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
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
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
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
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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