Except for the parrot perched on the Crown witness's shoulder, it was like any other provincial court trial.
There were no interruptions or disturbances — just a steady stream of defecation in the witness stand — during a one-day assault trial in Winnipeg last month that featured an avian support animal.
A middle-aged woman who alleged a 23-year-old man physically assaulted her in their home was allowed to have her bluish-green parrot with her as she testified in court. The bird stood less than six inches tall, and defecated on the woman's shoulder several times during the hour or so she was on the stand.
"I can advise the court that she has a service animal with her — um, a parrot," Crown attorney Erin Dunsmore told provincial court Judge Kelly Moar as the woman entered the Winnipeg courtroom June 25.
"OK. That's fine," Moar answered, without missing a beat.
The case is gaining notoriety in Manitoba's legal community because of its novelty — "It's not every day we see a bird in court," said Scott Newman, spokesman for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba — but it also raises questions about acceptable courtroom decorum, as advocates push for national standards in the growing field of animal-assisted support services.
The bird came as a surprise to defence lawyer Amado Claros, whose client was convicted later that day of simple assault and sentenced to 45 days in jail.
"I just got used to the whole idea of a service animal being a dog, or I was thinking the complainant was partly blind or something. And then," he said with a laugh, "the witness walked into the courtroom with a parrot on her shoulder.
"I just said nothing at the time. And I don’t think the judge found anything wrong with that. I mean, the animal didn’t really make much of a noise while she was testifying. (It) made a big mess of her shoulder."
He was prepared to raise an objection if the bird became disruptive, but it didn't, so Claros said he decided to let it be. He said he feared his client's case might be delayed if lawyers spent time arguing over the parrot.
"I really didn’t think it was going to be a big thing, but since then, counsel have come up to me and asked me, 'Was it true there was a parrot inside the courtroom?' So the reaction is mixed," he said.
"Some reacted the way that I did, which is that’s fine, you know, everyone is entitled to a request and if the court allows it, fine. And some other lawyers said, well, it’s an outrageous scenario where we’re pushing the boundaries and it shouldn’t have been allowed."
A spokeswoman for Manitoba Justice said in a statement service and support animals are allowed in the Law Courts building as long as the animal has a service vest or the owner has appropriate documentation — such as a note from a doctor or therapist or accreditation for the service animal.
The court gets about four to six such requests per year, and it's up to the judge whether the animal will be allowed in the courtroom.
"I just got used to the whole idea of a service animal being a dog, or I was thinking the complainant was partly blind or something. And then, the witness walked into the courtroom with a parrot on her shoulder" – Defence lawyer Amado Claros
"There is not a formal policy in place, since the situation is relatively uncommon and it would be difficult to account for all the possibilities. A reasoned approached is taken — so service or support animals that can reasonably be accommodated in the building are permitted, but those likely to disturb court proceedings would not," the spokeswoman wrote in an email to the Free Press.
"We know that animals other than dogs have been allowed in the building, but don’t track this information."
There is a definite need for national standards when it comes to allowing animals into courtrooms, said Joanne Moss, national director for the Canadian Foundation for Animal-Assisted Support Services.
"We know that people want animals in the courtroom. We know that they can be very helpful in the courtroom. We know that it can be sometimes problematic in the courtroom and so before anything really goes terribly wrong, we would like to be proactive as an organization," Moss said, noting the legal complications that can arise if an animal is disruptive in court.
The Ottawa-based organization has been around for 20 years, researching the benefits of animal support and calling for more regulation and resources. In a federally-funded 2017 report, Paws for Justice, the foundation looked into how dogs can help victims participate in the justice system and how animal-assisted therapy is evolving. There's been little Canadian research about how other animals fit into the court process.
"There isn’t an infrastructure to support all of this, and that’s why we’re trying to build it," Moss said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, July 24, 2018 at 6:38 PM CDT: Adds photo
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