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Who Should Enforce Ontario's Animal Cruelty Laws?

Animal protection laws are laws, and police enforce our laws.
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The question of who should enforce animal cruelty laws in Ontario is an important one for people and animals alike. Since the purpose of police is to enforce the law and investigate crime, you may be wondering why there is even a need to ask this question.

For a century, crimes against animals have been systematically de-prioritized and off-loaded to charities. In parts of Ontario, police have investigated suspected cruelty and laid charges where needed. Police have also collaborated with animal welfare charities on specific cases. But these charities have been subsidizing the public sector by providing the lioness' share of the law enforcement work through donations.

At the end of June, the era of charity-based enforcement in Ontario will be over. There are a number of potential paths forward for public enforcement. And there are pros and cons for all of them.

The downloading of investigations onto municipalities is an option but one that would guarantee inequities. The fact is that most municipalities contract their animal-related work to charities, businesses, and even individuals. Are all of these people prepared and suitable for the demands of cruelty investigations and law enforcement? Probably not. The liabilities and safety risks would be high, and the logistics a nightmare: Ontario has 444 municipalities.

Larger cities with unionized, public by-law enforcement officers would need to pay them more to account for the increased workplace risks. Plus, extensive training programs focused on animal issues, cruelty investigations, and provincial law enforcement protocols would be necessary. The downloading route would almost certainly mean lower levels of service and protection for rural and small town Ontario.

There is no one-size-fits-all model for every Canadian province, but the strongest options for Ontario involve police. I was not always convinced of this. But after discussions with dozens of experts and extensive, diligent study, I am now confident that the most promising paths involve police services.

The suggestion that 'police won't do it' is simply incorrect.

Why? Additional details are provided in the report, "A More Humane and Safer Ontario: The Future of Animal Cruelty Investigations."

But let's focus on the main claims made against police involvement, and the arguments for it. Given how important cruelty investigations are for the health and well-being of vulnerable animals and people, we cannot rely on unsubstantiated blanket statements or anecdotes.

The suggestion that "police won't do it" is simply incorrect. Police have investigated cruelty. Many police services in Ontario are already researching the logistics of doing more and what resources would be required. The prospect of additional responsibility is normally met with some ambivalence or uneven levels of enthusiasm. This is completely expected. Someone is going to be doing more work as Ontario corrects the sidelining of crimes against animals. More resources and training will be needed. This, too, is completely expected.

In a grisly scene, volunteers recover the remains of horses on a farm in Stouffville, Ont., May 19, 2018.
Andrew Francis Wallace via Getty Images
In a grisly scene, volunteers recover the remains of horses on a farm in Stouffville, Ont., May 19, 2018.

Let's remember this crucial fact: animal protection laws are laws, and police enforce our laws.

Police around the world are taking animal cruelty more seriously. Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and Europe are rapidly building their knowledge, skills and capacities because not only is animal cruelty illegal, they recognize that it is a gateway crime and directly connected to public safety.

And keep in mind that police involvement in Ontario could take different shapes.

Initial investigations — who responds first to public complaints — are critically important. Officers rarely know exactly what they're walking into. It can be many kinds of criminal activity. People struggling with addictions or other health challenges. People in crisis. Too often it's the abuse of women and children as well as animals.

Ontario has 60 police agencies. Between local, provincial, and Aboriginal forces, there are nearly 26,000 front-line officers. Field officers could be responsible for responding to public calls about suspected cruelty, as they do for virtually all other potential crimes. The leadership of the Ottawa Humane Society, for example, sees its local police services as well-positioned for cruelty investigations.

Animal cruelty exists on a spectrum. Serious cases require serious responses.

Having experts in law enforcement who can quickly reach suspected cruelty would be an advantage for vulnerable animals and people. Without question, all police in Ontario should have some training about animal cruelty and the well-established link between violence against animals and people. All officers should be attuned to the signs of abuse and understand the many reasons why animal calls are important. Local police forces could also create their own animal crimes units as has been done across the U.S., particularly for more complex investigations.

Ontario could also create a well-coordinated provincial anti-cruelty unit. To promote equity, these experts could cover regions with additional need or serve the whole province. The latter would maximize resources and decrease the depth of expertise needed in local police forces and the Ontario Provincial Police's main inspectorate. A dedicated anti-cruelty team could be comprised of special constables equipped with a cross-section of tools and specialized knowledge about law enforcement and animals' welfare.

Animal cruelty exists on a spectrum. Serious cases require serious responses. But there are also many minor or modest infractions which could and should be handled through tickets, other kinds of corrective directives and education.

In some cases, particularly when people are working hard to care for themselves and their animals, it's help they need. A dedicated provincial team would be prepared to appropriately handle all of these situations, and able to involve or partner with animal welfare charities, social service providers, veterinarians, and government ministries when needed.

They are called investigations for a reason — and we need the people with the most training, resources and protections to be responsible.

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