The province will take over responsibility for animal cruelty investigations beginning Friday, after the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told it in March it would cease its enforcement efforts.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones has appointed a new temporary chief inspector, Ontario Provincial Police Insp. Paula Milne, and opened a 24-hour animal cruelty hotline.
Brian Shiller, a lawyer who has worked with the OSPCA for a decade, said he was “excited” about the transition.
“I’ve always felt that that component of the organization’s work was a component that should be in the hands of policing, not in the hands of a charity. So I think it’s a good day,” he said, adding that the law was a holdover from 100 years ago when police wouldn't enforce animal cruelty laws.
The change marks the end of the three-month commitment from the OSPCA to continue its enforcement powers while the government finds a solution. The OSPCA has had the powers of police to investigate and charge people for animal cruelty cases since it began in 1919. It informed the government of its intentions after an Ontario court found in January that a charity acting as a police force was unconstitutional.
Starting when you see an animal in distress or suspect animal abuse, call 1-833-9-ANIMAL (264625) to make a report. The Ontario Animal Welfare Call Centre will help connect you with experts who ensure our animals are protected. https://t.co/OqpWGZEAhz #AnimalProtection pic.twitter.com/7ESFYLAprw
— Ministry of the Solicitor General (@ONsafety) June 28, 2019
The OSPCA had long complained that its enforcement officers were overworked and under-resourced, Shiller said. The organization’s $5.5 million budget did not allow it to adequately service the province, he said.
“Realistically we were only covering about a third of the land mass of the province, and we had officers travelling long distances to do investigations. It was a very unworkable model,” he said. “Five-and-a-half million dollars is probably the provincial government's expense for photocopies annually, right?”
Brock University anti-cruelty enforcement expert Kendra Coulter published a report in March which outlines many of the same issues.
“Crimes against animals have been sidelined and de-prioritized by successive governments, and charities have filled in the gap,” Coulter said in a Brock news release. “But the era of private enforcement is over and Ontario will finally have public animal cruelty investigations.”
She writes that animal cruelty is often connected to violence against women and children, and other crimes. Investigations can sometimes lead to the discovery of people struggling with financial or health issues, she found, and more resources are necessary in those cases.
Coulter found that the “most promising options will likely involve a strategic combination of organizations, including police for enforcement and non-profits for support and animal care.”
General police forces have the benefit of a large number of officers stationed around the province, she found, but “a specialized provincial anti-cruelty unit comprised of Special Constables is a particularly compelling route because of its likely benefits to animals and the safety of officers and the public.”
On Saturday, the province’s interim animal protection plan will come into effect while the province creates a new system that is “more robust, transparent and accountable,” Ministry of the Solicitor General spokesperson Brent Ross said.
In addition to the 24-hour animal cruelty line — 1-833-9ANIMAL (1-833-926-4625) — and the chief inspector, the province will add several animal welfare inspectors, many from local humane societies and SPCAs, the government said.
The inspectors, appointed by Milne, “will be responsible for animal protection in the province and will have subject matter expertise in livestock and agriculture, horses, and zoos and aquariums,” the government said.
“Developing a new model for animal protection cannot be rushed, and it’s frankly too important not to get right,” Ross said.
Shiller said he was encouraged by the government’s appointment of a police officer to head up the plan in the interim, and that it will work with local humane societies.
He said the OSPCA will shift to a support role in animal cruelty investigations, but will “absolutely” still be involved.
They will continue to run the 310-SPCA phone line for animal concerns, and will triage “each and every one” as necessary, either by getting in touch with whatever the relevant government organization ends up being, or by servicing the concern themselves — of the 23,000 calls the OSPCA received through the line last year, about half were solved with education, Shiller said.
But the OSPCA will also continue to offer services in “any role other than laying charges and being the police,” including veterinary care, shelter, fostering and expert evidence for animal cruelty trials.
Shiller added that it was a good thing the government is looking at overhauling animal welfare laws, as much needs to change. For example, exotic pets should be banned outright in the province, he said.
“There are roadside zoos in this province where people have tigers in their backyards,” he said.
“The province should recognize that this is a trend,” he said, and “ban all zoos that are strictly for commercial gain.”