A new study has ranked the NWT among the worst jurisdictions in Canada for laws to help protect animals from abuse or neglect.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) conducted the 2012 Canadian Animal Protection Laws Ranking earlier this month, placing the NWT in 11th place, coming only above Quebec and Nunavut.
Manitoba was considered to have the best laws protecting animals, with British Columbia second. Newfoundland and Labrador, fifth, were considered to have had the most improvements to their laws since last year.
“The hope and the purpose (of the report) is to provide a tool for citizens and lawmakers so that they can push for improved animal protection laws in their province,” said Sophie Gaillard, spokesperson for ALDF. “It’s something that we have seen in the past.”
Gaillard said the study had three main concerns with laws in the NWT: they only apply to dogs and not other species; inspectors don’t have enough power to enforce laws, as they can only enter without a warrant if the space is used for commercial purposes; and veterinarians are not required to report animal cruelty.
Many animal shelter volunteers in the NWT agreed that current laws are not strong enough to protect animals, based on mistreatment they have seen.
“(The law is) definitely not working to protect animals, and what is frustrating is people like Bonnie Dawson have spent the last three or four years really spearheading animal rights in the North, and she has three or four years’ worth of petitions to support and letters from different MLAs, and still things are not changing,” said Nicole Spencer, president of the NWT Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
Spencer said the Dog Act – even the amended version from 2011 – is outdated and ineffective.
“There is a Dog Act in the North because dogs were so prevalently used in the past, and at that time the act was used to protect people from roaming dogs or dogs that would bite. Now, that is over 50 years old, and it needs to be about the protection of the dog and not the people,” she said. “If the Dog Act is going to stay, it needs to be a good one, and right now it isn’t a good one.”
She said having a law requiring veterinarians to report abuse would be good. The SPCA has no authority to enforce any laws, so it would not be entirely effective until a law granted the SPCA enforcement rights.
“I think all it would take is something written in the bylaw that a person involved with the SPCA, maybe me, would have to do a bit of training. Then they could go with the police into the home as a witness,” said Spencer.
She explained that, currently, a complainant has to go directly to the RCMP or a bylaw officer, which is problematic because people do not want to make the call due to fear their neighbours will find out.
Spencer said Manitoba’s implementation of an anonymous Crime Stoppers hotline for animal abuse was a good idea that the NWT should consider trying.
She said the problem of animal cruelty stretches beyond lack of enforcement to education, veterinarians and spaying/neutering.
SPCA NWT has a no-interest spay/neuter loan program, but Spencer said some people falsely believe it is wrong to have their pets fixed.
“Reduce the number of unwanted dogs in the community and there is going to be less abuse,” she said.
SPCA NWT does not have a facility for animals, but volunteers take unwanted dogs into their homes as foster pets and work to find them homes. Spencer currently has two dogs in her care.
She has witnessed very thin dogs, ones who are scared of men and ones with marks of abuse, such as pellet holes from being shot. Despite their state upon arrival, she said after rehabilitation they make great pets.
“Ninety-nine point nine per cent of all the dogs that come of out of the community are so grateful when they experience care or kindness that they are the most loyal and gentle dogs,” she said.
Dottie Hawley, president of the Fort Smith Animal Society, said she has witnessed similar cruelty.
Hawley said the shelter receives dogs that are starving, dehydrated and in poor health. She said sometimes the situation is so bad that the dog can no longer be socialized and has to be euthanized. “It’s not too often, but when it does happen, it is just heartbreaking.”
Hawley said there are also issues with enforcement because dogs that have been taken away are often returned to their abusive environments. “It happens too much for my liking,” she said. “I just think there should be stronger laws against animal cruelty – that is the bottom line – and better enforcement.”