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  Livestock cruelty laws: Ontario moves forward

By Jeff Esau - AgriNews Contributor

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  • Ontario livestock producers and the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) may view the issues of animal welfare and livestock cruelty from very different vantage points, but they agree that the current system of enforcing cruelty legislation is flawed. After looking westward, they think they've found a solution.

    The OSPCA and the Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC), which represents the province's 40,000 livestock and poultry farmers, have joined forces to advocate for a livestock protection plan for Ontario that is based on the Alberta Livestock Protection System (ALPS). Formed in 1998 and billed as "unique in Canada", that system involves a formal working partnership built on trust that includes the Alberta Agriculture ministry, the Alberta Farm Animal Care Association (AFAC), the ASPCA, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the RCMP.

    ALPS manages an annual budget of almost $1M provided by the provincial government, with $900K going to the ASPCA for inspectors. The remaining $92K goes to cover the cost of an on-call veterinarian who works for AFAC to educate producers and respond to calls on the Association's farmer helpline, known as ALERT.

    OFAC mapped out its course on livestock welfare when the council's board passed a motion in August 2004 "to approach OMAF with a joint proposal with the OSPCA to develop and deliver a Livestock Protection System fashioned after the Alberta model."

    OSPCA spokeswoman Christine Arnett said there's a strong commitment to pursuing a system akin to Alberta's. "We definitely have interest in this proposal and in working cooperatively for the benefit of all the stakeholders," she said. "We agree there needs to be a government commitment to be involved in the enforcement of animal protection."

    The Ontario government has signalled that it is open to new ideas, including an ALPS-type model. Last week Aileen MacNeil, OMAFRA's Director of Livestock Technology, told AgriNews that "we continue to work closely with government and industry partners on animal welfare issues in Ontario," and added that "as part of this work, we are reviewing the (OSPCA-OFAC) proposal." However, convincing OMAFRA about the desirability of the Alberta model for Ontario is only one part of the equation.

    The OSPCA, being an enforcement organization, falls within the jurisdiction of Ontario's Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS). That ministry provides the OSPCA $119K annually for training its approximately 200 inspectors and agents, including workshops conducted by OMAFRA and OFAC on livestock issues. The Society currently pays inspectors entirely from donations it solicits. Any plan to fund the OSPCA to enforce cruelty legislation for livestock, as in Alberta, would need MCSCS involvement.

    At the provincial level, OFAC Executive Director Crystal Mackay says cooperation with the OSPCA has been the norm on many issues, such as the Haines Report on the Meat Regulatory and Inspection Review. She also points out that OFAC Helpline calls "are referred to the OSPCA if enforcement is needed, and some helpline calls are from OSPCA inspectors themselves," particularly in cases where producer education or assistance rather than enforcement is the problem.

    However, signs indicate that misunderstandings and dissatisfaction at the farm gate between producer and inspector are frequent and increasing. The OFAC backgrounder prepared by Mackay is diplomatically worded, but its underlying message is clear: "The number of questions and complaints from the farm community about specific cases and the current enforcement system continues to increase."

    It's that trend OFAC is eager to stem under the Alberta model. ALPS's three-pronged approach focuses on continuous education, strong laws, and both strict and consistent enforcement.

    The last of these would be particularly attractive to Ontario producers, who often see inspectors' enforcement actions-such as seizure of animals, issuance of compliance orders, and laying of charges-as arbitrary, high-handed and highly personalized.

    Metcalfe beef producer Terry Otto is an OFA director and a former OFAC director. He says he's well aware of livestock producers' frustrations with inspectors from OSPCA branches and affiliates throughout Eastern Ontario. Otto applauds OFAC's efforts to lobby Queen's Park to adapt an Alberta-type approach to Ontario's livestock industry. "Producers put OFAC in place to develop expertise in animal welfare policy and in collaborating with other groups and governments on our behalf."

    "Developing that expertise as individuals or even as individual producers' groups was clearly impractical," he said, "so if (ALPS) is the preferred approach of OFAC, it should be good for all of us."

    Otto said valid livestock cruelty complaints must be thoroughly investigated and those guilty of offences punished. But he was quick to list numerous pitfalls that could impact producers under any system, even ALPS, unless "checks and balances are in place." He said there has to be a way of reining in "over-zealous inspectors" who have little or no understanding of standard farm practices.

    According to Otto, trust is a big issue. Many farmers feel SPCA and other enforcement organizations have been "infiltrated" by so-called animal rights activists and interest groups who harbour an underlying moral objection to the production of animals for food. Sometimes, sentiments expressed by SPCA leaders can have a chilling effect on livestock farmers. In an article about the future of farm animal welfare in Ontario that is currently on the website, a former OSPCA CEO writes: "Since I could not get my own assurance that all animals used for human consumption are treated humanely, I chose to become a vegetarian many years ago."

    Another section of the same webpage, the OSPCA's "position statement" on farm and agricultural animals, reads: "The Ontario SPCA recommends that the physical alteration of farm or agricultural animals, such as removing horns, castration, etc., only be carried out when absolutely necessary, and under the supervision of/or by a veterinarian. The Society is opposed to the debeaking of fowl, amputation of animals' tails and punching of animals' ears for identification purposes." Many producers look upon such practices as standard livestock processes. Egg producers, for example, know that hens, which are cannibalistic by nature, would quickly peck each other to death unless beaks were trimmed after hatching. And beef and dairy farmers know, in the aftermath of the BSE crisis, that it is illegal to move cattle off their farm unless they have a unique ID number on an ear tag.

    These kinds of disconnects contribute to a cultural rift that can be difficult to bridge in any system. A basic suspicion about raising livestock, Otto says, can lead to "harassment" by inspectors and easy victimization through "vexatious and frivolous complaints" by ill-informed members of the public and vengeful neighbours who want to settle a score. "The producer never knows who's complaining, and people who call in frivolous complaints don't face any consequences," he said. "Whatever system you have, complaints need to be screened by someone knowledgeable about livestock before the full investigation process kicks in."

    For Otto, it is crucial that funding for an Ontario livestock protection system be guaranteed. "Governments are famous for starting to fund a great new program and then dumping it by cutting funding five years later."

    The OSPCA's Arnett admits there are "gaps" in the current enforcement system and inspectors' experience with livestock, but she says many such gaps exist because funding is scarce or non-existent for some functions. "If we had more funding, we could do more, not just on enforcement, but on education by providing resources to farmers and further training for our investigators," she explains. "The willingness to work cooperatively is there, but funding is quite critical to much of what we'd like to accomplish."

    Despite the OSPCA's scarce resources, its ability to investigate livestock complaints, which comprise about 10 percent of the increasing total complaint load it handles each year, has improved according to Arnett. "As an organization, given the resources we do have, we've made a commitment through our own efforts to try and train our investigators in livestock inspections and farm animal cruelty," she says. "We have a full-time livestock inspector who's very knowledgeable about farm animal husbandry. That's a resource for investigators across the province for any consultation. And more and more of the agents and inspectors we're finding are from rural areas; quite a few have farm backgrounds."

    In the meantime, OFAC and the OSPCA are pursuing a reformed livestock protection system that allows the numerous stakeholders to agree on a common approach to a healthy, prosperous sector. The Alberta SPCA seems satisfied with ALPS. According to the ASPCA website, "the ongoing goal of the ALPS is to ensure that Alberta's growing livestock industry has a functional, proactive animal protection system in place as we enter the 21st century. In so doing, we demonstrate to provincial, national and international markets that Alberta is a global leader in its commitment to the humane treatment of livestock."

    The question now is: can such a consensus towards livestock welfare and enforcement be established in Ontario?

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