TORONTO - A mass euthanasia of hundreds of dogs and cats has been halted after days of emotional protests outside an Ontario animal shelter, but not before 99 animals were put down because of a ringworm outbreak.
While the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals initially said it had no choice but to destroy 350 animals at its Newmarket, Ont., shelter to prevent community spread, on Thursday the society said it had "miscommunicated."
"We put the message out — euthanizing 350. I'm standing here telling you it was wrong," society chairman Rob Godfrey told a news conference in Toronto.
"There will be no mass euthanasia."
Word of the mass cull late Monday sparked an outcry among the public and politicians. Enraged animal lovers descended on the shelter carrying placards with "Murder" and "I'd rather be a stray than sent to the OSPCA" scrawled in bold letters. Others chanted "Stop the killing."
Extra security was brought in after 15 animals were stolen from the shelter, and police kept watch over the protesters for days — ticketing two people for trespassing.
At the provincial legislature the Opposition called for a stay of the euthanization, but the government said the matter was out of its hands.
Although the program was stayed the fate of 114 animals remained unknown.
"We are taking every step that we possibly can not to euthanize anymore animals, but we don't know that as we sit here today," said Kate MacDonald, the society's chief executive.
The society said the 114 animals — 23 dogs and 91 cats — will undergo testing and will either be transported to other facilities or isolated at the shelter.
Ringworm, a skin infection caused by a fungus and marked by circular lesions and hair loss, is not lethal but experts say it's difficult to obliterate in facilities with many animals.
The strain which ravaged the shelter hasn't been identified yet, and Godfrey said there will be an investigation.
Of the original 350 number the society said 96 animals fostered out to other volunteers and staff had left the facility before the initial outbreak.
Eight turtles are also in the mix, but are not susceptible to ringworm.
"It's a good day to be a turtle," quipped Godfrey.
An additional 15 animals, which are still under investigation and officially don't belong to the shelter yet, are in portables outside the shelter and three dogs are slated for euthanization for behavioural issues.
The society blamed the outbreak on human error. Protocols for identifying ringworm in animals were not followed, but the oversight was not wilful. Volunteers may not have been trained to change gowns when entering different rooms, MacDonald said.
Six staff members were also infected as was a family member of one of the employees, which prompted the initial fears from the society that the infection could become a public health concern.
On Thursday Godfrey, in announcing the mass euthanization would not go forward, said the outbreak "could still be a public heath risk."
There were reports that major corporations have yanked financial support for the OSPCA, but Godfrey said he wasn't aware of such action.
Godfrey also said the decision to euthanize close to 100 animals was not motivated by an effort to keep costs down at the shelter.
"Money had nothing to do with this," he said, adding if an investigation proves otherwise, he would resign.
Acting deputy premier Dwight Duncan said the government welcomed the decision to stop the euthanization, but that did little to pacify the Opposition.
Conservative Frank Klees, the member of provincial parliament for the riding where the shelter is located, demanded the government admit they "got it wrong too."
"By washing their hands of this issue, and not insisting on a second look at this plan," 99 animals were euthanized, Klees said.
He also demanded a change to legislation to allow government oversight of the society.