Ontario has made headlines recently because the province began 2020 with the creation of a dedicated, public animal protection team. The move was noteworthy because in most Canadian provinces, animal cruelty investigations have been de-prioritized by successive governments and off-loaded to charities — highly unusual for law enforcement.
So how does Manitoba compare? The province’s approach is a bit different and has impressive elements. There are also policies that could be improved, in the interest of better protecting animals, the public and the people who do this difficult yet crucial work.
Animal protection is one of the mandates of Manitoba’s chief veterinary office, a branch of the ministry of agriculture. It was Gary Doer’s government that laudably moved animal cruelty investigations under the public umbrella. Manitoba stands out for recognizing that animal well-being is both a matter of significant ethical concern and a public health and safety issue worthy of sustained investment.
The province’s animal care line streamlines and facilitates the reporting process for concerned members of the public. The dispatchers are knowledgeable workers whose important role in animal protection should be recognized.
Animal protection officers (APOs) are sent to investigate complaints and determine next steps. Some issues can be fixed with education or corrective actions that address violations of the Animal Care Act and improve animals’ lives. Yet officers may discover serious crimes and the abuse of women and children, alongside animal harm. APOs also often find people struggling with poverty or mental health disorders, reaffirming that the work of APOs involves more than just animal welfare.
Put simply, they are called investigations for a reason. APOs need to be well prepared for different situations, challenges and risks, and have many tools and resources at their disposal.
Identifying who exactly is responsible for front-line investigations in Manitoba is where the model becomes more complicated. Animal protection work is publicly funded but delivered through a web of around 105 public and private actors. APOs may be government employees, work for the Winnipeg Humane Society or, in many cases, be independent contractors who do animal welfare work on a part-time basis.
This organizational structure has led to inequities in pay, workplace benefits and labour rights. There are clear differences among APOs in terms of uniforms, vehicles, and equipment. This patchwork also contributes to inconsistent levels of service and response times around the province. All APOs are committed and driven, but their working conditions help or hinder their efficacy.
As a result, we urge the province to seriously consider creating a single unified public animal-protection force that is rigorously trained and well resourced. Such a dedicated and fully public team could be comprised of current APOs as well as creating new, humane jobs for Manitobans to increase reach and responsiveness.
APOs currently receive eight hours of initial training. This should be increased and expanded to better prepare workers for the legal intricacies and many social challenges they confront daily. In addition to the physical difficulties of animal protection work, there are also serious psychological risks. APOs must confront dire situations regularly and witness things most of us cannot stomach. Investigators need more robust mental-health supports tailored to the particulars of what they face on the job — and beyond.
There are also clear opportunities for increasing communication and collaboration among police and APOs. Manitoba law enforcers were well-represented at the recent Canadian Violence Link Conference, which focused on the connections among violence against animals and the subsequent or simultaneous abuse of people, especially women and children.
But it is clear that more dialogue and co-operation among law enforcement agencies would strengthen investigations, and better serve the province’s diverse communities, vulnerable people and animals. It would also increase APO safety.
These kinds of collaborations would further bolster Manitoba’s commendable commitments to seeing the interconnections of human, animal, and environmental well-being through the One Health framework and related provincial initiatives. People everywhere are looking for hopeful examples of how we can better protect each other. By addressing workforce inconsistencies among APOs and strengthening animal protection, Manitoba has the potential to show real public leadership and create an enviable approach that inspires other provinces – and countries – to aim higher, for the safety of animals and people alike.
Kendra Coulter is chair of the department of labour studies at Brock University and a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. Brittany Campbell is a PhD student in sociology at Carleton University.