Ontario family battles government seizure of more than 200 sled dogs; three died in provincial custody

An Ontario family is fighting the province’s seizure of more than 200 of their sled dogs, some of which have since died in government custody.

The family that owns Windrift Adventures, a dog sledding business north of Barrie, Ont., alleges the dogs were illegally taken two months ago and are not being properly cared for by the province.

Ontario’s Animal Care Review Board – a quasi-judicial body – is due to hear an appeal from the family on Monday where they are expected to argue for the dogs’ release, while government lawyers are expected to argue for the dogs remain in provincial custody.

“It’s our business and our life,” Windrift co-owner Adrienne Spottiswood said in an interview. “Our family spends seven days a week with the dogs, morning to night, my kids are so involved, but we’re lost right now.”

In a June decision, the Animal Care Review Board, which deals with disputes and appeals in animal welfare cases, found that all of Windrift’s dogs were in distress. He found that the outdoor kennels, where the dogs live all year round, were not properly insulated and the dog tethers were too short. An appeal by Windrift was denied.

The council ordered Windrift to comply with orders to improve living conditions for the dogs by September. On September 23, the province’s Animal Welfare Services team visited two Windrift properties for an inspection and found they had not made the required changes.

The team, flanked by OPP officers, seized 239 dogs, including puppies, alleging they were in distress.

Two dogs have since died of a bacterial infection, according to documents and testimony before the Animal Care Review Board. The family who run Windrift said animal protection services recently told them a third dog had died, but not from the same infection. Spottiswood said the dog was euthanized after a series of health issues, including liver cancer, surfaced.

Spottiswood also said he was told two other dogs were seriously ill with the bacterial infection and an unknown number of other dogs were showing symptoms of the disease.

In an email presented at a council hearing in late October, an Animal Protection Services supervisor provided Spottiswood with details of the two dogs, Mystique and Domino, who died from the infection.

“At the time of their deaths, these dogs had streptococcus zooepidemicus, a bacterial infection that attacks the respiratory system in canine species and is commonly found in equine species,” wrote Sara Munoz.

“We have consulted with veterinarians, including an infectious disease specialist, and they believe this bacteria may have been present in your canine population prior to the September 23, 2021 withdrawal.”

The Windrift family also owns horses, which are the source of the infection, government inspectors said.

The family disagreed.

Their attorney, Eric Gillespie, filed an urgent motion asking that the dogs be released to Windrift following the deaths.

“The pathogen involved is known to be highly contagious, it is known to be very difficult to treat, it is known to spread through large numbers of dogs in kennel situations and there are now three affidavits from three experts attesting to the fact that there are good reasons to believe that this puts all dogs in Windrift at risk,” Gillespie told a hearing.

Windrift also alleged that the government failed to provide water to the dogs while they were in crates in trucks for seven hours and an inspector hit one of the dogs.

Deanna Exner, a lawyer for the attorney general, denied the allegations.

“There are two sides to every story,” she told council at a recent hearing. “Animal Welfare Services is doing everything possible to give these dogs the best possible care.”

Both parties agree that the dogs were in good general health when they were seized.

The question in the upcoming appeal is whether the government’s continued seizure and detention of dogs is legal.

Windrift argues that the dogs’ current situation is causing greater distress than bringing them home. The province argues that it seized the dogs legally and cannot put them back in a situation that previously put the animals in distress.

On Oct. 26, in a decision ordering the government to disclose the health and care of dogs in Windrift ahead of Monday’s appeal, council arbitrator Jennifer Friedland said an inspector does not have the authority to withdraw animals simply for non-compliance.

She said it will be up to government lawyers to show that the seizure and detention of the dogs is legal. The government declined to comment.

“This will include showing that the removal of each animal ‘was intended to provide them with what was needed to relieve their distress,'” she wrote.

Council heard there had been 15 inspections at Windrift in the past two years.

Spottiswood said the removal of the dogs took a mental toll on his entire family. “The majority of our income comes from dog sledding,” she said.

She said the dogs need to be returned soon so they can live outside, which helps their winter coat develop and start training for the winter sledding season.

“They weren’t distressed,” Spottiswood said. “They were happy and healthy.”

Bette C. Alvarado