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Animal control calls have gone way up in Toronto. It’s an ‘exhausting’ line of work

Animal control calls have gone way up in Toronto. It’s an ‘exhausting’ line of work
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Toronto Animal Services officer Peter Freeman is dropping off his first stray dog of the day — an obedient Jack Russell Terrier mix — at a shelter in Scarborough when he gets a call that spins him in a new direction.

A raccoon is trapped in the outdoor stairwell of a home near Bayview Avenue and York Mills Road.

If it were in good health it would easily scramble out. This raccoon is walking in circles, confused. Freeman thinks it must have distemper. It could become aggressive. It might infect other animals. It must be captured quickly.

Freeman is one of Toronto’s 70 animal care and control officers, one of 29 who staff the mobile response units that retrieve sick, injured and stray animals. The officers are struggling to meet demand at a time when the city’s population is booming and the number of calls to Toronto Animal Services has soared.

Staffing in Animal Services meanwhile, has not increased since 2014. The annual budget has stayed fairly static, meaning staff has had to learn to do more with less — something they increasingly feel they can no longer do.

Driving a white Toronto 311 van and guided by his GPS, Freeman pulls up across the street from a tall red-brick home minutes after getting the call. A pizza couldn’t have arrived more quickly, although complaints of long response times from Toronto Animal Services — especially at certain times of the day — are not uncommon.

Freeman speaks briefly with the homeowner at the front door before skirting the outside of the house, snow flying in his wake. He unlatches the gate to the backyard.

At the bottom of a snowy stairwell on the right is a raccoon, oddly free of fear.

The raccoon practically walks into the net, secured at the end of a pole, that Freeman lays on the ground in front of him. Only when Freeman lifts the net into the air does the raccoon growl, a surprisingly deep and savage sound.

“A healthy raccoon — you’d never catch him,” Freeman says later.

Freeman holds the pole aloft, the net with the snarling raccoon in it dangling from the end, as he strides back to the van and gently deposits the animal in the back. He begins the return drive to the small shelter in Etobicoke where he began his day, to drop off the raccoon.

En route, the raccoon suffers a seizure, another classic sign of distemper. The disease can’t be cured in raccoons. It will have to be put down.

Freeman, 54, is stoic, but it’s not the easiest part of the job, knowing that the animal you’ve just rescued will likely have to be euthanized, especially when, like Freeman, you’ve grown to love and respect animals even more than you already did when you started out 29 years ago.

The emotional demands of the job are just one of the challenges faced by the city’s animal control officers who work at the city’s three shelters and in the field, scooping up wayward or injured pets and wildlife — raccoons, cats, dogs, owls, rabbits and the occasional deer, peacock, rooster or monkey. Operating out of vans, the mobile teams bring the animals back to the shelters for assessment, where a vet will decide whether they can be saved and returned to the wild or put up for adoption.

As the city has grown, so have calls regarding wildlife. According to data from the city, calls to respond to dead wildlife increased by nearly 50 per cent between 2014 and 2018, to 15,455 from 10,582. Calls to respond to injured wildlife have more than doubled, to 11,870 in 2018 from 5,210 in 2014.

The increase is not easily explained, although Freeman thinks it may have to do with the fact that there is a growing public concern for animal welfare and more people living in the city, meaning more people coming into contact with wildlife.

Carleton Grant, executive director, municipal licensing and standards, Toronto, which oversees Toronto Animal Services, agrees.

“This is a big city. Wildlife doesn’t have a place to go, so it’s out and about and it’s now in conflict with cars and people and losing,” says Grant.

“That creates a lot of challenges for our staff.”

An example is the number of calls regarding coyotes: zero in 2014 and 2015; 12 in 2016; 118 in 2017 and 100 in 2018.

Nathalie Karvonen, executive director, Toronto Wildlife Centre — which often accepts animals rescued by Toronto Animal Services officers — provides a more nuanced answer.

She points out that the city has been hard at work greening neighbourhoods with initiatives like green roofs and improving wildlife habitats along hydro corridors and rail lines. As a result, more wildlife is being drawn into the city, and the results can spell disaster for the animals, according to Karvonen.

Canada geese and ducks don’t understand that a green roof is fraught with perils and not a great place to nest. Problems arise when the eggs hatch and the parents start leading their chicks around in search of water — sometimes walking the chicks off the edge of the building before they know how to fly.

“We are frantically running from rooftop to rooftop each year before the families fall to their deaths,” said Karvonen, adding that the wildlife centre rescued 235 geese and 516 ducks on green roofs and terraces this year.

She says a more comprehensive plan is needed for new green spaces that are likely to attract wildlife.

“It’s almost like a trap to bring hawks and owls and beaver and mink and humming birds and frogs and everything right into the heart of our city, where they are all in great danger.”

Traffic in the city is becoming increasingly snarled, which means it takes Toronto Animal Services staff longer to get to each call.

The department’s budget, meanwhile, has only kept up with inflation. Understaffing has been an issue. At one point this year, there were 11 vacancies in the department. Currently there are seven, for positions that require a community college degree and experience working with animals, among other things.

“It’s a niche position, these are highly skilled people and it’s difficult to find people to do this work, it’s hard work,” said Grant, explaining why some of the positions have taken months to fill.

It can be a dangerous job — occasionally staff are required to enter crack dens or hoarder homes that have been torn to pieces by the animals living there. They work among bedbugs and cockroaches. In such situations, they wear protective suits with breathing apparatus.

Freeman once cleared a house of 347 cats. He has pulled cats out of couches and mattresses and fridge motors, and cupboards with hot water pipes, which they seek out for warmth.

Sometimes they are rescuing an animal whose owner has been arrested, is ill or has died.

Freeman has been bitten, including once on his hand by a large dog. The wound required EMS attention and about eight stitches to close. He sloughs it off.

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This summer, the overnight shift for Toronto Animal Services was eliminated, meaning there is no service in the wee hours, because the department had to make some tough budgeting choices about how to deploy staff, Grant said.

In 2018, Toronto Animal Services received only 200 emergency calls between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., Grant said.

“Shift changes are difficult for staff,” said Grant. “Everyone gets in their routines, but it was one that we made to deliver the service better and we also felt it was better for the officers not to be working overnight.”

Staff members from Union Local 416 reached out to Coun. Jim Karygiannis (Ward 22 Scarborough-Agincourt) earlier this year because they wanted to bring attention to issues they say they are facing.

In a letter sent to Grant and shared with the Star, Karygiannis said he spent three nights visiting with Toronto Animal Services enforcement staff, shelter and mobile response staff and also held two separate meetings with them; one in Etobicoke and one in Scarborough. They told him that there are not enough of them to handle the volume of work rolling in.

“Staff members are reporting burnout, because they are working non-stop to deal with the volume of calls and cases they are expected to manage,” wrote Karygiannis in the letter to Grant.

In the letter, Karygiannis said employees told him that eliminating the overnight shift is causing residents and animals to suffer when they have to wait hours for rescue.

Karygiannis was told that a family had to evacuate their home and stay in a hotel after a raccoon gained entry to their toddler’s room on the ninth floor of a building and they were unable to reach Toronto Animal Services overnight.

He conducted a survey of staff. Of the 56 who responded to a question about morale, 46 said that the current state of morale in animal services is poor or extremely poor. Of the 58 who responded to a question about overwork, 25 strongly agreed they felt overworked.

Grant questioned the methodology of Karygiannis’s survey and said that city staff surveys conducted internally, including responses from Toronto Animal Services staff, show that while there are opportunities for improvement, the workplace is not “toxic,” as Karygiannis alleges in his letter.

Freeman agrees the job is stressful.

“It can be exhausting, especially when you’re driving and you know the next call ... is urgent,” he said.

Lack of proper resources, resulting in overcrowding at shelters, was another problem identified by the staff who met with Karygiannis.

Freeman will bump up against the problem of limited resources at least once during his day

The obedient Jack Russell Terrier mix nearly didn’t find a place to stay. When Freeman collected the dog from a homeowner who had found it roaming the streets the night before and brought it to the shelter in Scarborough, he was told the facility was full.

Then a worker there recognized the dog. She knew his name because he was at the shelter previously and she knew he wouldn’t be difficult to handle and that she could reach his owner.

As Freeman led the dog up the stairs, the dog tried to make himself smaller and smaller, bowing his head low to the ground, and sticking his tail between his legs, as if he wished he could disappear and not have to spend the day in a cage, waiting for his owner to claim him.
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