EDMONTON––A September 13, 2014 rollover crash near Olds, Alberta that killed at least three dogs in a load of 30 has reignited debate over the practice of importing dogs from U.S. shelters into Canada.
The seven a.m. accident came toward the end of a multi-day drive from the Los Angeles area to an adoption event in Edmonton. Two volunteer drivers for a Saskatchewan-based dog rescue organization reportedly escaped with minor injuries after flipping their SUV and a horse trailer full of crated dogs on Alberta Highway 2, just south of Highway 27.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police corporal Mike Dunsmore said “driver fatigue was a factor, while alcohol, speed, weather and road condition had all been ruled out,” reported Damien Wood of the Calgary Sun.
“Two dogs were killed in the impact and 20 were hurt. A third dog died soon after,” Wood wrote.
Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society volunteers took in the surviving dogs and searched for eight dogs who escaped from their damaged crates after the crash. Two dogs remained at large two days later, including a pit bull who was believed to have been hit by a car.
Most of the dogs involved in the accident appeared to be pit bulls or pit mixes, but at least one Chihuahua was reportedly recovered almost a mile from the scene. The importation of pit bulls of uncertain history added a dimension to a controversy over rescue dog imports that had already smouldered for a decade. Pit bulls are prohibited in Ontario and much of Manitoba. Alberta, where the accident occurred, has little or no breed-restrictive legislation, and at least since 2000 has led Canada in fatal and disfiguring dog attacks.
In Calgary, the largest city in Alberta, “confirmed aggressive dog incidents” and related criminal charges tripled in 2013, and in mid-2014 were up 15% more.
Dogs from Los Angeles
Objections to transportation of dogs specifically from Los Angeles to Canada emerged after the Vancouver Sun in January 2011 reported that an organization called Better Life Dog Rescue had imported about 200 dogs from the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation.
Opposing Views blogger Phyllis Daugherty, long outspokenly critical of Los Angeles city animal control director Brenda Barnette, wrote that the transports were part of “a shell game to avoid being the one who may ultimately have to euthanize the animals who break down under the stress of long-term confinement and/or repeated relocation.”
The major concern on the Canadian side of the border, suggested Humane World blogger Thomas Mair, was that pit bulls from Los Angeles might help to fuel recent increases in both dogfighting and dog attacks in the Lower Peninsula of British Columbia.
“Rescued” pit bulls from the Los Angeles area were reportedly impounded from an alleged dogfighting operation near the B.C. border on the U.S. side in May 2013, but have not actually been identified in connection with any of the Canadian incidents.
Canada changed the rules
Meanwhile, responding to rising concern about what dogs are being imported into Canada, in what health under what conditions, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on November 1, 2013 rescinded a 2005 rule that allowed animal charities to import puppies almost without restriction.
The rule was blamed for outbreaks of heartworm, the arrival of dangerous dogs from U.S. shelters, and for harming the chances of Canadian shelter dogs to be adopted, though Canadian shelters currently rehome more than 85% of the dogs they receive.
But observers worried that rescinding the 2005 rule might reduce accountability for puppy imports into Canada by encouraging rescuers to import dogs as individuals, as appears to have occurred preceding the September 13, 2014 accident, rather than under organizational umbrellas.
“In 2005 the CFIA introduced a special policy to assist animal welfare organizations that were rescuing displaced dogs from the U.S. in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Effective November 1, 2013 this policy is no longer required and has been discontinued,” said the CFIA announcement.
The Canada Border Services Agency enforces Canadian import laws, but the CFIA prescribes the animal import requirements and inspection fees.
“Rescued dogs under eight months of age and destined for an animal welfare organization are no longer eligible for import,” the CFIA announcement added. “Rescued dogs eight months or older and destined for an animal welfare organization are eligible for import, provided they meet import requirements for resale. Rescued dogs of any age may still be imported by an individual, provided the animal is able to meet Canadian import conditions.”
Imports of dogs by animal welfare organizations are defined by the CFIA as a category of commercial import, since the collection of adoption fees or donations in lieu of set fees legally constitutes a form of sale.
Commercially imported dogs must be accompanied by certification of having been vaccinated against rabies, and must be microchipped for identification. Importers are also required to pay inspection fees of $30 for the first dog and $5.00 for each additional dog in the shipment.
Some of these requirements are waived for puppies imported by individuals as their own, depending on the puppies’ ages.
“Wild west sphere”
The immediate catalyst to the CFIA rescinding the 2005 rule may have been a March 2013 exposé by Charlie Gillis of the Canadian national news magazine Maclean’s.
“Canada has become a refuge to the huddled masses of the canine world, as thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—flood into the country each year,” Gillis wrote.
“It’s a wild west sphere, with no one tracking the number of rescuees entering the country, nor their countries of origin. The CFIA has recorded a spike over the past five years in the number of adult dogs imported annually for commercial use, from 150 to 922. But that represents a fraction of the inflow, because some rescuees enter the country designated as pets rather than commercial-use animals, and because border officers don’t keep count of the dogs they inspect for proof of rabies and for general health.
“One Calgary-based agency contacted by Maclean’s, Pawsitive Match Inc., says it trucked in about 800 dogs from the southwestern U.S. and Mexico in 2012 alone.”
Added Gillis, “As many as 80 new Canadian groups join Petfinder each year, and while not all import their dogs, enough do that a few mouse clicks can raise the profiles of canines from such far-flung locales as Greece, Taiwan, and Iran.”
Gillis approvingly profiled the work of Adopt an Indian Desi Dog founder Barb Gard, who since 2009 has imported about 250 dogs to British Columbia from Delhi, India, and Tails from Greece founder Diane Aldan who has imported about 300 dogs to Ontario from Greek rescuers since 2001.
Considerable adoption transport goes on within Canada, as well as into Canada from international destinations. The 43 shelters operated by the British Columbia SPCA, for example, annually transport more than 5,500 animals among themselves to maximize adoption opportunities. The volume amounts to nearly a third of the total of about 16,400 animals per year whom the BC/SPCA rehomes.
About 230 rescuers reportedly participate in the Rescuing Dogs in Canada adoption transport network, which requires that “All dogs in need of rescue must be within Canada.”
But Gillis also recognized the criticisms voiced by Canadian Federation of Humane Societies chief executive Barbara Cartwright.
“We need to direct Canadians to adopt here,” Cartwright told Gillis. “It can be very frustrating for a local humane society that has a dog overpopulation problem, and is looking at euthanizing animals, while dogs are being brought in from a different continent.”
Added Gillis, “Cartwright also raises concern about the potential for imported dogs to carry pathogens like rabies or the deadly parvovirus––though that concern seems minimal, given the CFIA requirements for canines entering the country.”
But the 2005 CFIA rule had come under increasing criticism for allegedly allowing the import of diseased dogs since 2009, when the Hamilton Academy of Veterinary Medicine reported a tenfold surge in heartworm cases around Hamilton, Ontario. The Toronto Humane Society had already noticed that heartworm cases throughout Ontario had increased from 258 in 2002 to 676 in 2008. The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association reported a 280% increase in heartworm from 2005 to 2008.
“The prime reason is abandoned dogs imported from Louisiana into Canada by the Hamilton SPCA after Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” alleged Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington in October 2009. “In 2008 some 600 dogs from Louisiana reached the Hamilton SPCA, most under eight months old, supplied by the Louisiana dog rescue firm Bordeaux Animal Rescue Krewe. Forty-five of 63 heartworm cases around Hamilton were dogs who had been imported from Louisiana and the southern U.S.,” according to Hamilton veterinarian Randy Stirling.
BARK director Jillian Donaghey told Tiffany Mayer of the St. Catherines Standard that the BARK dogs sent to Ontario had all been tested for heartworm. But Donaghey acknowledged that other rescuers had sent dogs from the New Orleans area to Canada before BARK formed in 2006.
Lincoln County Humane Society executive director Kevin Strooband and Welland SPCA manager Ted Bettle also denied Worthington’s claims. Wrote Mayer, “Strooband said only two Louisiana dogs out of hundreds the shelter has helped have been infected.”
Suggested Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases moderator Tam Garland, of Texas A&M University, “It may not be that there is an epidemic of heartworms, but rather an epidemic of diagnosis as veterinarians are more sensitized to the heartworm issue. It is likely that mosquitoes carrying heartworm were already in Canada before the displaced dogs arrived. Infected displaced dogs may not have helped, but they have not been shown to have caused an epidemic of heartworm.”
But Worthington (1927-2013) was for 57 years among the most widely read journalists in Canada, widely syndicated in the U.S. as well, and his charges had lasting influence.