OSPCA ‘heard the outcry,’ suspends mass euthanasia

OSPCA chairman Rob Godfrey, CEO Kate MacDonald, centre, and veterinarian Magdalena Smrdelj hold a news conference Thursday to update the public on the ringworm outbreak at its York Region animal shelter.

The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will not go ahead with plans to kill all the ringworm-infected animals at its Newmarket shelter, says chairman Rob Godfrey.

“We heard the outcry loud and clear and that is part of the reason why we are here today — to set the record straight and to inform the public,” Godfrey told a news conference Thursday afternoon.

He said the organization had misstated the actual number of animals — originally reported as nearly 350 — that would need to be put down as a result of the ringworm outbreak at its York Region branch.

But the “aggressive strain” of ringworm was “not without its casualties,” Godfrey said, confirming that 99 animals had been killed since Tuesday morning.

He also said 15 animals had been stolen from the facility, likely by staff or volunteers who feared for the animals’ safety.

The OSPCA’s reversal came after widespread criticism of the decision, announced earlier this week, to euthanize nearly all the shelter’s animals in an attempt to contain the ringworm outbreak, which also affected six staff members.

Ninety-six animals have been placed in foster homes, where they will undergo further testing and treatment. Most were fostered before the outbreak, Godfrey said, but they will still be tested as a precaution. If infected, they will be returned to the OSPCA’s care.  There is “reason for hope” that the 140 animals remaining at the shelter can be treated and returned to good health, Godfrey said.

The 23 dogs, 91 cats and other domestic animals will be tested over the course of the next month at other shelters and animal agencies.  Animals will be looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether euthanasia is required.  The OSPCA’s about-face came after heated protests outside its Newmarket shelter, where volunteers, donors and other protesters openly wept and shouted “Murderers!” at the organization’s staff.

“Over time, public opinion took over, very clearly,” said Newmarket-Aurora MPP Frank Klees, who expressed his opposition to the OSPCA’s decision this week in the provincial legislature and called Godfrey directly to express his concerns on Wednesday night.

“We answer to the protesters, we answer to members of the Legislature, and we answer to all taxpayers in Ontario,” Godfrey told the news conference.  About 40 protesters continued to demonstrate Thursday outside the shelter, saying they won’t leave until they know why the euthanization decision was made in the first place.  Many called for a wholesale resignation of the OSPCA board and senior officials; others said there should be an independent third-party investigation.

“The trust has been broken and the relationship has been broken,” said Elizabeth Staunton, who said she felt sick knowing while she protested outside the shelter on Wednesday, dozens of animals were being killed just metres away.  “They continued with this when they knew how we felt.”

Staunton said protesters — many of whom are volunteers at the shelter — want to know how the euthanization decision was made, who made it, how decisions were made on fostering the animals and why they were never consulted.  Staunton said the ordeal has left many volunteers feeling cut out by the organization.  “We have questions that we need to have answered. Then we can begin to rebuild the trust.”

Godfrey emphasized that, by law, decisions to euthanize animals are made by veterinarians, not OSPCA executives.  “We walk the line of that law and we continue to walk the line of that law to save as many animals as possible,” he said. “If we didn’t, you’ve got to find two other people to do these jobs.”  Godfrey said some of the organization’s veterinarians have received death threats.

He said he and chief executive officer Kate MacDonald will investigate the matter with the completed report made available to the public. They will review animal care and communication protocols to identify “what can be done to stop this so it never happens again.”

Ringworm, named for the scaly ring-shaped lesions it leaves on skin, is caused by highly contagious and resilient fungi called dermatophytes. Infected animals will start to get hairless, crusty patches on their skin, usually around the face, ears, feet and tail. The itchy lesions may cause them to scratch until they bleed. Treatment includes segregation, followed by six to eight weeks of oral medication, as well as a special shampoo or spray.

The disease isn’t fatal for the animals, but diagnosis, treatment, isolation and decontamination of facilities is costly.

Since breaking out several weeks ago, the disease has infected everything from guinea pigs to shelter staff and its walls. On Monday, the OSPCA said it was heeding the advice of its veterinarians by ordering a blanket euthanization of all animals.  Godfrey said the first case of ringworm was discovered in February.

But according to shelter insiders, the outbreak began in early April, after staff found a cat, believed to be a long-haired Himalayan, with bald patches and scaly skin.

The animal was put into isolation, the former employee said, and staff tried to disinfect the building with a bleach solution and a fungicide. Meanwhile, all animals were treated with a specialized dip. Several animals with severe lesions were put down in a bid to curb the growing epidemic, but the infection continued to spread.

The OSPCA has blamed the outbreak on “human error,” saying certain protocols were not followed. They fired shelter manager Denise Stephenson on April 30.

Stephenson, who worked for the OSPCA for more than five years, says she is being used as a “scapegoat” and was dismissed “with no real reason given to me.”

Klees said he felt compelled to get involved because the initial plans of mass euthanasia appeared to be “drastic.”  On Tuesday, he asked Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci to delay the euthanizations so alternate solutions could be explored, but Bartolucci said the provincial government had no authority over the OSPCA.

Klees wants to change provincial legislation to give the government more authority over agencies like the OSPCA, “to make sure there is proper oversight.”  One of the OSPCA’s biggest fundraisers, the “Friends for Life” walk-a-thon scheduled for Sunday, was cancelled earlier this week. Protesters are planning to organize a funeral march for the euthanized animals instead.

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