Nova Scotia’s animal welfare system needs fixing

Border collie seized near WolfvilleThe fiasco that was last week’s hearing of the Animal Welfare Appeal Board illustrates the need for reforming Nova Scotia’s animal protection apparatus. The current system is jumble of conflicting interests and unprofessional behaviour.

In December, the SPCA seized 35 dogs from a property near Wolfville, and issued inflammatory statements decrying the operation as a “puppy mill.” One-sided news stories about the seizure adopted the society’s pejorative language, while providing no comment from Karin Robertson, owner of the seized dogs.

When Robertson appealed to the Animal Welfare Appeal Board, the SPCA responded on its Facebook Page encouraging supporters to attend the hearing and demonstrate support for the seizure.

“Anyone can attend! With your support, we can fight for justice,” the Society wrote on Twitter, in a post that was deleted after McInnes Cooper lawyer David Fraser likened it to police “organizing a rally in front of the courthouse to try to essentially intimidate the judge.”

A large crowd did show up at the December 30 hearing, and behaved in ways that would have seen them ejected from a proper courtroom. The session was marked by disorganization and confusion, as board chair Brian Casey, a Centre Burlington, Hants County, farmer, seemed unable to control the crowd’s outbursts and catcalls.

Three days after the hearing, the board upheld the seizure in an oral decision communicated to the parties, and made public in a release from the SPCA. The board has 10 business days from December 30 to provide the parties with a written decision, but astonishingly, needn’t make its ruling public. It can release the entire decision, a summary, or nothing at all.

So much is wrong here. The chair of any quasi-judicial board should have the training, experience, and wherewithal to maintain decorum at its hearings, and prevent audience outbursts from giving the appearance of mob rule.

The 10-person Board is currently operating at half throttle, with five of its 10 seats vacant. Its members need better training and more appropriate compensation than the current $150 per hearing day ($200 for the chairman).

The board’s decisions, like those of any court or quasi-judicial body, should be public in their entirety. Open courts are essential elements of a free and democratic society.

The board should not be under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Agriculture, since animal husbandry practices have lately come under increasing social scrutiny, and may be the subject of enforcement actions.

The SPCA’s dual mandates are mutually incompatible. The society operates kennels that house stray animals, pets given up for adoption, and animals seized in enforcement operations. These expensive facilities depend for their operation on financial donations and volunteer time from ardent, animal-loving supporters. To maintain this network of volunteers, the society actively promotes its activities on social media.

The SPCA also functions as Nova Scotia’s animal welfare police force, responsible for investigating complaints of animal abuse, seizing ill-treated animals, and laying criminal charges where appropriate. As its ill-conceived campaign to drum up a hostile audience for last week’s hearing demonstrates, these roles conflict.

I don’t know whether Karin Robertson was an abusive animal breeder, but if she has the resources, she surely has grounds to appeal last week’s ruling.