Tuesday, January 26, 2010

SPCA: "Whatever you do, don't mention the war!"

I received this letter a few days ago. (I understand that Janice Bingley, whose dogs were seized by SPCA special constables in October, received an identical one.)

Here's my response:

First, I am not aware of ever having made any false statements about the SPCA. If I did so, it was certainly not intentional. Should the SPCA be willing to identify any statements of mine that they believe to be untrue, I'd be more than happy to remove them, if I am able to.

Otherwise, I respectfully reserve the right to express my opinion. As for "malicious", I suppose that's a matter of opinion. It also works both ways.

Finally, I would be extremely happy to stop commenting on the SPCA completely, and forever and ever, if they would be so kind as to give me my dog back.

Perhaps now that they have apparently lost the pound contract, they might wish to sit down and rethink their role in the matter, such as keeping my dog for over a year and half at a short-term care facility. Not to mention their initial decision to decline my request for  help me get her out at the very start, rather than deciding that one dead dog is an acceptable casualty in exchange for $414,000 a year. Having been told this by a board member in person, in plain language, in October 2008, I believe that this is an accurate representation of the position of the board of directors; if not, I apologize.

Contracts, conflations, confusion

It was surprising to learn that the SPCA lost a bid to renew its pound contract with HRM.

This is a very lucrative contract, with an enormous profit margin. That it goes unremarked in public discussion is perplexing, as half a million dollars a year seems awfully high for the cost of operating a few cages - the actual number is not made known - that occupy a part of the small shelter in Dartmouth.

The SPCA's pound contract had built-in annual fee increases, so from 2004 to 2009, the total grew in leaps and bounds, from about $200,000 to $414,000, sans any corresponding increase in services. If all of HRM's contractors enjoyed such generous increases, the city would be broke, surely! And people are willing to do all sorts of things to hang on to that money. It amounts to a bit less than half of the NS SPCA's annual income. The pressure to keep the contract is widely acknowledged as a reason why the SPCA cooperated with HRM all this time, and did not help me get Brindi out of the pound. I am not speculating here; in October 2008 I was told in plain language by the now president of the organization. They could not speak out or do anything about Brindi, because it would interfere with the contract, and they need the money to save other dogs. Aside from the dubiousness of the claim that a charity mandated to prevent cruelty would lose a contract for acting to save Brindi, it is ironic and, to me, a double loss, that they are now losing it anyway, as of the end of March.

I don't know exactly what has transpired between HRM and the SPCA to cause this to happen. As far as I could tell, the SPCA did everything it was asked to do. And a further irony, a very sad one, is that HRM pointed to a lack of adequate long-term care as a shortcoming of the SPCA. It was always aware that the Metro Shelter is not designed to keep animals for longer than 30 days. I tried several times to get Brindi transferred to a suitable kennel. Each time, HRM refused, claiming that the conditions were fine; they would not transfer her without a court order. Then it claimed the provincial court did not have the authority to issue an order to transfer her. Apparently, an order to move a dog to a proper kennel requires a Supreme Court application, which could take over six months to be heard.

So for HRM to use the long-term care issue as a reason not to renew the SPCA's contract seems just a tad disingenuous to me.

With the contract's huge pricetag, close to half a million now, it's no wonder it was very attractive to other bidders. Hope Swinimer, director of the Hope for Wildlife Society, formed a special company for this very purpose. Her bid was accepted by the HRM staff and will be voted on today in the HRM council meeting. The contract will go a long way towards supporting the Wildlife Society's operations, just as it currently helps support the SPCA's provincial operations. It is interesting to consider that the keeping of impounded dogs will fund rescues of bobcats, racoons, eagle, and deer, to name a few of the many species that Hope and her volunteers care for on a regular basis. (I feel it's a shame that there is no source of direct funding for the wildlife rehab center.)

In essence, this change in contractor does little to help Brindi, or, for that mater, Mercedes, a pitbull that has been impounded for over six months, after it attacked two cyclists. The contract has no exclusion clause preventing HRM from sending dogs in such predicaments to more suitable kennels, but it seems that the city is not prepared to sort out what is needed in order to do that. Nor is there any talk of amending the law to set limits on the length of impoundments. That of course would require a few changes in the by-laws to create procedures that would make such limits possible. I understand that the council is putting off changing A300 until my case is over, which is interesting, as they created the law that helped bring the case about, but refrain from acting to help resolve it.


Fortunately, without the quashed section 8(2)d of A300, there should not be another case like Brindi's, where the animal control officer ordered euthanasia (without investigation), and there was and is no due process for the owner, which essentially led to such a long impoundment (that, plus the city's refusal to give her back after the supreme court ruled in my favor). Nevertheless, there is a serious backlog of cases in the courts so that  Mercedes' case has already been delayed six months.

Perhaps then, with time and clarity in mind, it would be a good idea for HRM to proceed on two levels in such cases: prosecute the owners in the courts, and review the issue of "dangerous dog" in a separate process. After all, under the current version of A300, euthanasia is not a penalty; it only stipulates fines. A provincial law currently allows a judge to order a dog to be put down, namely section 177 of the Municipal Government Act.  (The law still provides for a dog to be put down on the spot by AC officers in situations of extreme danger.) Section 177 is called "Additional Penalty", a term which raises the same issue of separation.

It seems to me that penalties imposed on humans should not involve killing an animal, for many reasons, legal and otherwise. If and when an animal is properly assessed and found to be "incorrigible", i.e., has severely injured or killed a human or another animal, many communities call for euthanasia; some allow the owner to remove the animal from the jurisdiction (Boston, for example).

I would prefer the latter, of course, but the point is, there is currently no such separate process in place here. Instead, the dog and owner are thrown into the legal system with its "glacial" pace of movement, while the system is employed by HRM to seek a euthanasia order in a very roundabout way, with no requirement for anyone, judge or prosecutor, to obtain and consider an expert assessment of the animal's behavior proving that it is indeed too dangerous to be allowed to live. At best, it is a hit and miss affair, when it comes to evidence and judgments.

By the way, Brindi's behavior assessment (conducted at the pound at the five-month point, by court order at my request and expense) was not reviewed by the supreme court, and it has been ignored - or worse, given a negative spin - by HRM for over a year.

There are very few cases that end in euthanasia. Nevetheless, HRM Animal Services does succeed in putting down a fair number of dogs deemed "dangerous". How? They simply get the owners to turn them over, evading any court proceeding. The owners are likely told that fighting a euthanasia order will be costly to them, and cause their dog to be impounded for a long time, and surely they wouldn't want to inflict that on their pet. So, in 2007, for example, something like ten dogs were signed over by their owners to be destroyed as "dangerous" dogs (according to a chart I received from HRM last year; if I can find it, I will post it!) That's kind of a lot of dangerous dogs, for a city this size.

I note here (again) that if one applied the law evenly, far more dogs would be put down; in fact, under section 2 of A300, any time an owner is declared guilty of owning a dog that threatened or attacked an animal or a person, and there are many (see here), their dog is automatically defined as "dangerous"; ditto for any dog with a muzzle order.

Here's another odd thing: declaring a dog dangerous does not require the city to euthanize it. In fact, there is a special licensing category with a fee of $100 for dangerous dogs. But Brindi was never put into this category; I was asked to renew her license last spring for $15.