Animal welfare enforcement is in flux in this country, and in some areas, in crisis. Public interest in protecting animals is at an all-time high, yet as I write this in late March, the OSPCA’s contract with the Ontario government, which empowers the charity to enforce the province’s animal welfare act, was to come to an end, with zero information available on how the province will proceed with animal protection enforcement. Fortunately, the province has accepted the OSPCA’s three-month transition period offer while it searches for another model to protect animals. However, March 31st is still the end of the OSPCA’s services for livestock (including horses) investigations. The government provides nearly $6 million per year to the charity for enforcement, so what is the problem?

Envision an organization that began as a charity in 1873, then was tasked with upholding a provincial Act in 1919 and given police powers to do so (based on a U.K. model). It now operates 24/7, must respond to every complaint made and has between 60 and 65 officers policing a province of 13 million souls that is geographically three times the size of most European countries. Note that enforcement only represents 20 per cent of its operations. In their last reporting year (2017), the OSPCA received 15,519 complaints (roughly two per hour). Compare that to the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission), which announced a $760 million budget in January and wants to add 45 Fare Inspectors, 22 Transit Enforcement Officers and three administrative support officers to the 70 inspectors they already have. Meanwhile, the OSPCA holds bake sales to fundraise.

Furthermore, a recent court case (currently under appeal) deemed that it was unconstitutional for the government to give policing powers to a private charity. Lack of public oversight, transparency and mechanisms for recourse to charges were among the issues cited. The OSPCA has been variously accused both of overstepping the law in accessing private property and removing livestock as well as insufficient zeal in pursuing complaints, and there is currently no method of ensuring accountability to the legal system, including those laws protecting private property. The current model is clearly no longer viable.

The Ontario organization is not alone. Recently, the Edmonton Humane Society stated that it would be backing away from enforcement and Manitoba and Newfoundland have developed alternate approaches with publicly-funded
welfare officers (but have far smaller populations). Farm investigations are particularly problematic since many of the animals are hidden inside barns or far from public roads and public eyes, and complaints may be made from a place of ignorance. Knowledge of more than animal welfare is required in these situations. Investigating a crime, collecting evidence and bringing a case to court require law enforcement training and experience, which most SPCA officers in any province do not possess.

Horse Canada spoke to Dr. Kendra Coulter, a life-long horsewoman and Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence and Chair of Labour Studies at Brock University, who recently released the results of a survey open to all adult Ontarians focusing on the future of humane law enforcement. More than 20,000 people completed the survey, which Coulter said is a “staggering number for an academic study, and a remarkable comment on the level of public interest in animal cruelty.”

HC: Do you think the OSPCA is the best agency to enforce the province’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act?

KC: Suspected animal cruelty is the only type of crime not investigated by police or a publicly-funded agency. For decades, charities and their donors have been subsidizing the public sector by providing a public service – law enforcement – through donations. There are many skilled and dedicated people working in these organizations, but charities will never have as many resources as police. In Ontario specifically, we have far too few officers. It’s not sustainable. But the era of charity-based enforcement is over because of the OSPCA leadership’s decision to cease enforcement work. The OSPCA has agreed to continue providing coverage until the end of June, and these next few months are critically important as the government develops a new public enforcement model.

HC: Is there an animal cruelty enforcement model you would prefer to see implemented?

KC: I have studied the pros and cons of all the options carefully. There is no one-size-fits-all model, but for Ontario, if concerned about animals, front-line officers and public safety, the best option is a dedicated, provincial policing unit, perhaps comprised of Special Constables. They would be experts who can draw from policing resources, have appropriate training about different kinds of animals and their welfare, and understand the details of animal cruelty investigations specifically. They could be supported by animal welfare organizations and, if appropriate, provincial ministries (such as OMAFRA). This approach would maximize resources, create a well-coordinated and dedicated team of specialists and make Ontario a leader in animal protection. Animal abuse is illegal, and it is first and foremost about animals’ well-being. It is also directly connected to violence against women and children, and recognized as a gateway crime by law enforcement experts. Investigations are challenging and risky, and can’t be done by just anybody.

HC: Do you think there should be a different approach with regard to livestock vs companion animals? If so, why or why not?

KC: Horses are legally defined as livestock, but that is not how most horse people see them. Some policy makers also recognize that horses are different and that they hold a more complicated place in our communities and political landscape.

The specialized provincial anti-cruelty team would have expertise about different kinds of animals, including horses, and the knowledge needed to identify signs of illegal cruelty when responding to complaints from members of the public. Veterinarians have been involved and will continue to play an important role, including those with forensic expertise. There would need to be partnerships or agreements with qualified and, ideally, accredited rescues for trailering, stabling, urgent care and rehabilitation, possible re-homing through adoption, or a permanent life of recovery and peace.

Horse abuse can be obvious and easy to spot, but there are also very neglected horses trapped inside barns out of view. This raises the issue of prevention and proactive inspections. There are arguments for unannounced welfare inspections.

A number of European countries take horse welfare much more seriously than we do and have equine-specific regulations, rather than just voluntary codes and general animal protection laws. In Sweden, for example, there are regulations about horses’ need for social contact (preferably with other horses), that they must be out of their stalls for at least eight hours a day, and many other aspects of care which recognize horses’ physical and psychological needs.

 

Regardless of which model of animal protection the Ontario and other governments decide to pursue, it is clear that the time is upon us, the concerned Canadian public, to speak up for the animals so that they continue to be protected, while not infringing on the rights of their owners. In response to the crisis, a new provincial welfare group was formed in January, the Animal Welfare Watch Ontario, although it remains to be seen what they can effectually do. At the moment, they are collecting petitions to present to the provincial government. They are active on Facebook and also have a website: awwontario.com. Another advocacy group that recently formed, that may provide assistance to the government in developing a new model for the protection of horses, is the Guelph Equine Public Policy Group, headed by Akaash Maharaj (former Equine Canada CEO). The Group is composed entirely of volunteers, receives no public funding and operates independently of the university. Their mandate is to develop and champion public policies that will benefit the Canadian horse sector, and have stated that equine welfare is the first and highest of their six priorities. Members can be contacted through the website maharaj.org/guelph.shtml.

At press time, they were planning their first meeting, but Maharaj did share his personal view on the Ontario situation: “I am deeply concerned about whether the provincial government has either the operational capacity or the political will to take on such a monumental and specialized enforcement responsibility. There is a terrible risk that anti-cruelty laws will go entirely unenforced in Canada’s largest province, and that there will be no one listening when horses and other animals cry out for mercy.”

Alison Cross, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications for the OSPCA has this advice for Ontarians witnessing cruelty or neglect of any livestock animals: “They are encouraged to contact the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs  at 1-877-424-1300 or email info.omafra@ontario.ca. If they believe the animal is in a life-threatening situation, concerned citizens are to contact their local police services or 911.”