National Column: Vet’s case underscores weak animal cruelty laws

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by Thomas Walkom

How far have we come in protecting animals? Based on money spent in the pet industry, you might be forgiven for thinking we have come a long way.

Many owners spend handsomely on their dogs, cats and other pets. They feed them special diets,
arrange to have them walked and, in some cases, take them each day to pet daycare.

But as the long and torturous case of a St. Catharines veterinarian shows, in areas where it counts we have not come far at all.

The story of Dr. Mahavir Rekhi began five years ago when surveillance video in his Skyway Animal Hospital captured images of him appearing to abuse animals in his care.

In one video, later aired on CTV, he appears to be swinging a cat under anesthetic against a cupboard.

In another, he appears to be choking a six-pound Chihuahua and banging it against a table.

In yet another he appears to be beating a puppy on the snout with metal clippers.

Those who worked for him weren’t exactly sure what to do. They knew they could lodge a complaint with the College of Veterinarians of Ontario, which is charged with overseeing the profession. But they also knew that the college would never act against Rekhi without hard evidence.

So in 2012 and 2013, some began to collect videos of their boss at work. In 2014, they submitted 12 damning videos to the college as part of a formal complaint.

Professional colleges exist to ensure their members meet appropriate standards. That is their stated raison d’Ítre.

But in reality, they also exist to protect those members.

For whatever reason, it took the veterinarians’ college two years to deal with Rekhi’s case. In July 2016, he agreed to plead guilty to charges of professional misconduct. A month later, the college announced his penalty.

He would not lose his licence for abusing animals in his care. Instead, he would have it suspended for 10 months (later reduced to six after he took lessons in animal restraint techniques).

He would pay a $10,000 fine to the college and face three unannounced inspections each year for two years.

Otherwise, he was deemed fit to practise.

The employees (now former employees) who had laid the complaint were outraged. They called it a
whitewash.

On Sept. 14, 2016, CTV aired the damning videos. On Sept. 15, the animal rights group Animal Justice filed a formal complaint against Rekhi with both the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) and the Niagara Falls Humane Society.

Somewhere along the line, Kevin Strooband, an officer of the OSPCA and of the Lincoln County Humane Society opened an investigation.

This June, Rekhi was charged with eight counts of causing unnecessary pain and suffering to an animal and eight counts of failing to provide suitable and adequate care for an animal.

Five years after it began, it seemed that this case was finally on its way to the courts.

But the world of animals in law is rarely straightforward. This month, the Crown announced it was dropping all charges on a technicality.

This technicality, according to the Crown, was that the OSPCA had launched its investigation before formally receiving a complaint.

Believe it or not, the province’s glacially paced animal welfare agency was accused of acting too precipitously.

Did the investigation in fact precede a formal complaint? Strooband told the St. Catharines Standard that he did receive a complaint from one of Rekhi’s customers. He also said he was notified about the alleged abuse by the media.

Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice and herself a lawyer, points out that she made a formal complaint to the OSPCA the day after CTV aired the Rekhi videos. Was she seconds too late?

The finer points of Canada’s animal cruelty laws can be argued for years. But the upshot is that they don’t serve animals well – even the pampered pets that Canadians love to love.

The laws, as written, are weak and riddled with loopholes. Efforts to strengthen them are routinely defeated in Parliament. Politicians don’t take them seriously. In too many cases, neither do judges.

Who knows what would have been the outcome if alleged puppy basher Rekhi had gone to trial? But it is an indictment of the Canadian justice system that we shall never find out.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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