They browsed the cages and checked out nearly every dog available for adoption at the Toronto Humane Society, but after spending just minutes with Harley, a boxer-catahoula mix with big brown eyes and a tongue like a face-seeking missile, Ainsley Kendrick and Dian Miguel fell in love.
After the couple filled out the adoption paperwork, they expressed several concerns: the seven-month-old puppy couldn't seem to bear weight on her back left leg when she sat, and there was a pouch containing an empty pill container hanging from her cage.
Days after Ms. Kendrick, 28, and Ms. Miguel, 25, took Harley home, it became clear something was wrong.
What followed was a saga that culminated in the couple discovering they had brought home a seriously injured dog. Her leg was fractured and her kneecap severely displaced, a condition made worse by the Toronto Humane Society's inability to return their desperate requests for veterinary records. Left in the dark, Ms. Kendrick and Ms. Miguel had spent $526.21 in tests, X-rays and medication by the time their own vet confirmed that one of the country's largest animal shelters had given them a dog with a broken leg.
Ms. Kendrick said that when she did finally get through, the THS management said that they had made a mistake, that the dog shouldn't have been adopted, and that they would reimburse some of the costs.
“They're a shelter, they're supposed to be there for the protection of animals – and you just assume that it's a good place and you can trust them,” Ms. Kendrick said. “It's really disappointing to find out that you can't.”
Harley's attentive owners made her one of the society's luckier pets. An investigation by The Globe and Mail has found that the Toronto Humane Society is a shelter in crisis, a place where animals die suffering unnecessarily in their cages, according to veterinarians, significant amounts of money are spent on litigation, and the opinions of veterinary professionals are dismissed. According to insiders, its volunteer president, Tim Trow, has intimidated dozens of staff, volunteers and veterinarians into quitting out of protest. They vehemently disagree about the way he runs the shelter.
“I know what's right and I know what's wrong,” said Mary Mathison, who volunteers in the THS's kitten nursery. “And it's definitely wrong, wrong, wrong there.”
“It is heart-wrenching, I've watched critically ill animals suffer and die in my hands while I run around trying to get permission to euthanize,” said Magdalena Smrdelj, a THS veterinarian.
Both know they're risking their positions by speaking to The Globe, as THS staff and volunteers are required to sign confidentially agreements. Both said that animal suffering inside the shelter was too great for them to remain silent.
Many of the people interviewed for the series signed confidentiality agreements effective for two years after leaving the shelter, and agreed to interviews despite the possibility that they could be sued for speaking out.
The Globe reviewed dozens of medical charts of animals left to die in their cages as a result of the shelter's much-too restrictive euthanasia policy, according to current and former staff and volunteers. The Globe also obtained pictures of cats and dogs living in their own excrement and interviewed more than 30 concerned current and former employees, volunteers, members and adoptive families – past and present – who have begged for help from the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Canada Revenue Agency. They have also tried to enlist the College of Veterinarians of Ontario and Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General, all to no avail.
They've discovered there is little anybody can do to rein in the THS, an independent organization virtually free from oversight, which is headquartered on River Street in Toronto's east end.
After disagreements over payment, the city ended its contract with the THS in 2001 and formed Toronto Animal Services. The last city councillor on the board left in 2006. The THS's relationship with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is strained and distant.
At the heart of the THS's troubles is a fundamental disagreement between Mr. Trow and his opponents over which animals should be saved and which ones should be euthanized.
“I don't see how you can be critical of doing the best you can for any animal, and that's what we do here: What we do is we do our best with every animal,” Mr. Trow said.
But not everyone agrees that THS is doing its best for the thousands of animals that come through its doors each year.
'This is not humane'
Bobik, a 12-year-old shepherd-cross, died slowly.
His shelter medical records show that in April of 2007 he was a friendly but aging 33.5-kilogram (74-pound) dog with a slight limp. Between his large size, his arthritis, hip dysplasia, alopecia, and deafness, families weren't lining up to adopt him.
After more than a year in the shelter, he went to live with one of the THS's foster parents.
On May 11, barely five months after a leg amputation that removed a cancerous limb, Bobik's foster mother brought him in for care at the THS.
The incision from his leg amputation re-opened, his breathing was laboured, saliva dripped from his mouth and there was blood in his stool.
On the afternoon of May 12, after bleeding from his anus for two days, Bobik died.
Most shelters would have put Bobik down, said two veterinarians, as the cancer in his leg was likely to spread, and learning to walk on three legs can be difficult for an arthritic dog with hip dysplasia. Indeed, internal records show that many animals admitted to the THS die slow deaths rather being euthanized.
“I know that animals die at the Toronto Humane Society,” Mr. Trow said.
He explained that many of those animals are kittens.
“In most litters there are kittens that lack a robust quality and don't make it. But the right thing to do is what the Toronto Humane Society does, which is welcome the mother, welcome the kittens, do the best we can.”
A note written by a staff member or volunteer on the medical chart of a cat, Animal ID A127495, admitted last fall, reads: “Died Oct 19 3:15 am. Gasped and jerked and cried last breaths, because there was no one in shelter to euthanize or treat. This is not humane”
The medical chart of an orange tabby, Animal ID A126066, admitted last August, notes that the animal was found blue and gasping on Sept. 27, 2008.
“Died prior to being able to euthanize this case,” the chart reads.
Mr. Trow says he strives to keep euthanasia rates low for ethical reasons. “How can anyone suggest that, because he might be here longer than anyone would want, that it's better to put [a dog] down?” Mr. Trow asked. “I think that's a strange suggestion, don't you? You live here as long as you can.”
The low euthanasia rates don't hurt fundraising either.
On its website, the society says that in 2007 it euthanized 6 per cent of the animals admitted to the shelter. It has displayed those numbers prominently on its website, in the media, and in its magazine, Animaltalk. They advertise these low numbers in an effort to draw the private donations that are the society's sole source of operating funds. They have contrasted their numbers with Toronto Animal Service's euthanasia rate, 55 per cent.
No one would argue that the society adopts thousands of pets out to happy new owners each year.
However, documents obtained by The Globe show that the society has painted a rosier picture for the public.
For example, the society's website boasts that, of 8,535 cats and dogs admitted to the shelter in 2007, 6,372 animals – or 75 per cent – were adopted. But figures presented to the society's board state that 9,526 dogs and cats were actually admitted that year and only 6,005 adopted – a rate closer to 63 per cent.
The disparity isn't limited to one year. The pattern has repeated itself every year after 2001, when Mr. Trow was elected president. (This was his second tenure, having served briefly as president in the early 1980s.)
Ian McConachie, a spokesperson for the THS, said that in February and March, in preparation for an upcoming issue of Animaltalk, staff began reviewing the shelter's independent database, Chameleon, and “updated” shelter numbers as far back as 2002.
“It's not that they weren't adding up, it's just that we weren't getting the information that we wanted, so we took a look at the data that we were collecting and found that there were some overlapping data sections, so that's where the discrepancy came from,” he said.
Mr. McConachie said that the numbers presented to the board came from a working document prepared by the shelter's head veterinarian. He said they were based on Chameleon data, but also used “other sources” and that the data were less accurate.
Mr. McConachie added that, in future, the board will be presented with more accurate records like those provided to the public.
Further records obtained from the shelter's Chameleon database show that between January of 2005 and April of 2009, 4,869 animals died of illness or injury and 4,688 were humanely euthanized.
The shelter's database also backs up the contention among staff members that the attrition issue is worsening: Between Jan. 1, 2008 and April 10, 2009, 1,843 animals died, while barely half as many, 954, were euthanized.
“There is no column for ‘died in a cage neglected,' ” said Ms. Mathison, the kitten volunteer, who had not seen the data provided to The Globe.
Mr. Trow denied that the shelter's euthanasia rates are low because animals are dying in cages.
“I think that's a completely ridiculous argument,” he said.
The shelter provided numbers to The Globe for 2007. They said that 559 animals were euthanized that year, and 735 died. But when kittens were removed from the data, only 325 animals were euthanized and 302 died.
Lack of oversight
Shortly before Mr. Trow became president for the second time in 2001, the THS lost its contract with the city to pick up injured and stray animals after years of arguing over politics and money.
In 2006, the city ended its oversight: A city councillor was no longer included among the directors of the society's board, of which there are currently 15, according to Animaltalk.
Mr. Trow first became THS president in 1982. More than a year later, the city intervened and Mr. Trow resigned. The THS, which also has a satellite shelter in North York, is an affiliate of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The relationship between the two groups, however, is strained. A libel suit brought forward by the THS against the Hamilton-Burlington SPCA remains before the courts.
The THS has sought $200,000 in damages after the Hamilton-Burlington SPCA included the following line in a 2007 lottery flyer: “Please remember that the Toronto Humane Society and the Canadian SPCA (Montreal) do not support any animals in this community”
The structure of THS management has also changed during Mr. Trow's second presidency. The chief executive officer position has been eliminated, and Mr. Trow has assumed the duties normally reserved for a paid employee rather than a volunteer president.
Amy White was the director of communications at the THS when Mr. Trow was elected. She said that before his term she had direct access to the board of directors and conferred with them on committees.
“So that basically stopped, and I only had access to Tim, more access than a person would want,” she said.
She said that Mr. Trow often micromanaged staff and volunteers on every shelter decision, right down to adoptions.
No one lasts very long
After nearly seven years at the Toronto Humane Society, Tony Perugini was left with a lingering feeling of disillusionment – and a scar on his right thigh.
He started working at the society in 2000, shortly before Mr. Trow became president for the second time.
It was Mr. Perugini's dream job, and before he was fired in 2007, he had worked his way up the ranks to shelter manager.
After one failed attempt at forming a lasting union, and with another one currently under way, both staff and volunteers at the shelter are regularly laid off or fired.
Fewer than 10 members of the original Teamster union that went on strike in 2006 remain.
“[The shelter] was a rotating door,” Mr. Perugini recalled. “We'd hire five people one week and then let three people go.”
After a strike over labour relations in 2006, only a handful of staff from the original Teamsters union remain. A new union, LIUNA, was voted in over a year ago, but bargaining remains unsuccessful as a June 2 deadline looms.
“No one lasts there very long any more,” said Gerri Findlay, a shelter supervisor who was fired in February, 2008, after 19 years at the THS.
She was fired in a letter informing her that her work wasn't up to par.
“We had an invisible board of directors, we never saw any of them. … And they just believed anything this guy [Mr. Trow] would tell them because he was getting back to them with these fantastic numbers or low euthanasia rates,” Mr. Perugini said.
Mr. Perugini said the shelter became overcrowded as management tried to keep the euthanasia rates low.
“Every day people were bringing in dogs that would be totally adoptable and they're being turned away,” Mr. Perugini said.
“So these animals end up going elsewhere, where they don't have no-kill policies, and they're being euthanized, while we're protecting animals that any other shelter, any other shelter, would just put down.”
The scar on Mr. Perugini's right thigh is from a pit-bull attack. Nearly three years later, the scar is still painful, and he has lost feeling in parts of his thigh.
Not long after the incident, the dog who attacked him appeared on the society's website, available for adoption.
It violated my professional oath
Two former shelter veterinarians and one current veterinarian told The Globe that they are not allowed to decide whether an animal should be euthanized. They are asked to clear any euthanasia procedures with the shelter management. This violates professional standards outlined by the College of Veterinarians of Ontario, and a formal complaint was submitted this week.
Mr. McConachie said that veterinarians were asked to clear any decision to euthanize with the head veterinarian.
The Act states that veterinarians should provide “professional services under a written contract that provides that the member is responsible for all decisions relating to the quality and promotion of the member's professional services and the health of the subject animals.”
Mr. Trow maintains that the THS does not have a no-kill policy and denies that the shelter's veterinarians are influenced in their decisions whether or not to euthanize. “There's no pressure on anyone to do anything or not to do anything other than on professionals, professional doctors and professional nurses, to do the best they can,” he said.
By law, it is a requirement for veterinarians employed by humane societies to have language in their contract that makes them responsible for all decisions relating to the care of animals.
“I couldn't work at the Toronto Humane Society any longer because it violated my professional oath as a veterinarian,” said Johanna MacNaughton, a veterinarian who resigned in April.
Another veterinarian, Amanda Frank, quit later that month for the same reasons.
“I would never make a euthanasia decision without great consideration, and I would only euthanize an animal if it was suffering with no chance of recovery,” said Dr. MacNaughton.
And an internal memo obtained by The Globe confirms that euthanasia decisions must be cleared by management, many of whom have no medical training.
“Going forward, please ensure that practitioners communicate with shelter management prior to taking any significant course of action, including obtaining concurrence as regards euthanasia, operations, and anesthesia, etc.,” the memo reads.
Harley sits with his hind leg extended, like a furry prosthetic limb. It gets a little stiff after long walks, but otherwise he's a healthy dog with a new home.
“I just wish they been honest about the condition of the dog,” Ms. Kendrick said.