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Nova Scotia moose poaching probe turns to IWK Health Centre

05/08/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/07/2016 05:59 EDT
Meat from an endangered mainland Nova Scotia moose poached last fall appears to have sickened at least one person, even after provincial officials publicly warned the animal had been tranquillized a month earlier and was unsafe to eat.

No one has been charged with the poaching and more than six months have gone by since a conservation officer found the hide and head of the 272-kilogram moose in a wooded area near Mount Uniacke, N.S.

The Department of Natural Resources is staying tight-lipped about the investigation, but documents obtained by CBC News reveal unusual details about the case.

During their attempt to track down a culprit, conservation officers investigated a patient's visit to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax five days after the moose remains were found on Oct. 27, 2014. The patient arrived at hospital feeling ill after eating moose meat, according to search warrant information obtained by CBC News.

Meat called unsafe to eat

Investigators learned of the situation after a dispatcher at the Shubenacadie Radio Operations Centre received a call from the medical director of the IWK Regional Poison Centre, according to the documents.

A month before it was shot, the moose had been tranquillized near St. Croix, N.S., by conservation officers and then moved to the Pockwock watershed near Halifax. After it was killed, the Department of Natural Resources issued a public warning that the meat was not safe to eat.

During the call to dispatch, Dr. Nancy Murphy said she was looking for information about what drugs were used to tranquillize the animal and said she needed to speak with a department official "as soon as possible about the risk to the public and chemicals used."

The information used to obtain the warrant does not reveal the age, gender or condition of the patient.

Murphy refused to divulge anything about the sick person because of privacy laws, but conservation officer Troy Bonar obtained a warrant in March to search for hospital records. 

"Patient admittance records would indicate the name and address of the individual involved in eating this tranquillized moose meat and afford evidence to further this ongoing investigations," says the information to obtain the warrant.

That warrant was executed, but nothing seized.

Since 1981 it's been illegal to hunt moose on mainland Nova Scotia, where the population is roughly 1,000. The Department of Natural Resources has said poaching is one of the reasons for the slow recovery of the animals.

Natural Resources Minister Zach Churchill said the investigation into the Mount Uniacke case continues, and he urges anyone with information to contact the department. The minister, however, is circumspect about whether officers are continuing to investigate whether someone fell ill after eating the meat.

"We do not have any proof at this particular moment in time, but there are some active leads that we are pursuing," he said.

Murphy declined an interview request, saying she couldn't comment because she is involved in the case.

Link to illness unclear

It's not clear from the documents whether the patient was sickened by the tranquillizer drugs themselves, and one wildlife expert says it's likely other factors were at play.

Marc Cattet, a research associate with the Canadian Co-operative Wildlife Health Centre in Saskatoon, said the drugs used to subdue wildlife are anesthetics. These are designed, he said, to leave the body fairly quickly, so it's unlikely there would much left in a moose's system a month later.

He said the patient who arrived at the hospital may have been coincidentally ill with another ailment, or the meat may have been improperly prepared.

"If I was looking at things that could make someone sick from eating wildlife, the fact that it had been captured and handled or anesthetized almost a month earlier would be way down my list of possibilities," he said.

The Mount Uniacke poaching angered many hunters in Nova Scotia who want to see the offender brought to justice. But some are wondering what's taking so long.

"I don't know if it's stalled, or they're holding back," said Mike O'Brien, with the Hants West Wildlife Association.

He said every moose deserves to be protected, as they hold a special status among outdoor enthusiasts in the province.

"These guys who poached this moose, they actually took away the heritage of all Nova Scotians by killing this animal," O'Brien said.

"I hope … the full arm of the law comes into effect and they catch these guys. And all that we can hope for, I think, is that somebody spills the beans."

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