Content warning: This article contains graphic images and content regarding animal welfare that may be disturbing for some readers.
The Ontario government is quietly reintroducing a controversial hunting practice, and not everyone is happy about it.
Bill 91, the Ontario government’s massive Less Red Tape, Stronger Economy Act, 2023, was ordered for third reading in the Legislature on Thursday, May 11, 2023. Schedule 14 of the act would repeal and re-enact section 35 of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997, to provide for new regulations concerning the issuance of licences for new and existing train and trial areas. These regulation changes would include granting new licences through a one-time 90-day application period and allowing licences to be transferred to new owners.
According to the Environmental Registry of Ontario (ERO), “train and trial areas” are enclosed areas on private land where wildlife like cottontails, snowshoe hares, red foxes, or coyotes are kept captive and used to teach dogs hunting skills, such as picking up scent trails, tracking, and pursuing game at a safe distance. They are also used in hunting dog competitions (known as “trialing”), as well as for off-season exercise. Fences keep both the wildlife and the dogs confined to the area.
These train and trial areas are regulated under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997 (FWCA), and persons must obtain a licence to own and operate a train and trial area, and meet regulatory requirements. These requirements include regulations concerning standards of wildlife care, size and fencing of the train and trial area, number and types of dogs, frequency of trials, record-keeping, and firearms prohibition.
However, the practice is not legal anywhere else in Canada and was being phased out in Ontario. In 1997, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (FWCA) ruled that no more licences would be issued to operate dog trial areas, and it became illegal to sell or transfer existing licences. Existing pen operators were exempt, but the goal was to eliminate hunting pens over time as owners retired or left the business. There are now only 24 pens left in the province, down from 50-60 in existence when the ban was passed.
The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) has been lobbying for changes to the training and trialing regulations for some time, according to its magazine, Ontario Out of Doors. “We are pleased to see progress being made that allow[s] hunters who use dogs and other members of the sporting dog community to have increased opportunities and access to these areas,” OFAH wildlife biologist Kirsten Snoek said in a recent article on the OFAH website.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this move doesn’t sit well with other wildlife experts like Camille Labchuk, a lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice, Canada’s only national animal law advocacy organization.
“Penned dog hunting is cruel and vicious, which is why no other province allows hunters to chase and kill terrified, caged animals with dogs,” said Labchuk.
Labchuk views the practice as a “blood sport,” saying that penned dog hunting is widely condemned because it causes extreme and unnecessary distress, suffering, and death to wild animals, while also posing threats to public health and safety. She further asserts that penned hunting is a sport itself, akin to dog fighting; people are not training their dogs, but rather baiting them and watching wild animals get ripped apart.
“Most Canadians oppose hunting animals for entertainment,” Labchuk stated, pointing to an online survey of a representative national sample, which shows that 81 per cent of Canadians are opposed to trophy hunting, down seven per cent since a similar Research Co. poll conducted in September 2020. “It’s especially troubling when coyotes, foxes, hares, and other animals have no way to escape. It’s unacceptable that Ontario is ignoring the will of the public and reversing the phase-out of dog hunting pens.”
“The coyotes, foxes, and rabbits used as bait are typically caught by trappers and sold so they can be released into pens and hunted to death,” Labchuk explained. “The caged animals run for their lives, but have nowhere to escape. When they are caught, they are often maimed or killed by the dogs.”
“The dogs that are forced to participate can also suffer from injuries or even death at these events,” she went on, indicating photos from social media pages dedicated to the practice which show injured hounds, one with a branch lodged in its inner thigh, and another with a gaping chest wound. In another image, a coyote bites a hound while a pack of hounds surround the fighting animals.
While the general public isn’t all that familiar with the concept of train and trial areas, they may be more common than one would expect. In fact, such facilities exist right here in the Kingston and Frontenac County region, according to Labchuk.
“We don’t have a complete list of locations, because the government doesn’t release that, but there are definitely several near Kingston. There’s one called Mallen’s Pen in Seeley’s Bay that is owned by Dan Mallen,” she said.
Penned hunting can also have serious consequences for public health, Labchuk said. “Interacting with wildlife contributes to the spread of disease and parasites, including zoonotic diseases that can hurt wild animals, domestic animals, and humans.”
Kingstonist has reached out to the Federation of Anglers and Hunters as well as the Ontario Sporting Dog Association, but no response was received by time of publication. Further coverage will be provided as more information becomes available.