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Kendra Coulter is chair of labour studies at Brock University and a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. Amy Fitzgerald is a criminologist at the University of Windsor and a fellow at the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Program.

Ontario has stepped boldly into 2020 with a new and thoroughly public approach to animal protection, the first of its kind in Canada. If properly funded and thoughtfully implemented, the new system has potential to not only offer compelling lessons for other Canadian jurisdictions, but also to set a high standard for animal protection globally.

Across the country, the enforcement of animal welfare laws is normally off-loaded to humane societies and Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCAs), well-intentioned charities with vastly different levels of resources, and all reliant on donations. Some provinces, such as Alberta, have moved to a mix of public and non-profit investigations. In Newfoundland and Labrador, animal cruelty investigations now fall to general police forces. Manitoba has a publicly funded animal protection system but investigations are conducted by a mix of government workers, humane society staff and independent contractors.

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This unevenness and off-loading are highly atypical for law enforcement, which is normally deemed a core government responsibility by parties of all political stripes. Today’s animal protection patchwork stems from a time when horse carriages were the dominant mode of transportation. It also reflects continuing ambivalence about our relationships with animals – and our relative willingness to show leadership and spend public money protecting them.

Ontario had non-profit enforcement for a century. But in 2019, amid growing concerns and debate, the OSPCA stopped conducting animal cruelty investigations. This decision meant the province no longer had the option to off-load and had to act.

There were many possible public enforcement options to consider, but the province has chosen the smartest one for Ontario: a dedicated, public animal protection force. The enacting legislation received broad-based support from stakeholders and opposition parties alike. This reflects the fact that animal protection is a cross-partisan issue and that the model looks promising. There are many persuasive arguments for provincial legislation to be enforced by a publicly funded and centrally co-ordinated animal protection team, not to be off-loaded or downloaded.

There have been encouraging early signs, but key questions remain and will directly influence the effectiveness of Ontario’s new model.

The first is funding. The Doug Ford government has shown willingness to invest in its preferred programs and initiatives, but also made troubling and unpopular cuts. Sufficient funding is needed to hire an appropriate number of highly qualified animal protection officers, dispatchers and support staff, and to provide crucial services such as animal care, veterinary forensics and transportation, including for larger animals such as horses.

The quantity and quality of the work force will also be critical. The Solicitor-General has suggested there will be 100 officers. For comparison, Manitoba, with 10 per cent of Ontario’s population, has just more than 100 animal protection officers. One hundred officers would be a reasonable starting place but not an end goal because of the volume of calls and geographic size of Ontario.

Moving animal protection work into the public service will improve the working conditions and benefits, so it would attract a strong pool of experienced and well-trained applicants – good news for animals. The plan to have specialists focused on particular types of investigations and animal species, alongside well-trained general investigators, is laudable. The critical next step will be to properly support and protect this work force, physically and psychologically. Investigating suspected crimes against animals is incredibly difficult work. Officer well-being needs to be taken seriously through appropriate protective and communication equipment, effective mental-health programs and other pro-active and responsive strategies. The province should also carefully consider having officers partnered in the field.

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Close attention is being paid to Ontario’s next moves, particularly in countries of the Commonwealth that still use the charity-based model. Animals are sentient beings whose well-being is a matter of significant and growing public ethical concern. Animal cruelty is also increasingly being recognized as linked to other types of crimes, notably the abuse of women and children. There are many reasons why strengthened animal protection should be a resolution and commitment we honour.

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