Lawyers lining up to fight OSPCA court application to destroy 21 pit bulls

Lawyers are lining up to fight a court application by Ontario's animal welfare organization to destroy 21 dogs that were seized in an alleged dogfighting ring.

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The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a charity with policing powers, has already killed three dogs for medical reasons, ostensibly on the recommendation of two veterinarians. The society said the application to euthanize 21 pit bulls is due to irreconcilable behavioural issues.

"Ultimately this is the most humane course and is in the interest of public safety," the OSPCA's Brad Dewar said in an interview.

In an unlikely alliance, several lawyers representing animal rights groups said they will try to intervene in the case alongside the lawyer representing the four people accused of running the alleged dogfighting ring.

"It's appalling to see the law enforcement agency tasked with protecting animals going to court to actually attempt to execute them," said Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, an animal rights organization that's considering a legal intervention in the case.

"These dogs themselves are innocent victims of an alleged dogfighting operation."

Labchuk said her organization is also considering intervening in the case to give a legal voice to the animals. It's a rare occurrence for an animal rights organization to intervene in court, but Animal Justice was recently successful in intervening in a Supreme Court case about bestiality.

Ken Marley, who represents all four people accused in the case -- they collectively face more than 300 charges related to owning pit bulls, animal cruelty and weapons-related offences -- said he will "vigorously oppose the destruction of any more of his clients' dogs."

"It's disturbing to me that three of them have been destroyed already without a court order," Marley said, adding that he and his clients didn't find out about those deaths, which occurred in December, until two weeks ago when he received the society's court application.

"Usually if there are charges under the Dog Owners' Liability Act, the destruction of the dogs will be determined after the conclusion of the trial, but the Crown Attorney's office is trying to get this application done more quickly."

Last October, Chatham-Kent police and the OSPCA raided a home in southwestern Ontario -- Tilbury Township -- and seized 31 pit bulls, which are banned in the province, alleging they were part of a dogfighting ring.

Elizabeth Quinto, a lawyer in Cambridge, Ont., says she's planning on intervening on behalf of several dog rescue and animal rights organizations.

"I want the OSPCA to allow a third party, a reputable rescue or reputable behaviour assessment specialist, to come in, positively assess the dogs and be able to allow rescues to take them out of the province," she said.

Dewar said that likely won't happen, explaining that although the dogs are in the society's care, they are still the property of the owners. Either the dogs are destroyed if the court agrees with its application, or they remain with the OSPCA.

"We have no legal authority to move those dogs out of our care, they have to remain there, unless the decision by the court is to have them humanely euthanized," Dewar said, adding that the dogs are currently being housed at an undisclosed location.

He said it was a difficult decision for the OSPCA to proceed with the application to kill the dogs.

"No agency involved in the health and welfare of animals wants to see animals removed from a situation to end up with a fate to be humanely euthanized."

Labchuk has sent a letter to the OSPCA, imploring the society to allow for an independent assessment of the dogs, saying there are many rescue organizations who are willing to help out.

She cited the success of similar organizations that stepped in to work with nearly 50 dogs seized from an infamous dogfighting ring in the United States operated by former NFL star Michael Vick.

"All except for one of the Michael Vick dogs were successfully rehabilitated," she said. "That case goes to show the amazing progress dogs can take when given half a chance."

Vick pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges and spent 18 months in a federal prison.

The OSPCA's application goes to court on March 10, when a date will be set to hear the case. Dewar said seven other dogs seized are doing well and won't be put down.

Animal welfare and rescue groups said they'll protest the issue outside the OSPCA's headquarters in Newmarket, Ont., on Saturday.


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