Skip to content

Family fights for return of more than 200 sled dogs as some die in government care

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

The family that owns Windrift Adventures, a dogsledding operation north of Barrie, Ont., alleges the dogs were taken unlawfully two months ago and aren't being properly cared for by the province. 

Ontario's Animal Care Review Board – a quasi-judicial agency – is set to hear an appeal from the family on Monday where it's expected to argue for the release of the dogs, while government lawyers are set to argue for the canines to stay in provincial care.

"This is our business and our life," Adrienne Spottiswood, a co-owner of Windrift, 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 decision in June, the Animal Care Review Board, which deals with disputes and appeals in animal welfare cases, found all the dogs at Windrift to be in distress. It found that outdoor doghouses, where the canines live year-round, weren't insulated properly and the dogs' tethers were too short. An appeal by Windrift was dismissed. 

The board ordered Windrift to comply with orders to improve the dogs' living conditions by September. On Sept. 23, the province's Animal Welfare Services team swooped in on two Windrift properties for an inspection and found it had not made the changes required. 

The team, flanked by Ontario Provincial Police officers, seized 239 dogs, including puppies, alleging all 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 running Windrift said Animal Welfare Services recently told them a third dog died, but not from the same infection. Spottiswood said that dog was euthanized after a series of health issues, including liver cancer, surfaced.

Spottiswood also said she was told two more canines were seriously ill with the bacterial infection and an unspecified number of other dogs had symptoms of the illness. 

In an email shown at a board hearing in late October, a supervisor with Animal Welfare Services provided Spottiswood with some details on the two dogs, Mystique and Domino, that died from the infection.

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

"We have consulted with veterinarians including an infectious disease specialist, and they believe that this bacteria may have been present within your canine population prior to the removal of Sept. 23, 2021."

The Windrift family also owns horses, which is the source of the infection, the government inspectors alleged.

The family disagreed. 

Their lawyer, Eric Gillespie, sought an urgent motion asking for the dogs to be released back to Windrift in wake of 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 there are good reasons to believe this puts all of Windrift's dogs at risk," Gillespie said at a hearing. 

Windrift also alleged the government didn't provide water to the dogs while they were in crates in trucks for seven hours and that an inspector struck one of the dogs. 

Deanna Exner, a lawyer with the Attorney General, denied the allegations.

"There's two sides to every story," she told the board at a recent hearing. "Animal Welfare Services is doing its utmost to give these dogs the best care possible."

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

At issue in the upcoming appeal is whether the government's seizure and continued holding of the dogs is lawful. 

Windrift argues the dogs' current situation is causing greater distress than having them back at home. The province argues that it seized the dogs legally and cannot return them to a situation that was previously found to be putting the animals in distress. 

On Oct. 26, in a decision ordering the government to provide disclosure of the dogs' health and care to Windrift in advance of Monday's appeal, board adjudicator Jennifer Friedland said an inspector does not have the power to remove animals simply for non-compliance. 

She said the onus will be on government lawyers to show the dogs' seizure and holding is lawful. The government declined to comment.

"This will include showing that each animal's removal 'was for the purpose of providing it with necessaries to relieve its distress,'" she wrote.

The board heard there have been 15 inspections at Windrift over the past two years.

Spottiswood said the dogs' removal has taken a mental toll on her 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 grow in, and begin training for the winter sledding season. 

"They were not in distress," Spottiswood said. "They were happy and healthy."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2021.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

Looking for Ontario News? viewed on a mobile phone

Check out Village Report - the news that matters most to Canada, updated throughout the day.  Or, subscribe to Village Report's free daily newsletter: a compilation of the news you need to know, sent to your inbox at 6AM.