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When the SPCA comes knocking

Understanding your rights and duties

Recent media coverage of alleged abuse at Chilliwack Cattle Sales in B.C. has sparked questions about an owner’s obligations when dealing with animal abuse investigators. What are your rights and responsibilities when an investigator arrives at your doorstep?

Inspector powers

Animal cruelty is prohibited under the Criminal Code, which applies across Canada. In practice, most investigations into suspected mistreatment of animals are conducted by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in each province. The SPCA often works with local police forces, but SPCA officers themselves also have police powers.

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Although the specific provisions vary by province, some general rules apply across the country. Investigating officers — whether from the SPCA, the police or peace officers — can enter a property where animals are kept during the regular business hours of that operation. The officer does not require a warrant or the consent of the owner. This does not extend to private homes; officers can only enter a private home with a warrant.

Where an officer has reasonable grounds to believe that an animal is in immediate distress and requires urgent intervention to alleviate suffering or preserve life, that officer can enter a premise without a warrant or permission, even outside the regular business hours.

During any lawful inspection, officers can inspect or seize animals, as well as take samples or carcasses. Officers can also order the owner to take steps to relieve animal distress, such as ordering veterinary care at the owner’s expense. In these cases, the officer must provide the owner with written notice of how to appeal the officer’s decision.

In the face of these powers, an owner cannot stop an investigator who attends at his property during regular business hours. Indeed, a refusal to allow access could be used as evidence to obtain a warrant, which can be executed outside regular business hours. Owners should, however, ask to see an investigator’s credentials. In addition, while owners can be required to give documents or evidence to the officer, they are not required to answer questions.

Undercover investigators

From time to time, animal rights activists obtain positions as employees with the intent of taking videos of mistreatment of animals. Unless owners have a specific provision in their employment contract banning filming (which would be a suspicious clause), this type of activity likely does not break any laws. Evidence obtained through these means might be used as the basis for the SPCA to lay charges, or may be used in public relations campaigns that can be hard to control.

In the U.S., a number of states have passed “ag-gag” bills. For example, Idaho prohibits unauthorized recording inside agricultural facilities and Iowa criminalizes providing false information on an employment application with the intent to record images. There has been little enthusiasm for these types of laws in Canada, and industry organizations have generally pushed for openness and transparency, rather than trying to limit access to agricultural facilities. From a public relations perspective, this demonstrates that producers are confident in their livestock practices.

As a middle ground, some states, including Missouri, now require that any evidence of animal abuse be turned over to law enforcement within 24 hours. Animal activists argue that this inhibits their ability to establish patterns of misconduct, but it ensures that the authorities can intervene to protect animal welfare at the earliest opportunity.

Best practices

Producers should ensure that proper procedures are in place for the ethical treatment of animals, and that there is sufficient internal oversight to ensure they are being followed. A common feature of many of the recent scandals has been the professed ignorance of the abuse by management. It is also helpful to have open lines of communication, so employees feel comfortable notifying management of any concerns they have.

When an investigator arrives on your property, it is reasonable to ask for identification, and to accompany the investigator without impeding his access. Owners should also record what the investigator reviewed, and take photographs where there may be a disagreement about the current condition of the animals.

Thank you for this opportunity

This is the final piece in my five-part legal series for Country Guide. I was raised on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario, and it has been a pleasure applying my legal skills to current issues in the agriculture field. If you have any legal questions in the future, please feel free to contact me at 416-865-2971 or by email.

Naomi Loewith is a lawyer at Lenczner Slaght in Toronto. As a business litigator, Naomi advocates and manages risks for clients in a variety of sectors, and has experience in actions involving all levels of government.

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