Warning: This story includes disturbing video.
The sound of two-month-old kittens meowing under the deck of a Caledonia, Ont., home could be heard in early October.
Animal lovers Sabrina Maye and Deborah Kerr spent days trying to rescue the kittens, born to a stray cat named Oreo, from under a neighbour’s deck. But when Maye and Kerr returned on Oct. 10, what they saw shocked them.
Chicken wire was covering the only gap in the deck. They say the neighbours, who were previously co-operative, installed the wire out of frustration with the mess and noise from the kittens. With that wire in place, Maye and Kerr said it would be impossible for the kittens to escape — and with no access to food or water, Oreo’s kittens would surely die.
Maye and Kerr posted to social media to inform locals, and said they called Ontario’s provincial animal welfare services (PAWS). Maye said PAWS told her it would take up to three weeks for inspectors to respond.
She and Kerr also called police and managed to get an officer to arrive on the scene who also phoned PAWS. Maye and Kerr said it prompted a PAWS inspector to show up the next day.
However, PAWS couldn’t act because the neighbours weren’t home, Maye said.
Brent Ross, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which oversees PAWS, confirmed an inspector attended the scene and found no violations of PAWS legislation.
Maye said that thankfully, the neighbours eventually pulled back the wire and the kittens were rescued.
Kerr was critical of PAWS, which has the job of protecting animals.
“That was one of the cruellest things I’ve seen,” she said. “I thought there would be some sort of enforcement.”
Other advocates have voiced frustration about PAWS since it was created in 2019, taking over for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA).
In animal abuse cases, some enforcement tools at their disposal include orders, provincial charges or criminal charges.
But according to data obtained by CBC Hamilton through a freedom of information request, PAWS investigations are leading to far fewer orders and charges compared to when the OSPCA oversaw animal welfare.
Ross, from the Ministry of the Solicitor General, didn’t give possible reasons for the drop in the number of charges and orders, but said the team is “highly trained,” and some requests fall under the jurisdiction of police or local bylaw enforcement.
From 2015 to the end of 2018, the OSPCA conducted 64,015 investigations, issued 16,148 orders, and laid 1,946 provincial and criminal charges, according to its annual reports.
From 2020 to June 30 this year, PAWS conducted at least 69,118 investigations, issued at least 6,970 orders, and laid at least 667 provincial and criminal charges.
PAWS has an annual budget of roughly $21 million, far more than the $5.75 million budget the OSPCA worked with by the time it stopped the animal welfare work in 2019.
“That is shocking to me,” Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, told CBC Hamilton. “Why is PAWS, with a vastly larger budget, issuing fewer orders?”
Labchuk, along with other animal welfare advocates, say the data suggests the province needs to provide more support for animal welfare services and be more transparent.
‘There’s a great deal of frustration’
Ashley DaSilva, founder of the Hamilton-based group Fur Warriors, said inspectors need more support from the province.
As a result, she said, it can feel like PAWS will only take action when there’s enough public scrutiny.
She pointed to a video that appeared to show a Hamilton man whipping his dog, Merlin, and dragging the dog down a sidewalk in late June.
WARNING | Some viewers may find this video disturbing:
It took a week for police and PAWS to remove the dog from the owner, and he now faces provincial charges. But DaSilva is doubtful any of that would have happened without the media attention and public pressure.
“If you don’t cause a stink, nothing happens,” DaSilva said. “What happens to the dogs that don’t have videos?”
Jennifer Friedman, a former OSPCA lawyer who now practises privately, said it’s “troubling” to hear the drop in charges and orders, especially given what many of her clients are telling her.
“There’s a great deal of frustration … they’re hoping animal welfare services would do more.”
Despite that, she said, the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread societal disruption it caused may have led to the reduction in the number of charges and orders.
What’s behind fewer charges and orders?
Amy Fitzgerald, a University of Windsor, Ont., professor and animal welfare researcher, said it’s “particularly unlikely” the drop in PAWS charges and orders was because there were fewer animal abuse incidents.
She pointed to how domestic violence was rising during the pandemic.
Fitzgerald said it’s impossible to know without PAWS sharing what kind of calls it received, but said inspectors may be using more discretion before issuing orders or charges.
“At the same time, it seems it is predominantly discretion toward less charging,” she said.
Kendra Coulter, a professor at Western University’s Huron University College who researches animal welfare, said people shouldn’t assume that fewer charges and orders mean the system isn’t working or inspectors aren’t doing their jobs.
She said the numbers could simply mean inspectors were encountering more co-operative people. A drop in the number of charges and orders may not be a bad thing, Coulter said.
“It should be a relief to us that most calls can be fixed or improved through conversation, through education,” she said.
“We want the most severe tools of the criminal justice system to be reserved for the most serious and violent cases.”
What needs to change?
Coulter said PAWS needs more than its roughly 100 inspectors to thoroughly and quickly investigate cases across Ontario. She noted the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has more inspectors, with 110.
She added more training and protective measures for inspectors are also needed.
Michèle Hamers, campaign manager at World Animal Protection Canada, said the wording in the province’s legislation is too broad and impacts what inspectors can do on the scene.
For example, the legislation defines distress as an animal being:
- In need of proper care, water, food or shelter.
- Injured, sick, in pain or suffering.
- Neglected, abused or subject to undue physical or psychological hardship.
She would like to see guidelines defined for various species and that only allow various animals to be kept as pets. Those steps would make the system more proactive, Hamers said.
Ross said the definition of distress is “meant to cover a broad set of circumstances and animals.”
“Inspectors are well-versed in the species typically encountered.”
WATCH | Animal Justice wants more transparency from PAWS:
Hamers, like others, also highlighted the need for more transparency — one of the key drivers that led PAWS to take over from the privately run OSPCA.
Labchuk said in the case of transparency, things have “gotten far, far worse” since PAWS took over.
She said Animal Justice filed many complaints about Marineland, a theme park in Niagara Falls, but never heard back from the province.
Labchuk said PAWS should have a website, issue an annual report each year, and, if it’s in the public interest, issue media releases when it issues orders, seizes animals or one of its investigations leads to charges.
Labchuk also said PAWS legislation needs more regulations governing animal breeding, farms, zoos and other industries.
Ross said the ministry “continually aims to enhance transparency and hold animal abusers accountable.”
He also said the province consults the public and stakeholders when working on new regulations.
Coulter said she’d like to see more details about the type of calls PAWS get from the public and the results of those investigations.
Friedman added the province needs to do a better job of explaining why some complaints are investigated and others are not, and basic statistics like the number of orders and charges laid should be “easily accessible.”
“The public has a right to know.”