Dogs and cats in P.E.I. have their backs covered much better today by their two-legged friends.
And the situation should only get better over the next little while.
Much has happened — and more is planned to take place — in response to the criminal case against Bud Wheatley that shocked and angered many Islanders.
Wheatley was sentenced in 2010 to serve five months in jail for willfully causing unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to animals in his care.
The charges against Wheatley, who was the operator of an online pet store called PuppiesAcrossCanada.com, stemmed from an investigation in 2009 that found dozens of animals being inadequately cared for in what veterinarians who inspected the site called appalling and disgusting conditions.
The case led the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the department responsible for the Companion Animal Protection Act, to review and revamp its approach.
Brian Matheson, the department’s manager of agriculture regulatory programs, says the department evaluated animal welfare systems across Canada and even North America to look at how other jurisdictions communicated internally and with the public.
As a result, the department has developed an “all-encompassing approach’’ to dealing with animal welfare in Prince Edward Island.
One outcome has been the establishment of the Companion Animal Welfare Initiative (CAWI) in January, a group consisting of the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre, P.E.I. Humane Society, P.E.I. Veterinary Medical Association, P.E.I. Department of Agriculture and Forestry, SpayAid P.E.I. and the Cat Action Team.
CAWI plans a proactive approach through education to best promote and ensure the welfare of companion animals in the province, explains Dr. Alice Crook, a veterinarian and chair of the group.
Crook says the group will educate the public on how to properly care for their pets and in doing so hopefully reduce the number of animals being surrendered to the P.E.I. Humane Society by people that can’t deal with their pets.
There will also be a stronger push for pet owners to use identification on their animals so more people are able to retrieve lost dogs and cats.
Crook says there is also a need to encourage people to intervene if they see someone mistreating a companion animal either intentionally or through ignorance.
Some cases of abuse are more obvious than others, such as the Nova Scotia Duck Toller shot with a bow and arrow in West Covehead last month.
Kelly Mullaly, executive director of the P.E.I. Humane Society, says people commonly call in a complaint when they feel an animal is not receiving adequate care, such as a lack of food, water and shelter.
“If it doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t...we need you to speak up for that animal,’’ said Mullaly.
“The more eyes and ears we have out there in the community that are looking for the animals, the more we can do for them.’’
Mullaly says the Humane Society investigated almost 700 complaints over the past two years. She says most cases are addressed simply through educating the pet owner.
“And they are sometimes very shocked, very surprised, but glad in the end because they’re getting to keep their animal and improve sometimes that relationship that they have with their animal,’’ she said.
However, close to 30 per cent of investigations carried out by the Humane Society are hampered by difficulty with access to the animal in question and/or the owner due to limited legislation.
Matheson envisions tougher legislation being introduced in the province to deal with animal welfare.
Currently, an animal must be in distress before the department can take action. Matheson would like P.E.I. to follow the lead of other provinces that use a “standard of care’’ that clearly outlines the responsibilities of those looking after companion animals and can issue an order to improve care or to have the animal removed.
Also fines currently running from $200 to $5,000 for any offence under the Companion Animal Protection Act in P.E.I. are lower than most parts of the country. Nor can a person receive jail time under the act here (Wheatley was locked up following a Criminal Code conviction).
By comparison, penalties for individuals under Ontario’s Provincial Animal Welfare Act include fines between $1,000 and $60,000 and jail time between 30 days and two years.
Matheson says conservation officers are now recognized under the Companion Animal Protection Act, thus bringing their expertise in gathering evidence.
He says the department has also improved how it deals with animal welfare in general. Now management is involved in all complaints. After an inspector evaluates a complaint, a group discusses the complaint to determine how to proceed.
“We bring veterinarians in a lot quicker than maybe we have done in the past,’’ said Matheson.
“If there is any doubt about the situation, about the health or the welfare of any of the animals we always bring in the veterinarian...and we always take the advice of the veterinarian and have them draft up the proper remedial practices that have to take place.’’
Matheson says his department investigated roughly 10 complaints about pet stores in P.E.I. over the past year. Most centered around cleanliness of cages.
“A lot of the time the complaints are not founded but in the cases where there was something there, they (pet store) are very receptive to our input,’’ he said. “In all cases they complied with what we asked.’’
Mullaly applauds the Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s thorough response to the disturbing Wheatley case.
“They obviously took the subject matter very seriously and they’ve been very diligent about doing the work that’s needed in order to make these changes,’’ she said.
“Hopefully,’’ said Matheson, “we don’t have to go through something like that (Wheatley case) again.’’