The Animal Protection Act of Alberta turned 50 in 2017
Since it brought in the first version of the act in 1967, the provincial government has entrusted the Alberta SPCA with protecting Alberta’s animals from situations of neglect or abuse.
“Over time, as Alberta’s cities and towns have grown, we’ve received more and more calls about dogs and other companion animals,” says Terra Johnston, Executive Director of the Alberta SPCA, “but there are still a lot of farms in Alberta. More than half our investigations involve horses, cattle and other agricultural animals. Many of these animals are part of commercial operations, but others are on hobby farms or are ‘companion livestock’ on rural properties.”
In 2016, the Alberta SPCA dispatched 2,201 investigations. Horses are typically the most common livestock species seen, being involved in 29 percent of cases last year. Cattle were investigated on 10 percent of cases and other farm animals on 13 percent. The remaining cases involved dogs, cats or other companion animals.
The Alberta SPCA is a charitable organization, not a government agency, but it is authorized by Alberta’s Minister of Justice and Solicitor General to employ peace officers to enforce the Animal Protection Act. The current contingent of 11 peace officers work out of the head office in Edmonton and regional offices in Okotoks, Innisfail and Grande Prairie.
Alberta SPCA peace officers investigate every report they receive where there are reasonable grounds to believe an animal is in distress. Most of those investigations start with a call from a concerned member of the public.
“We can’t pick and choose our cases,” says Peace Officer Ken Dean, Director of Animal Protection Services at the Alberta SPCA. “We have a duty to respond to every call that meets the legal standard, so our peace officers have to be ready to deal with any type of animal.”
Successful applicants for Animal Protection Officer openings typically have many years of prior experience in both law enforcement and animal handling.
“Most of us, myself included, grew up on a farm or worked with farm animals as adults,” says Peace Officer Dean. “Law enforcement experience is valuable, but I’m usually looking to see that combined with animal experience, especially large animals. One of our recent hires is an experienced horse trainer who was hauling livestock and cowboying for more than 20 years before he started as an Animal Protection Officer.”
Before they receive their appointments, all Alberta SPCA peace officers must graduate from the Alberta Justice and Solicitor General Training Academy. During their employment at the Alberta SPCA they receive ongoing training in the care and handling of all species of owned animals.
“No two investigations are alike,” says Peace Officer Dean, “and our Animal Protection Officers use their extensive experience and knowledge of animal handling and care to determine what actions are appropriate for the situation.”
The weather, the specific condition and location of the animals and the owner’s willingness and ability to make improvements all affect how the investigation will be handled. Even the timeframe for investigations varies from a few days to a few months or even a few years.
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is the ministry responsible for the Animal Protection Act, and the act was first crafted with rural animals in mind. It is written to facilitate an enforcement model built on compliance principles: Alberta SPCA peace officers have a wide array of enforcement tools, but most of those tools only come into effect after an owner refuses to correct an identified problem.
“People are sometimes reluctant to call us because they don’t want to get a neighbour in trouble,” says Johnston. “But the primary objective of our investigations is to ensure proper animal care. It is not about punishing people.”
In about 40 percent of cases, the investigating peace officer will find that the caller’s concerns were unfounded. Other times, the investigator may confirm the reported concern but also find that the animal is already receiving corrective care. The peace officer will tell the animal’s owner the reason for the visit, but no other action will be taken. The investigation ends there and no one else typically knows anything about it.
In most cases where there is a reason for concern, the situation is relatively minor. Cattle might need a little extra feed over winter if the fall grazing was poor, or the bedding in a paddock might need to be replaced after a wet spring. The Alberta SPCA peace officer makes sure the animal owner or caretaker understands the problem and has a plan to correct it. The peace officer will return in a few days or a few weeks (depending on the issue) to see that the necessary changes were made and then conclude the investigation.
If the peace officer gives the owner a written warning, it will include a stipulation of what needs to be done and how soon. The peace officer will check back at the specified time to ensure the owner has complied with the instructions. Some situations may require multiple follow-ups with the owner. The peace officer will only conclude the investigation when conditions have improved and the officer is confident the animals are being cared for appropriately.
In the most serious cases, the peace officer may determine that animals must be seen by a veterinarian immediately. The owner is usually given the opportunity to call a veterinarian of his or her choice, but if the owner can’t be located or refuses to comply, the Alberta SPCA peace officer will call a veterinarian directly.
Serious cases can also require animals to be taken into protective custody. The Alberta SPCA can remove animals from a property if attempts to improve the condition of the animals fail, if the peace officer has reason to believe the owner will not follow-through on urgently required care, or if the animals are in immediate jeopardy. The peace officer will give the owner an official notice of seizure that identifies the animals taken and the procedure for reclaiming them. While the animals are in protective custody, the peace officer will ensure whatever care and veterinary treatment is necessary to relieve distress in the animals.
Alberta SPCA peace officers have the authority to lay charges under the Animal Protection Act, but this step is only taken in about 1 percent of cases.
“Even when our officers take animals into protective custody, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be laying charges against the owners,” says Peace Officer Dean. “Their number one priority remains focused on the welfare of the animals. Specifically, are they free from distress and being cared for appropriately? The consideration of charges happens later, only after the animals’ issues have been addressed.”
“If the media finds out about an active investigation, it’s because someone else called them,” says Roland Lines, Communications Manager at the Alberta SPCA. “We take the confidentiality of our investigations very seriously. We don’t release investigative details to the media, we don’t reveal the identity of a complainant to the animal owner, and we don’t discuss the owner’s personal information with the complainant.”
The Alberta SPCA relies on calls from the public to alert it to situations where animals may be in distress. Call 1-800-455-9003 to report suspected animal neglect or abuse outside Edmonton and Calgary.