Animal Protection Act doesn’t protect much

Dawson resident Jim Foesier faces no charges or other repercussions after shooting his 74 dogs on April 12th.

Dawson resident Jim Foesier faces no charges or other repercussions after shooting his 74 dogs on April 12th.

Animal abuse is not new to the territory, but the sheer numbers in the Foesier case has provoked criticism of the Yukon’s Animal Protection Act, and exposed gaps in federal-provincial animal-welfare laws.

Really, the law argues with itself, said Dawson veterinarian John Overell.

Federally, animals are considered personal property, he said.

“And you can do anything you want with personal property.”

So the federal law must be changed, he said.

Several years ago, a bill was tabled in Parliament that deemed people to be animal caretakers, not owners, said Overell.

But the bill would have rendered agriculture illegal, because beef, chicken and pig farmers kill healthy animals.

So, the legislation died.

“But all they needed to do was separate agricultural animals from pets,” said Overell.

During his eight years as Dawson’s sole vet, Overell has seen a lot of animal abuse.

And the Yukon’s Animal Protection Act has never been helpful.

“It’s really so grey,” he said.

“And a lot of it comes down to semantics.”

For example, it’s hard to differentiate cruelty from neglect, said Overell.

“The act needs to be more precise about what cruelty means.”

People neglect animals out of ignorance, but aren’t intentionally trying to harm them, he said.

“And I’ve worked on lots of cases where it’s been hard to tell where cruelty starts and chronic neglect stops.”

In animal abuse cases, the owners have to receive a warning before Overell can enter their property.

So, the owners have plenty of warning to fix everything up, he said.

“And when I show up, the animals have lots of food and water and everything appears to be fine.

“And I have to be objective — I can’t go on hearsay.”

If Overell finds a problem, the owners usually receive another warning before action is taken.

Even if charges are laid, repercussions are minimal, said Overell.

“The law is wishy-washy and has no teeth.

“There are no serious consequences even when people are charged, and it’s a very complex and frustrating process for the police, who could be spending all this time on laws with teeth, rather than tonnes of hours on something that’s not even going to go through.”

It can take several years before charges are laid, and they’re often dropped over some technicality, said Overell.

And when dropped, the Humane Society is not reimbursed for its caring and feeding of the confiscated animals.

“There have been cases with multiple horses in the past, and that’s a lot of money in feed,” said Overell.

There are lots of problems from an enforcement perspective, said Dawson RCMP Sgt. Dan Gaudet.

According to the law, police have to make every reasonable effort to find the owner and co-operate with them to provide relief to animal(s) in distress, he said.

But distress isn’t defined in the law.

In the act, animals without proper care, food, shelter or water, are deemed “in distress.”

It’s pretty subjective, said Gaudet.

“There is some room for interpretation, which causes difficulties,” he said.

“We need specific standards of care,” said Dawson Humane Society charter president Aedes Scheer.

“It’s not good enough just to have ‘adequate food, shelter and care’ — whatever ‘adequate’ is. I want it defined.”

Currently, the RCMP relies on vet assessments to determine if an animal is in distress, said Scheer.

But many communities don’t have a vet.

“And you can’t wait until a veterinarian is found in Whitehorse and drives out to Beaver Creek to look at some dogs, when you need something done right now,” she said.

“So, whatever changes are made to the act need to work across the entire territory — they can’t hinge on having vets in every community.”

With a defined standard of care, anyone could assess an animal’s well-being, said Scheer.

“People who are trained how to recognize signs of abuse, neglect, or hoarding would use algorithms to arrive at a conclusion, then access other resources, like vets or shelters,” she said.

This system works well in other emergency situations. For example, it is used by ambulance attendants, said Scheer.

In January, Alberta amended its animal protection act.

It now includes:

• An expanded definition of distress.

• A detailed list of duties that must be performed by animal-care officers.

• Prohibition against abandoning animals.

• Protection for those who report animal abuse.

Although it’s leaps and bounds better than Yukon’s legislation, Alberta’s law still doesn’t address hoarding cases, said Scheer.

“And hoarding is a psychological, social issue that really needs to be addressed.

“There needs to be a section in the act that prohibits hoarding, whether it’s a cat lady, with over 100 cats, or a case like this guy (Jim Foesier).”

Municipal law often addresses this, but outside community boundaries there is often a legislative vacuum, she said.

Scheer wants an omnibus law that deals with animal welfare in the territory.

“Right now, there are all these acts — the Animal Protection Act, the Pound’s Act, the Dog Act — and I would like to see these all combined,” she said.

“One of my goals, when I started the Humane Society 18 years ago, was making changes to the Animal Protection Act,” said Andrea Lemphers, Humane Society Yukon’s founding president.

“But this is one thing I failed at.”

Lemphers lobbied five successive governments championing changes to the act.

“And they all promised to make changes, but they were never fulfilled,” she said.

Lemphers would like stiffer penalties for repeat offenders with fines up to $20,000; trained professional personnel to enforce the act; vets willing to co-operate with Humane Societies to do assessments; laws against hoarding and an omnibus act that combines all the relevant legislation.

“I talked to (Lake Laberge MLA) Brad Cathers about these changes and, apparently, any changes we want to make will affect 17 other pieces of legislation, but I have yet to see any of them,” said Lemphers.

“And I’m fed up with hearing it’s impossible and can’t be done.

“Political people keep saying they are going to do something about it, then it stops and dies — it’s not rocket science.”

And there are good acts out there, like Alberta’s, said Lemphers.

Unfortunately, changing federal and territorial law is not going to happen overnight, said Overell.

“And, really, in the big picture, what’s most important is the federal government, the territorial government and the provinces working together on the major issues, ‘cause if the core stuff is not changed, other changes are not going to make any difference anyway.”