News / Ottawa

Well intentioned, but accused of cat hoarding

Mother and daughter Nora and Elissa Aubrey-Lafreniere have been taking in alley cats for years—and since the Ottawa Humane Society was given the legal power to enforce stricter animal cruelty laws, they've been in and out of court.

"I don't know why they're doing this," said an agitated Elissa last Wednesday.

The Ottawa Humane Society (OHS) has repeatedly seized cats from the home and the pair is facing charges as result. They're just two of the people the animal welfare society is seeing through the court system as part of its job to enforce animal cruelty laws in the city.

There were at least six cats in the apartment Wednesday, contrary to a court order. The Ottawa Humane Society seized them two days later.

Elissa and Nora pleaded guilty to animal cruelty in 2010 after the OHS seized 33 cats and a dog from their apartment in 2009. They are prohibited from owning animals, with the exception of their two huskies, Bella and Dakota.

In the first raid on their home, the OHS euthanized 29 of the 33 cats and a dog.

"They didn't have a chance," said Elissa.

Their sentence included mandatory counselling for animal hoarding and the OHS was granted inspection rights at their home.

Nora said she is also facing a harassment charge related to the OHS.

During an interview with Metro, of which Elissa and Nora had about 15 minutes of advance notice, the small apartment was clean and didn't smell. A huge dog bed took up most of the living room, fur covered most of the surfaces and the six cats crawled everywhere.

Elissa and Nora say they are rescuing animals in their neighbourhood from mistreatment and neglect by "alcoholics and drug addicts,"—and saving them from being put down by the Humane Society.

The OHS says they're animal hoarders. Elissa and Nora might not mean to hurt the animals, but the cats are not properly socialized and most have diseases that haven't been adequately treated, the OHS alleged when it first charged them.

Prior to 2009, animal welfare societies could only lay charges when they could prove willful harm to an animal. Now humane societies and SPCAs in Ontario can charge people with animal cruelty under a provincial law when an animal has been in distress and the owner hasn't stopped it, said OHS inspector Miriam Smith. With about 1,200 investigations a year, the Ottawa Humane Society is laying more animal cruelty charges and finding more people in need of help.

"I'm not going to say it's easier, but it's less onerous," said Smith.

Last year an Ottawa judge gave the first jail sentence for animal cruelty under the new law. Between April 2011 and April 2012 the OHS laid 21 new charges against pet owners—including Nora and Elissa who were charged for a previous breach of the court order against having cats.

Many, but not all, of the people the OHS inspectors seize animals from are either living with mental health issues or in poverty, Smith said.

"We don't really have a responsibility for the people," she said. "Our job is the animals."

The OHS turns to the city health department or police mental health crisis team for help with some pet owners and calls the Children's Aid Society when agents come across children who are risk, Smith said.

"Anywhere where we can do anything to help those animals out by helping the people out, that's what we're looking to do. The more resources put into them, the more help is going to go to the animals,” said Smith.

Elissa and Nora said they don't want or need any help and instead accuse the OHS of treating them heavy handedly and mistreating animals.

Smith said the cats were euthanized because they were too anti-social to pet and many had long-term diseases. "Most of the animals that have come from them have been euthanized—so I can understand why they would think that,” Smith said.

Elissa said the Humane Society was rough when they brought in police to execute a search warrant.

“If I didn't open the door they were going to break it in. They said it was an emergency and animals were in distress. They walk into the house and the cops were like ‘What the Hell.' They were shocked,” Elissa said.

The shock was because the situation wasn't what the Humane Society made it out to be, she said. "They said there was sh** all over the place, a high smell. There wasn’t.”

Smith said the situation really was dire and when the OHS is refused entry to a home, inspectors get a warrant and have police officers execute it.

After the 2009 raid, the OHS issued a press release that described the situation of their home: "(There were) multiple cats in need of immediate veterinary care. There was an overwhelming smell of urine throughout the entire apartment building, and feces was found covering walls, furniture and ground into the carpet of the particular unit involved."

Elissa and Nora say they are angry at the OHS for the way they and their pets have been treated, but have no plans to stop taking in cats.

Smith says the OHS always pushes for people to be assessed and treated in animal hoarding cases.

“It's tough. It really is tough,” said Smith.

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