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Money, Jobs, and Power
at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources

by Yasmin Jackson

It is hard to believe that the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) would conduct a lengthy campaign of terror against a small volunteer organization caring for baby wildlife. Now, over a year later, the real story behind the harassment and intimidation is starting to emerge.

It began on July 23, 2002, when Ministry conservation officers and trappers entered the Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre unannounced, in bullet-proof vests, bearing guns and mace in an attempt to force the staff to sign amended permits giving the Ministry the right to seize young animals. Without any prior notice, it had expanded the raccoon rabies high-risk zone to include Ottawa.

Staff, student interns and volunteers, almost all young women, were terrified. Young animals they had been caring for were to be confiscated and probably euthanized. Volunteers caring for animals on their properties were afraid to leave home lest the animals be taken, and all said that the shock of experiencing the Gestapo-like tactics of the Ontario Government will remain with them forever.

Temporary court injunctions held the Ministry off, but on September 12 more than 20 conservation officers, provincial and city police carried out what one reporter said was the largest show of force he had witnessed outside of a major gang-related drug bust on the west coast. The tactical exercise included undercover agents who used a raccoon fur as a decoy (supposedly an animal needing medical attention) to get into the building; a dozen more officers hiding in the woods; police officers from the electronic crime division; and female conservation officers brought from other areas in Ontario to accompany the female staff and volunteers to the bathroom. They seized dozens of baby animals.

The Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre (OCWC) was set up 15 years ago by volunteers. The community relied on the services it provided, caring for injured and orphaned wildlife, and it handled 6,000 calls a year. Nearly 15% of the animals were adult, and the rest were babies. It looked after 1,000 to 1,300 mammals, and was declared to be a model for North America.

Animals were cared for by professionals, and vector-species were vaccinated so that there was no chance that they were carrying disease. (A vector is any agent that is capable of transferring a pathogen from one organism to another.) Thus the OCWC contributed to the health of wildlife generally by releasing healthy animals. Animals were put into a family grouping with foster families who cared for them, then released them and provided post-release care.

Generally, volunteers and private contributions provided 75% of the funding, and wildlife rehabilitation was funded entirely by private contribution and by volunteers. The Centre handled conflict calls on behalf of the City of Ottawa, helping area residents who had wildlife problems around their homes. The majority of issues are created by loss of habitat, and as the rate of development is increasing in Ottawa year by year, there has been a growing, overwhelming need for the Centre's services.

This Conflict Resolution Service (CRS) was a major undertaking that received upwards of 70 calls a day, and each call involved a 20 to 30 minute conversation with an expert on wildlife behaviour and biology, human health and safety issues, legal implications, and animal proofing/conflict resolution techniques. It was front-line education at its best, and it proved that the right advice led to safe, effective, and humane solutions that saved money for the homeowners and the City. It resulted in a progressive and valued CRS at a cost of 20 cents per capita, compared to other cities that typically pay 52 to 56 cents per capita for a purely reactionary response that entails euthanizing most of the animals.

The OCWC forged many links within the community, and it was a unique example of public/private partnerships that delivered the service in a highly cost-effective way.

The MNR's regressive regulations, unprecedented in North America, and its astonishing treatment of volunteers and wildlife, left the Wildlife Centre with no choice but to close. As no group or authority is providing support, the enraged community is now living with the reality of dealing with wildlife issues in its absence. Simply stated, if people find a vector species animal-raccoon, skunk, fox-their choices are to leave it to die, or to pay to euthanize it. As Ottawa Centre MPP Richard Patten stated, "The Ministry's actions were based on dubious and shaky research assumptions that have left the city void of a crucial service."

Why would the MNR want to shut down a progressive program whose Conflict Resolution Service is considered to be a model for North America? Why force wildlife rehabilitation underground, creating more health and safety problems for people and animals, and more costs for government in dealing with the consequences?

According to Rob MacGregor, District Manager MNR, the justification for the expansion in July 2002 was "a small number of raccoon rabies cases near the northern border of the old high risk area, indicating a movement toward Ottawa." This is a misrepresentation as all cases in 2001 and 2002 up until then were moving south and southwest-well away from Ottawa, as the MNR's own website map proves. These cases simply did not exist.

The seizure of these animals was without justification. They came from Ottawa where there has never been a case of raccoon rabies; they had been in care months before the unjustified expansion of the high-risk zone into Ottawa and well beyond accepted disease incubation periods; and they were fully vaccinated against rabies.

These animals were taken to an MNR research facility where they were separated and kept in small cages for almost eight months in violation of basic humane practices and international wildlife rehabilitation standards-standards the MNR itself imposes on wildlife rehabilitators in Ontario.

Requests made to inspect the animals and the facility by the OCWC and its veterinarians, the media, and even a representative from the Canadian Council on Animal Care were denied, leading everyone to believe that the Ministry had something to hide.

In spite of a promise made by Premier Ernie Eves to review the matter, the animals were quickly and quietly "released" to meet a May 1 target date set by the MNR in what many saw was a "rush to get rid of the evidence." They were released a hundred or more kilometres away from where they came, which is in violation of the Ministry's own one-kilometre release restriction.

An investigative report by a local newspaper learned from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that these animals were released at "ground zero" where there are current cases of raccoon rabies, and where animals are being trapped and killed as part of the MNR's controversial activities that it calls "depopulation." In other words, when one positive case is found, the MNR kills all raccoons within a 5-kilometer range. This program has been responsible for killing over 9,000 raccoons and skunks in the last three years-almost all (99.8%) healthy-and it is only now being exposed as a little-known, inhumane, costly and unprecedented slaughter in North America.

So far the politicians have been powerless in their attempts to make the Ontario Government accountable for its actions.

John Baird, the OCWC's MPP and a former government Minister, told the media that "although he is in full support of the Centre and agrees with each of its positions on the issue, he hasn't been able to persuade the MNR of this."

Ottawa City Council has taken the Ministry to task and passed several unanimous Motions to get the MNR to the table and the animals returned, none of which have had any effect. The MNR's actions have left the City of Ottawa to deal with wildlife problems and the resulting health, social, and financial consequences.

As the former Liberal MNR Critic, Ernie Parsons, MPP for Belleville and Richard Patten, MPP for Ottawa Centre have been vocal opponents, calling for an investigation of the Ministry's regulations and its actions. They had several meetings with the previous Minister of Natural Resources. It remains to be seen how the new Liberal government in Ontario will respond.

Ernie Parsons feels that the Ministry's response is unacceptable. He stated, "While expressing concern about rabies and the location where animals are being released, it is very clear that the (Ministry's) main agenda was to create a crisis."

Rabies is a thriving "industry." The word itself is enough to panic Ontario governments into handing over significant amounts of money for its "eradication." Thus while the number of raccoon rabies cases is rapidly declining, increasing competition for government funds from serious human-risk diseases like West Nile and SARS has meant that the MNR's Rabies Research and Development Unit has had to manufacture a crisis to support the continuation of its multi-million-dollar-a-year funding. The Ottawa-Carleton Wildlife Centre clearly represented an impediment to that goal.

For many in the community, the issue has gone beyond animal welfare. There are now serious concerns regarding breach of public trust, misuse of government funds, and gross abuse of power. A recent petition collected 9,000 signatures from more than 270 communities throughout the province and it was presented to the Ontario Legislative Assembly, demanding changes to the regulations to permit responsible and humane wildlife rehabilitation. The pressure for wildlife rehabilitation is prompted by dramatic increases in development and human encroachment, and Ontarians are demanding that their government provide a progressive wildlife response.

Many believe that without change, the Ministry of Natural Resources will mark the tombstone of where Ontario's wildlife used to be. Meanwhile we should heed the words of MPP Ernie Parsons when he said, "the only animals in Ontario that are safe are the ones the MNR does not manage."

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 44, Winter 2004. Copyright Jasmin Jackson.




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