12/01/2013 02:00 EST | Updated 01/31/2014 05:59 EST

Enforcement of animal abuse law in Newfoundland lacks teeth, critics say

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Dogs so thin their ribs and back bones are painfully visible. Rabbit hunting beagles kept alone in cramped wire pens in all kinds of weather. Cats and kittens abandoned to fend for themselves.

Animal welfare groups in St. John's, N.L., say those are just some of the cases they regularly see 18 months after the province's new Animal Health and Protection Act became law. They describe the legislation as a good step but an empty vessel without more enforcement, public education and community co-operation.

Simone Browne, president of the provincial Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said communities must step up.

"No matter what legislation you have in place, the issues remain the same: animals are outside. They don't receive socialization. They don't have adequate shelter. They don't have adequate food and water.

"We have animals that unfortunately face actual physical abuse that are in harm's way on a regular basis," she said in an interview. "It's the responsibility of the community as a whole to take responsibility for the animals that are in that community."

The issue has come up repeatedly in the provincial legislature this fall. The Opposition Liberals have chided the Progressive Conservative government for not funding a $50,000 SPCA public awareness campaign announced as the law was proclaimed in May 2012.

"A dog tied up to a non-insulated wooden box, by your own definition, is in distress," Liberal member Eddie Joyce said Nov. 18 in an exchange with Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley.

"Constituents are telling (us) police will only seize dogs if ribs are showing."

Dalley said the province and SPCA did not come up with a satisfactory outreach plan to qualify for the $50,000.

"We work with communities in terms of the enforcement of regulations," Dalley told the legislature.

"I would certainly expect the people of the province would understand if you have a pet, you should take care of it."

Jessica Rendell, president of the Heavenly Creatures rescue group in St. John's, said a startling number of people are unable or unwilling to provide even basic care. She described recent cases involving injury and neglect that did not result in charges or animals being seized.

The new act restricts use of choke collars or chains when animals are tied to fixed objects, and protects them from distress.

Distress includes "being in need of proper care, water, food or shelter, being sick, injured, abused or in pain."

Penalties include fines of up to $50,000, jail time of up to six months and a potential lifetime ban on owning a pet.

Rendell said police officers busy with other crimes have sometimes seemed reluctant to respond or lay charges. She said some officers say they have little experience with animal protection and aren't sure what to do. In smaller towns, the potential for personal conflict with pet owners may be another impediment, she said.

Rendell told the story of a boxer dog named Bella, whose owners surrendered her to Heavenly Creatures last year. At the time, Bella was shockingly underweight and had a large tumour on her chest, she said.

"The police had been on their doorstep the evening prior as a result of a complaint about her being neglected," Rendell said. "But (the officers) reportedly said that she was thin because boxers are supposed to be thin, so there were no grounds to do anything."

Bella is now healthy in the care of new owners, Rendell said.

RCMP spokeswoman Helen Cleary-Escott said the Mounties have laid 63 charges under the act involving 53 people since May 2012.

She said officers prioritize each call they get and have gone beyond the call of duty many times to help animals in distress.

Dr. Hugh Whitney, chief veterinary officer for Newfoundland and Labrador, said his office has consulted with police on 75 cases in the last 18 months. About 10 of those are now before the courts.

Whitney or his staff have visited several detachments to advise officers, he said. Fourteen municipal enforcement officers are now trained in animal protection law in seven communities around the province, another 12 are being trained and nine other communities are interested, Whitney said.

"I think that is normal for any lobby group to assume that more should be done. Actually, an awful lot is being done.

"I don't think we have a problem greater than anywhere else. Certainly we're working with whoever we can to help spread the word on what the rules are now."

Sheila Lewis, president of the Beagle Paws rescue group in St. John's, said most people care for the loving breed that is widely used to flush out rabbits. But a minority of hunters believe a dog that lives in the home, is spayed or neutered and fed every day won't hunt as well, she said.

"Often, you'll see one beagle in a pen. There's no way for him to produce that heat that he needs to stay warm. It's very hard to live like that on a daily basis."