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All creatures starved and mauled | Ken Hill

Monday, May 03, 2021 @ 2:28 PM | By Ken Hill


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Ken Hill
I have always liked animals so I enjoyed reading the James Herriot novels with their stories of the quirky but lovable country folk of the Yorkshire Dales and the amusing scrapes their pets and livestock got into. So, it was my great good fortune to have had the Ontario SPCA as a client for many years. However, due to the nature of the work, the stories I was party to skewed more to the horrific than the heart-warming.

My client had the responsibility of protecting animals from neglect and abuse and their agents had police powers to inspect properties where they had evidence of mistreatment of animals and to remove them where necessary to save their lives or to relieve their distress.

The owners of the unfortunate creatures had the right to apply to a court or tribunal to try to get their animals back and to avoid liability for the expenses incurred by the society in removing and caring for the animals. I had a ringside seat to some remarkable stories while representing the society at the such hearings and trials.

In my experience there were two general types of owners in those cases: the sociopaths who were in it for the money and those who believed they loved their animals. The latter group included the classic “cat lady” type (not restricted to women or cats, of course) as well as hobby farmers. I believe that these people develop blind spots, taking in animals or allowing uncontrolled breeding, gradually becoming overrun and losing the ability to provide for their needs, until they end up living in an environment that is shockingly disgusting and unhealthy for both the animals and often, the owner.

Such cases usually involve neglect rather than intentional infliction of suffering — but to dozens of cats stuck in an apartment, or to cattle, or horses locked in a pen up to their ankles in manure, emaciated and covered with parasites, the difference is merely theoretical.

The sociopaths were another story. While factory farms may push things to the limit, the farmers are generally smart enough to maintain at least minimum standards of care and to comply with orders. Consequently, they were seldom in our crosshairs. We dealt mostly with puppy mills, unscrupulous breeders who kept their bitches penned up and producing litter after litter for their entire reproductive lives, while providing the absolute minimum of care. The consequences were sometimes predictable but could be surprising. For example, I learned that dogs’ claws if not trimmed or worn down naturally will grow in a circle and into the feet.

In those hearings I met some fascinating characters. These are a few of the more memorable ones. 

Histrionic horsewoman  

My client’s agents found some emaciated horses left in a field in winter with no access to food or shelter. The owners were a brother and sister who hailed from the southern states and who had no visible means of support. At trial the sister showed up to court dressed in a gown that would not have been out of place on Scarlett O’Hara at a cotillion. My cross-examination of the belle was going well, or so she seems to have surmised, because as I circled in for the kill, she began to fan herself and then made a graceful and lady-like collapse in the witness box. I think I caught the judge rolling his eyes as he called a recess so she could be taken to the hospital. Happily, the faint had faint impact on the outcome of the case.

Lied piper

One example of the “collector” type was a middle-aged man of Scottish heritage who lived alone on a small farm property where he kept multiple breeds of sheep and a miniature horse. He was on a disability pension and walked with a cane but was aggressive to the OSPCA officers and the vet they called in to inspect his livestock for distress. Through this case I was introduced to Jacob sheep — look them up — they look like they belong on the covers of death metal albums, with multiple bizarre twisting horns. Some of his sheep had not been sheared for years and were laden down with massive fleece, caked with dirt and feces.

At trial he argued that his sheep shed their fleece naturally, which can be true for some breeds, but not for his sheep, according to the expert veterinary witness — and the photos of those poor creatures tethered in the sun with no shade available didn’t help his case. 

I will never forget the pictures of his miniature horse that had obviously been confined for years judging by its hooves. Did you know that if a horse’s hooves are not trimmed or allowed to wear down, they can grow ludicrously long? I mean this little guy had feet that looked like Aladdin’s slippers! When it was removed it could barely hobble along, but after extensive care and rehabilitation it was eventually able to canter again. 

The Scotsman’s credibility at trial was shattered thanks to a local agent who brought to my attention a picture from the local paper in which our disabled shepherd could be seen marching in a parade while vigorously blowing on his bagpipes. He lost his case with costs and my client and other creditors eventually recovered the debt through a sheriff’s sale of his “farm.”

Mean musher

Then there was a burly fellow who had a business giving dog-sled rides to tourists. Over the summer, he kept his Huskies chained to cinder blocks out in the bush, providing just about enough care to keep them alive for the next season. At trial he tried to convince the court that, contrary to appearances he had been providing proper care for his animals.

My favourite moment came when I was questioning him as to why there was no food available to the dogs. He said that, as a matter of fact, about the time his dogs were being rescued, he was on his way back from purchasing their food. I asked what the food was and he replied that it was chicken, then without being prompted, he added that in fact it was frozen blocks of ground up baby chicks that had been culled at a hatchery. Now, in fact that was not an unreasonable choice of food for the dogs, but I can’t help thinking that in the context of the trial, the image of the slaughter of the fluffy wee creatures was not helpful to his image.

Mobile puppy miller  

The most remarkable case of this kind concerned a pleasant looking, soft-spoken woman named Linda who made an epic journey alone, across the country with dozens of dogs in a U-Haul van, pulling a pickup truck in which several more dogs were enclosed. This seven-day trek from Nelson, B.C., ended on Christmas Eve when the van broke down near Gogama north of Sudbury, and police noticed an appalling smell coming from the van. OSPCA agents brought a vet to the scene and he found dogs in cages stacked from floor to ceiling with no solid barriers between levels.

The vet detected poor quality air from exhaust fumes, a heavy odour of urine and feces (not surprising), and that the dogs were wet and shivering with matted coats. The animals were removed pursuant to his order and the Sudbury shelter took on the herculean task of triaging, cleaning and grooming the animals, many of which were heavily infected with parasites and in a condition indicating that the lack of care they experienced started long before the cross-country trek. It took until the wee hours of Christmas morning for a small army of volunteer groomers, veterinarians and just plain animal loving Sudbury folks to relieve their suffering. Great little city!

Linda had undertaken this expedition in an effort to move her kennel and pet sales business to Perkinsfield, Ont. How she thought she could accomplish that alone in winter — supposedly feeding, watering and keeping animals clean in an unheated van defies the imagination. Yet, alleging intimidation and impropriety on the part of OSPCA agents, she sued the society for damages and relief from responsibility for the costs of looking after and treating her inventory. 

The case was resolved by a five-day Superior Court trial in Sudbury in which the emotional testimony of groomers and veterinarians about the appalling condition of her canines was preferred over her story that she just ran into some rough times on her trip, and that the condition of her animals could have been easily remedied (Weir v. Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [1999] O.J. No. 3516).

Although this work brought me into contact with some rather beastly personalities, it also afforded me the pleasure of working with some very dedicated agents and investigators who were a credit to their species.   

Ken Hill is happily retired from just about 40 years of litigation practice in Newmarket, Ont.

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