In a move other provinces no doubt will be watching, Ontario has given the province's SPCA branch $5.5 million to set up a special-investigations union to crack down on puppy and kitten mills and beef up oversight of zoos and aquariums.
The plan, funded by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, also includes boosting investigative capacity on complaints from rural and northern Ontario communities, setting up a 24-hour centralized province-wide dispatch service and providing specialized training for investigators working in the agricultural sector, the ministry said in a news release.
The OSPCA now will also be responsible for conducting regular inspections of Ontario zoos and aquariums to assess the animals' health and safety, along with setting up a registry of the facilities to back the inspection process.
"Our government cares deeply for the well-being of animals wherever they live in this province," Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur said in the release.
"These measures strengthen the enforcement of animal welfare laws in under-served areas, dedicate resources to specific areas of concern such as inspections of zoos and aquariums and will set new standards of care for marine mammals.”
Ontario, which the ministry said has the strongest animal-welfare legislation in Canada, will also be seeking advice from scientists on standards for the proper care of marine mammals, including whales, dolphins and seals.
However, the final regulations will take into account the economic and tourism impact of the standards on communities where sea parks are located, the ministry said.
The popular Marineland attraction at Niagara Falls, Ont., has been the target of animal activists for years, most recently when a whistleblower alleged its large marine mammals were suffering from poor care and living conditions.
An inspection by Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), the industry's association, turned up no evidence to support the claims of the former Marineland employee, who is now the subject of a lawsuit by Marineland's owner.
“It is our job to protect those in our society who do not have a voice,” Rob Godfrey, chairman of the OSPCA, told reporters at the announcement Friday, according to the National Post.
“We will now have a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week call centre to take calls of abuse and neglect. It is this minister and this government that have taken the first step.”
Godfrey acknowledged news reports that Kiska, an orca living at Marineland, has suffered in captivity.
“We are looking at engaging an expert to look at what the proper move is for standards of care," he said. “I am expecting the report from the expert in June.”
CAZA executive director Massimo Bergamini welcomed the Ontario announcement but called it just the first step.
"More needs to be done to address the full range of issues —including public safety — that relate to the keeping of exotic animals and the operation of zoos and aquariums in the province," he said in a news release.
"For example, it is unclear how today's announcement addresses the regulatory and enforcement gaps that in the past have come to light—in Ontario and in other provinces—sometimes with tragic consequences."
CAZA has pushed for the provinces to pass new laws on exotic-pet ownership and bolstering municipalities' ability to enforce them, especially after two young New Brunswick boys were killed by an African python that escaped its enclosure in an apartment above a pet store last August.
Results of the police and government investigations into the deaths of four-year-old Noah Barthe and his six-year-old brother Connor during a sleepover have not been disclosed, CBC News reported last month.
Bergamini said institution of an accreditation-based licensing system for zoos and aquariums "would go a long way toward greatly improving animal welfare."
The Criminal Code provides a maximum sentence of five years in prison for animal cruelty charges or up to 18 months if treated as a summary conviction, but jail terms are rarely handed out. The provinces have their own animal-welfare laws that vary across the country.
In one of the most notorious recent cases, for example, the B.C. man who slaughtered about 100 surplus sled dogs after the 2010 Winter Olympics, received probation and a fine last year after pleading guilty.
The judge found Robert Fawcett was suffering from mental instability at the time and felt pressured by his boss to get rid of the dogs, which were shot and dumped in a mass grave with some still alive.
Last June, Brian Whitlock of Vancouver was given a 60-day jail term and three years' probation for abusing his pet German shepherd, Captain. Whitlock was also found to have mental-health problems.
In the widely publicized case, Captain was found wrapped in a bloody blanket and dying after being beaten and stabbed. He eventually had to be put down. Whitlock claimed he thought Captain had been poisoned after the dog started acting strangely so he decided to put Captain "out of his misery," according to The Canadian Press.
There are signs the justice system is taking animal abuse more seriously.
The Canadian Press reported an Edmonton man was sentenced to 14 months in jail this week after pleading guilty to animal-cruelty charges. Kristopher David Barwell beat his border collie puppy, Zeus, so badly it needed two artificial hips. Zeus, now renamed Kaden, also had maggot-infested wounds all over his body and two bullets lodged in his thigh and tail, CP said.
Judge Harry Bridges rejected a defence request for a conditional sentence as inappropriate.
"The circumstances of the abuse of this dog are sickening," he said.
Barwell will be on probation for two years after he gets out of jail. He's barred from owning a pet for 15 years.