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Ontario sheep kidnappers say infected flock is in 'protective custody'

CFIA agents seized nine Shropshire sheep from the farm of Montana Jones on Saturday, April 28, 2012. CFIA suspects the sheep have scarpies.

montana jones/The Globe and Mail

"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed the presence of scrapie in a quarantined sheep flock in Eastern Ontario," read the routine press release.

But behind the languorous statement is a tale worthy of a mystery novel, replete with the threat of a killer disease, a kidnapping by a shadowy group, the fate of a threatened species hanging in the balance, the Kafkaesque actions of a government agency and – this being Canada – a constitutional challenge for good measure.

It all began in January, 2010, when Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) inspectors imposed a quarantine on Wholearth Farmstudio, a farm that raises heritage animals in Trent Hills, Ont., about 90 kilometres northeast of Toronto.

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The action was taken because a rare Shropshire sheep that Wholearth had sold to Coyote Acres in Halkirk, Alta., in 2007, had died of scrapie, a fatal neurological disease that affects sheep and goats.

What followed was a lengthy standoff. Montana Jones, the owner of Wholearth, argued there was no evidence the sheep – known in voluminous court documents as S-24 – had acquired scrapie at her farm. Tests on her flock in Ontario showed no signs of the disease.

Meanwhile, however, the CFIA had developed a new policy: the eradication of scrapie from Canada. While the illness poses no threat to humans – lambs from infected flocks can be sold for meat – it can have a huge economic impact on farmers because it kills animals and threatens exports.

Armed with the new get-tough approach, inspectors decided to cull the Wholearth flock. Ms. Jones filed a lawsuit to block the move.

"They don't like it when farmers don't roll over. I think they're making an example of me," she said.

Her lawyer, Karen Selick of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, filed an application for judicial review of the quarantine and the culling. She argued, essentially, that the Health of Animals Act gave the CFIA too much discretionary power and its remedy for a suspected case of scrapie was excessive.

Further, she argued that the stiff penalties in the Act – Ms. Jones faces two years in prison and a $250,000 fine for defying the slaughter order – are excessive and therefore unconstitutional.

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The two parties, the CFIA and the farm, negotiated long and hard. Ms. Jones offered to cull some of her flock but not all 41 animals that the CFIA had targeted for slaughter (all of them have a particular genetic make-up that may or may not make them more susceptible to scrapie.)

"We tried to support the producer as best we could but there was no agreement," said Guy Gravelle, senior media relations officer with CFIA. He stressed he could not discuss specifics because of privacy legislation.

Unable to find a middle ground, the agency announced plans to round up the sheep and send them to a slaughterhouse on April 2 of this year.

But then things got really weird: 31 of the sheep, the ones that were slated for slaughter and were still alive, were kidnapped earlier this month in the dead of night. All that was left in the barn was a note signed by a previously unknown group, the Farmers' Peace Corps.

It read: "We have taken the animals into protective custody until an alternative to killing has been found, or conclusive independent proof or clear evidence of disease has been proven. This has been done without the knowledge or participation of the owner."

The Ontario Provincial Police are now searching for the sheep-rustlers-cum-animal-liberationists. They are going door-to-door in farm country, asking if they can search people's barns. They have even deployed a helicopter in the hope of spotting the stray sheep.

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On Friday, CFIA notified Ms. Jones that an autopsy showed a sheep that died at the end of March on the farm was infected with scrapie.

"This is a very serious turn of events," said Ms. Selick, the lawyer.

But Ms. Jones is not convinced the battle is over. "I don't believe Lava (the name of the sheep) was actually infected. They just needed a sheep to pin it on.

"I just want whoever has my flock to bring it back to me and then everybody leave me alone."

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