TORONTO - The euthanization of hundreds of dogs and cats at an Ontario animal shelter contaminated with ringworm was to continue unabated despite an emotional outcry Tuesday from animal lovers desperate for another solution.
Blaming an especially aggressive strain of the disease, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it had no choice but to destroy some 350 animals at the Newmarket, Ont., facility.
While high school students protested outside and tearful shelter volunteers asked to take some of the animals home, officials said even seemingly healthy pets with no symptoms could spread the infection in the community.
The society has already spent five weeks applying topical creams and medication, and nothing has worked, Jim Sykes, chief operating officer of the OSPCA, said in justifying the euthanization.
"If we can't control it and stop it, it can get out to the population," said Sykes.
"To really deal with it is anywhere from a three- to four-month process, and basically the shelter is full now."
Six staff members were also infected as was a family member of one of the employees.
The society said the outbreak was caused by human error. Protocols for identifying ringworm in animals were not followed, but the oversight was not wilful, it said.
The branch will undergo a thorough cleansing and an inspection to ensure the ringworm is eradicated before it reopens for adoptions, the society said.
Ringworm — a skin infection caused by a fungus marked by circular lesions and hair loss — is easy to treat in individual animals but difficult to obliterate in facilities with multiple animals, said one expert.
It spreads rapidly and can start from one person holding an infected animal to a full-blown outbreak in a matter of weeks, said Judy Au, a Toronto veterinarian.
"In a situation like a shelter or multi-pet home it's hard to treat them, because you have to treat not just the animals but the environment," Au said.
While there are extreme cases where an animal could suffer from the infection, Au said it is widely known to be a treatable condition and added she has "never euthanized an animal with ringworm, never."
The cost of the medication, however, could be crippling for a large organization, costing hundreds of dollars to treat just a couple of animals, she said.
A tearful Ruth Wozniak, who volunteers at the Newmarket shelter, said she was devastated to hear that the animals she had worked so hard to help would be killed.
"We're shocked and sad," she said, softly sobbing at any mention of the hundreds of dogs and cats housed in the facility.
Wozniak, a volunteer at the shelter for 10 years, said many volunteers are grieving.
"A number of the animals have not been tested and a number of the animals have not been infected," said Wozniak, who is still holding out hope that the OSPCA will save some.
Ken Brown, a manager in the infectious diseases control division for York Region, said people can contract the infection even if animals aren't infected.
"Animals can be carriers on the fur and skin," said Brown.
A handful of high school students protested Tuesday and security guards were stationed outside the building.
Animal lovers also took to Twitter decrying the OSPCA's move.
"Wishing humans could be euthanized 4 human error," one person tweeted.
Another person chastised the lack of oversight at the facility, calling it "breathtaking incompetence in action."
Frank Klees, the Conservative member of provincial parliament for the riding, called on the province to step in and stay the euthanization, but the Liberal government said it stood by the OSPCA's decision.
Meanwhile, the embattled Toronto Humane Society blasted the OSPCA for taking the "easy way out."
President Bob Hambley called the action "unprecedented" and called on the provincial agency to reconsider and look at treatment alternatives to save the animals.
Hambley’s words follow an OSPCA raid on the Toronto shelter last November in which five senior managers were charged with animal cruelty.