TORONTO - A raid on the Toronto humane society last month that has resulted in animal cruelty charges against some staff has prompted some animal welfare experts to call for a national governing body to regularly audit animal shelters.
"There's a great need to have some sort of overseeing body, and I think it should be arranged on a national basis," said Ian Duncan, the chair in animal welfare at the University of Guelph.
"At the moment, each province tries to tackle the problem in a different way. It's very bitty," Duncan said, pausing to explain the myriad of rules, regulations and guidelines governing animal shelters in this country.
As investigators with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals continue to pour over hundreds of thousands of files at the humane society under the authority of a search warrant, some working in the field of animal welfare want a preventative rather than punitive approach to protecting animals.
A board of directors is at the helm of the Toronto Humane Society, but there is a confusing patchwork of bodies and boards overseeing animal welfare groups nationwide.
"Not everybody understands the structure, so that plays an important role, just because you're called a humane society doesn't mean they're all the same across Canada," said Christine Chene, the spokesperson for the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.
The organization offers information and guidance to voluntary members, but it has no governance over the humane societies.
The Toronto Humane Society is not a member of the organization.
"There's always some sort of confusion. 'If something happens there is it going to happen here?"' she said, referring to the questions she fields from a concerned public.
The OSPCA governs some humane societies, but there's also self-governing societies and independent rescue groups.
"Every community has a different need, so its up to the community to see what those needs are," said Chene.
In Ontario, the SPCA can inspect facilities after receiving an allegation.
"Many of the humane societies are affiliated with the OSPCA and many are not. They have the authority to go in and inspect all shelters, but really only when they get a complaint," said Duncan.
While there are agencies responsible for enforcing provincial animal welfare legislation, some parts of Canada, namely Quebec, the North West Territories and Nunavut, do not have dedicated animal protection legislation and rely solely on the criminal code to protect against animal cruelty.
"There's actually very few federal laws protecting animals and the degree differs from province to province," said Tina Widowski, the director of the Campbell Centre for the Study for Animal Welfare, at the University of Guelph.
For Widowski, the idea of a national body ensuring standards of care for domestic animals is possible.
According to Widowski, an infrastructure exists for animals used in research and teaching under the Canadian Council on Animal Care, which requires all university and research organizations using animals to receive regular auditing of its facilities before they receive funding.
"That's the one area that we're really well organized on for ensuring minimum standards of care and it would be very beneficial in all of different animal industries," said Widowski, "It would be good to have similar sorts of guidelines and similar sorts of regulatory bodies that would regularly audit, in some way, and ensure those standards are met."
But Widowski acknowledges the creation of such an organization to monitor shelters would be challenging and the price tag, steep.
"It does cost a lot of money to set up that kind of system," said Widowski.
And the OSPCA points out that investigating cruelty cases in shelters is an exception.
"It's pretty rare that it happens," said OSPCA investigator Kevin Strooband.
Both Duncan and Widowski, see a larger issue affecting animal welfare, one of differing philosophies on animal rights, on whether it is humane to euthanize an aging or ill animal.
"People need to take responsibility for the overproduction of pets and make decision on what we do with unwanted pets," said Widowski, as she called the information unveiled during the raid at the Toronto Humane Society a "tragedy," but a good reminder to people that pet over-population is an issue.
The investigation into the Toronto Humane Society began on Nov. 26, after the OSPCA raided the facility and alleged it found animals in such poor health that seven of them have had to be put down since.
Investigators also displayed a mummified cat they say the found on the premises.
The facility was described as a "house of horrors," by one investigator, and the raid resulted in animal cruelty charges against five employees.
Humane society president Tim Trow, general manager Gary McCracken, head veterinarian Steve Sheridan, manager Romeo Bernadino and shelter supervisor Andy Bechtel were all charged with counts of conspiracy to commit an indictable offence and cruelty to animals.
Everyone but Sheridan was also charged with obstruction of a peace officer, for allegedly hiding and euthanizing sickly animals prior to a June OSPCA visit.
The charges are unproven in court and a lawyer representing some of those charged, Frank Addario, predicted last week that he expects all the allegations will be proven to be false.