The Toronto Humane Society's president and chief veterinarian are facing criminal charges of animal cruelty for running a dysfunctional shelter where animals were allegedly denied food and water and left to die suffering in their cages.
The charges against volunteer president Tim Trow, veterinarian Steve Sheridan and three other senior officials came six months after a Globe and Mail investigation uncovered widespread allegations of problems at the River Street facility.
Toronto police officers and agents from the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals swooped in Thursday afternoon to execute a search warrant and lead five handcuffed men out of a shelter that the OSPCA's lawyer derided as "disease-infested."
"These are animals who are just left to die in their cages," Christopher Avery, a lawyer for the OSPCA, said during the raid. "They're found dozens at a time, dead in [a]cage, every morning in this building. Dying from cancer, suffocating based on phlegm, these are animals who are starving to death, literally."
THS spokesman Ian McConachie said the charges were without merit.
"The animals are under excellent veterinary care, they receive all medicines, all treatments, all procedures necessary to make them better," he said.
"... Animals are not neglected, animals receive food, water, clean bedding and litter boxes every day and the dogs receive three walks every day."
A team of veterinarians has moved into the shelter and started inspecting the animals to ensure they are healthy and well cared-for, and to help determine whether further charges should follow. The shelter will be closed to the public until the inspection is concluded, likely in a few days.
If convicted, Mr. Trow, Dr. Sheridan, general manager Gary McCracken and senior staff members Romeo Bernadino and Andy Bechtel all face a maximum of five years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. They also face animal cruelty charges under the Ontario SPCA Act, as do all the volunteer members of the charity's board of directors.
Police and OSPCA officers also executed a search warrant at Mr. Trow's home yesterday.
As the shelter raid began just after 3 p.m., the sky was grey and the shelter bustling with unsuspecting staff and volunteers. A dog walker and her whipped-butterscotch toy dog froze as agents whisked past her to secure the building's rear exits. Inside, bewildered staff were herded to the lobby.
Toronto police moved into Mr. Trow's second-floor office, where Bandit, Mr. Trow's rescued pit-bull-Labrador cross, lunged at them. They pepper-sprayed the dog and brought it under control, Mr. Avery said.
Bandit first made news in 2003 when he bit a three-year-old's head, leaving a gash that required 200 stitches. The city ordered Bandit euthanized, but the THS refused and the dog came to live in Mr. Trow's office. Former staff said that Bandit was aggressive and badly bit at least two more people.
Mr. Avery blamed many of the THS's problems on shelter management's reluctance to euthanize sick animals. He also said the advice of veterinarians was routinely ignored.
A source said that the warrant was executed swiftly in order to avoid evidence being destroyed or tampered with. Mr. Avery said that obstruction charges laid against Mr. Trow, Mr. McCracken, Mr. Betchel and Mr. Bernadino stemmed from a June 2 inspection, during which animals were allegedly hidden from investigators.
"We received information that [on June 2]approximately two dozen animals were moved around the shelter and kept out of the eyesight of the SPCA because of the condition they were in," he said. "There's also a number of animals euthanized. In other words, the shelter management took active steps to ensure that [OSPCA]Officer [Kevin]Strooband was not able to properly conduct his inspection."
Linda MacKinnon, a spokeswoman for the Association for the Reform of the THS, said she felt relieved but saddened by news of the charges.
"We would have hoped that it could have come to a less dramatic conclusion … because we've worked hard to try to act as members and go through the appropriate channels with the board, to no avail," she said. "So, regrettably, it's come to this."
Mr. Trow, Mr. McCracken, Mr. Betchel and Mr. Bernadino were all charged with cruelty to animals, conspiracy to commit an indictable offence, and obstruction of a peace officer. Dr. Sheridan was charged with conspiracy to commit an indictable offence and cruelty to animals. All five men were expected to be released on bail Thursday night.
With a report from Stuart Paterson