When Netta Friedman and her son Edan found an injured skunk in their North York backyard at midnight last week, she called Toronto Animal Services for help.
It’s the only city-run department that responds to calls for injured strays and wild animals. But the Friedmans were told the overnight service no longer exists. The city cut the 1 a.m.-to-6 a.m. shift in July because of low demand, a city spokesperson said.
The Friedmans say they were told the evening worker was still on duty, but would soon finish their shift. They tried a private wildlife service that advertised a 24-hour, seven-day operation, only to be told it was too late. The owner said he was already in bed.
When animal services arrived at 7 a.m. the next day, the skunk was dead but still warm.
The skunk “suffered the whole seven hours out there,” said Netta. “I think if it was that bad, it would be better to be euthanized than to suffer. I think it was awful. It was absolutely awful.”
Toronto Animal Services (TAS) responds to thousands of calls to pick up injured animals and cadavers every year. Most of the calls come in during the day. Only a fraction of the emergency calls — about 200 a year — are received between 1 and 6 a.m.
Fiona Venedam, manager of enforcement and mobile response for Animal Services, said the city’s municipal licensing and standards department decided to discontinue the overnight service because there are now more daytime calls for animal care and control officers.
“We had to look at redistributing officers,” Venedam said. “We looked at periods of time of low activity, and then based on that data, we ceased the emergency field services between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.”
There are now three to four officers in the field from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and two officers from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., she said.
However, it can take up to two hours for TAS to respond to a call, which could mean a couple of hundred calls a year received from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., according to 311 data analyzed by the Star, might not get a response until the morning, as was the case with the Friedmans.
Venedam said “if they do have a lot of emergencies leading up to 1 a.m. they will try to get as much done as possible.”
If a wild animal is injured overnight, Venedam said residents should call 311 to report the animal and a field officer will respond when they come on shift in the morning.
“You can just leave them alone when it’s dark in a quiet spot,” said Venedam. “That’s their best chance.”
Pets are a different case. Residents who find an injured pet overnight can still call 311 and, if they’re inclined, ask for contact information of a veterinarian on contract with the city to drop off the animal.
“If it’s a stray animal, the city will still pay,” said Venedam.
Both the Friedmans said they spoke to separate TAS staff who were unhappy with the shift cancellation.
“I think some staff are upset,” said Venedam. “Nobody wants to see an animal left unattended that is injured. We had to look at our resources and the increased demand for our services.”
Toronto Animal Services has been more successful in lowering the number of cats and dogs entering its shelters through a number of initiatives such as free or subsidized spay and neuter programs.
But it doesn’t have enough resources to deal with injured wildlife. In 2018, TAS euthanized more than 5,000 wild animals because they were sick or injured, according to data from the city.
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Venedam points out that TAS is not classified as a wildlife rehabilitator by the Ministry of Natural Resources, which means it can’t hold wild animals for longer than 24 hours.
“More animals could be treated if there were more wildlife rehabilitators to take the animals on, definitely,” she said.
There is only one wild animal rehabilitation centre in the city, the Toronto Wildlife Centre in Downsview Park.
Executive director Nathalie Karvonen said TAS has asked them to take injured animals in the past, but it’s impossible without more funding.
The centre, which runs entirely on donations, accepted 6,000 animals last year, including 1,000 juveniles, “not because that’s meeting the need,” said Karvonen. “That’s all we can manage.”
Animals come in having been shot by BB guns or arrows, she said. There are numerous injuries to water birds and turtles from fishing lines and hooks. The shells of turtles are often shattered when they are hit crossing the road and the shells need to be rebuilt. The centre also has a rescue program that can respond to emergencies such as ducks that need to be extricated from ice or falcons caught in kite strings. Anywhere from 50 to 60 animals are dropped off by residents on a busy day, said Karvonen, and the centre has worked with 300 species.
She said wildlife is attracted to the city because of the parks and green corridors, but many of these areas are right beside roads or hydro lines.
“Certainly there’s a lot of wildlife that TAS picks up that really would just need humane euthanasia, if it was a poor raccoon with distemper or it’s an animal that is hit by a car that is terribly injured,” said Karvonen. “There’s definitely a place for humane euthanasia as the kindest option.
“And that would be too bad if an animal that is terribly injured in the middle of the night would not have any recourse,” she added. “That is definitely unfortunate.”
Netta Friedman also believes in humane euthanization if there is no other way to help. Both she and Edan have rescued animals before.
Edan picked up a wounded baby raccoon in February and drove it to the Toronto Wildlife Centre.
Netta has taken feral cats to her own vet and once broke her wrist capturing an injured rabbit. That time, Toronto Animal Services was at her house in an hour and a half to take the rabbit, while Friedman went to the hospital.
“There’s a lot of people who love animals, and they invest so much,” she said. “I’m doing my best on my own end. All I’m saying is I want the city to do their best.”