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Legal expert questions Edmonton Humane Society investigating itself in case of forgotten cats

WATCH ABOVE: The Edmonton Humane Society says all its staff are horrified after three cats were accidentally left in a transport van for weeks. Sarah Kraus reports.

A law professor at the University of Alberta says the case of three cats being forgotten in a transport van for weeks by the Edmonton Humane Society highlights a gap in animal welfare investigations.

Peter Sankoff said it’s a conflict of interest for the society to investigate itself.

“I’m concerned about the fact that the Edmonton Humane Society has done an internal investigation in the matter when it is, in Edmonton, the investigating body for these sorts of claims.”

LISTEN BELOW: 630 CHED’s Ryan Jespersen speaks with Peter Sankoff

According to a statement from the Edmonton Humane Society, a crew picked up some animals from another shelter on March 27 and “upon return to Edmonton, during the unloading of the animals, three cats were unknowingly left in the vehicle.”

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The cats were not discovered until April 18, when staff were preparing for another animal transfer. The cats were dehydrated and hungry with mild urine burns on their paws, but “alert and responsive,” the statement said.

The Alberta SPCA said it is aware of the incident.

“I can confirm we are aware of the animal welfare concerns identified at the Edmonton Humane Society (EHS); we are mindful of EHS’s response to these allegations. Unfortunately, we cannot comment on active or ongoing investigations. At this time there will be no further comment,” Terra Johnston, executive director of the Alberta SPCA, said in a statement.

The Edmonton Police Service told Global News it is not investigating this case.

After an internal review, the society produced an eight-page document to cover every step in the transport process, including checks and double-checks for staff who load, unload and receive animals.

“You have a body investigating itself and then deciding whether it’s appropriate to do anything about it,” Sankoff said. “That concerns me a great deal.

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“That’s not the way we normally deal with investigations of effectively regulatory statutes. It seems to me fairly clear, based on the evidence as provided by the Edmonton Humane Society, that the animals were in a state of distress.

“I’m willing to accept that it was accidental, no one acted maliciously, but the statute doesn’t require that. It doesn’t require any malicious or wilful cruelty. The Alberta Animal Protection Act requires animals be kept out of distress.

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“It seems to me that when you have a case of such obvious distress — where something has obviously gone wrong, again, according to the Edmonton Humane Society — it’s improper for that very organization to be deciding whether it’s appropriate to lay charges and in fact just… rectify it in whatever way it sees fit.”

READ MORE: Edmonton Humane Society reviews policies after cats forgotten in vehicle for 3 weeks

Sankoff believes the system set up for investigating animal cases just doesn’t have enough oversight. The province has given investigative power to the humane society but, for a case that involves the society, Sankoff feels another body should be doing the investigating.

“The idea of private organizations investigating regulatory statutes and crimes is rare in and of itself. It’s a situation that only exists really in the animal welfare sphere, which is what makes it so problematic to me.

“You’re dealing with very vulnerable victims who are unable to speak — the cats can’t tell us what happened, obviously — and as a result, we’re left with a situation where a private organization is investigating itself.

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“It is rare but it’s an offshoot of the way in which we’ve chosen to deal with animal cruelty and animal welfare offences to begin with,” Sankoff said. “This case sort of points out just one of what to me is a series of troubling examples of what can go wrong when we do things in this way.”

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He says ultimately, the government is responsible and could order another independent investigation. Instead of having the society investigate itself, he says, the province could ask another body to do so.

“If the government wished to launch an investigation of this, they absolutely could… whether it be by the police or whether it be by any other body that’s appropriate for doing so, they could. There are peace officers who have the ability to investigate these sorts of acts,” Sankoff said.

“Ultimately, humane societies are only approved subject to the minister. So ultimately, it’s up to the government to decide whether the humane society is acting in appropriate way.”

Sankoff believes investigative bodies need to be responsible to the public. He hopes this case highlights the issues with private groups having the power to investigate public statutes.

“In the short run, I’d like to see an investigation done. In the long run, I’d like to see policies put in place to actually govern how we’re going to deal with these things in a more systemic way.

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“And in the even longer run, I’d like to see the government rethink whether it’s appropriate to have private bodies doing these types of investigations at all because it’s such an anomaly.”

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On Monday, the society told Global News all staff involved were upset by the situation and were grateful the cats recovered.

“A series of unintentional events occurred that resulted in an internal review and a subsequent update to our transfer policies and procedures,” the statement reads. “Additional checks and balances have been put into place to make sure a situation such as this does not occur again and to minimize the risk of human error. Heightened requirements have already been implemented.”

Edmonton Humane Society statement – June 4 by Anonymous mhXtDcYr6 on Scribd