Thursday, March 8, 2012

Government amendments to Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act reduces SPCA power, improves transparency and fairness

     The BC government has announced an amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act that will establish the Farm Industry Review Board as the organization to hear appeals from citizens regarding animal welfare issues where the BC SPCA has seized an animal. Previous to this, the SPCA had powers to seize and the only way British Columbians could appeal was to take the matter to court. Another amendment requires the Society to provide the Minister of Agriculture with information related to the enforcement of the Act. The Act was also amended to allow the minister to draft bylaws outlining enforcement procedures and to appoint others to enforce the Act. The intended outcome is to improve transparency and fairness to animal welfare enforcement actions.
      What was the trigger to this? The amendment began as a result of public outcry over heavy-handed enforcement by the BC SPCA, and the Province's desire for increased transparency. Last fall, nearly 100 rare breed Berkshire pigs were seized from a Cowichan Valley farm by the SPCA, triggering a reaction from the community that raised questions about the way the SPCA operates and the power that the organization has. It seemed that the SPCA thought it would be a textbook case of going in to take abused animals out of a poor situation, but it proved to be more complicated than that. The event coincided with a fall campaign to raise money for the SPCA by raising awareness about farm animals and the SPCA certified program, which provides a third party audit to farms that want to use the SPCA certified label on their farm products.
      The event also coincided with the fall meetings and AGMs that farmers have. The seizure of the pigs was an emotional topic of discussion at the BC Sheep Federation AGM held in Duncan; many participants knew the farmer who owned the Berkshires, a rare breed that were sold as weaners to other farmers. There were people there who bought pigs from Bill and found them to be in good health. They spoke of how much Bill loved his pigs. Was it necessary to take away all of his pigs in such a manner, which would probably result in boarding costs that eventually exceed the value of the pigs? There were many people who would have helped Bill out by taking some of the excess pigs, if they had known. A group of volunteers quickly organized and contacted the SPCA and Bill with offers to find homes for the pigs and help any way they could. Many letters from farmers and non-farmers were written to local papers, supporting Bill. Based on this incident and others throughout BC, a resolution was passed at the BCSF AGM to write a letter to the Minister of Agriculture about this situation and others regarding the SPCA seizing livestock.
      But it isn't a simple case of an overzealous SPCA conducting their mandate, although there have been indications that the SPCA did exert a lot of muscle by using the RCMP. It was fortunate that the SPCA brought in the BC Farm Animal Care Council, a new producer organization that's role is to work with producers regarding animal welfare. The BCFACC suggested bringing in a retired and well respected pig producer, who was instrumental in buying Bill some time with another two weeks to improve the housing. The pigs were overall in better condition that the authorities expected because they are hardy Berkshires, but there was concern over the mud and housing. Bill was known to be overwhelmed with the work involved in feeding and caring for his growing breeding herd, and he struggled with the challenges of keeping several boars for the rare breed. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and Bill slipped between the cracks as a small farmer who is on his own with little support. Notwithstanding that, he worked hard to improve the housing in the two weeks, which was recognized by the industry experts but the SPCA decided to seize the pigs anyways because not enough progress had been made.
      The veterinarian and former pig producer were asked to leave by the SPCA prior to the seizure, so they did not witness the loading or new location for the pigs. There were reports that the boars were put together and ended up fighting and injuring each other, resulting in some being put down. The housing they were moved to was an open barn, not a pig barn with separate pens, so the more vulnerable pigs were at risk - while under the SPCA's care.
One suggestion to come out of this was to have the BCFACC set up a peer network so that if there are SPCA complaints regarding livestock, there are producer associations and farmers institutes available to advise SPCA and help the farmers who are trying to comply but lack the resources and support to do so. The rapid and organized response to Bill's situation by various farm groups and individuals in the Cowichan Valley and beyond indicate that this approach may greatly improve the efforts of the SPCA to achieve their mandate in a more sensible way.
     The new changes to the Act will encourage the SPCA to adopt such changes in their procedures to ensure that knowledgeable people enforce the Act in a fair way. The involvement of the FIRB, an established and experienced tribunal, is a logical choice given that the FIRB is already empowered to hear appeals under the Natural Products Marketing Act, The Administrative Tribunals Act and the Farm Practices Protection Act. The board reports to the Minister of Agriculture in matters of administration, but is independent of government in decision-making. The board may require the animal be returned to its owner, allow the SPCA determine the fate of an animal, or confirm or vary the costs for which the animal owner is liable to the BC SPCA while the animal was in its care. The BC FIRB will only hear appeals after attempts to resolve through the BC SPCA’s own 28-day internal review process, but knowing that the BCFIRB could become involved, the BC SPCA should respond with greater fairness and transparency than they have in the past.