Dog’s best friend: the story behind the Toronto Humane Society’s mutiny, raid and shutdown

Dog’s best friend: the story behind the Toronto Humane Society’s mutiny, raid and shutdown

Tim Trow had one sacred rule for the Toronto Humane Society: save every pet. But the shelter grew overcrowded and chaotic, the staff mutinied, and the police shut the place down.

Tim Trow, in his midtown home, became obsessed with animal welfare during a childhood spent on a North York farm (Image: Rob MacInnis) 

Bandit was less than two years old when he arrived in August 2003 at the squat River Street building occupied by the Toronto Humane Society. A dark brown pit bull–Labrador cross with a square face, he was surrendered by his owner after he attacked her three-year-old grandson, leaving him with head wounds that required 200 stitches.

Bandit found an ally in Tim Trow, the society’s president at the time. Trow, a tall, imposing 300-pound lawyer with short greying hair, kept the dog loose and unmuzzled in the THS meeting room he used as his office. They shared the space with as many as 30 caged cats and kittens. Bandit would bark and lunge at their cages, and once closed his powerful jaws on a mother cat’s front paw, pulling off the skin and tissue—“degloving” it, as veterinarians say—and fracturing several bones.

Bandit became a symbol of the lengths to which Trow would go to reduce the THS’s euthanasia rate to almost nil. He protected diseased and aggressive animals, even those that were considered to be dangerous or close to death. The biggest obstacle in Trow’s crusade was the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the provincial body that oversees 46 branches and affiliate shelters, including the THS. To Trow, the OSPCA represented the worst kind of animal management, prioritizing population control over care.

The directors of the OSPCA, in turn, suspected Trow was an out-of-control zealot who put his staff at risk by sheltering animals like Bandit. Many employees said they were scared of the dog and kept their distance, and at least three complained of being bitten. The OSPCA heard numerous complaints about Trow’s management style and his vindictiveness toward any staff member who disagreed with him. And they believed his reluctance to euthanize had resulted in a facility where almost every room, including Trow’s office, was crowded with neglected animals.

The OSPCA’s directors decided Trow had to go: the THS had become a mismanaged sanctuary, with Trow and his team collecting animals that the staff couldn’t begin to take care of. To get rid of him, they’d have to prove that the city’s biggest self-professed lover of animals was a torturer and a criminal.

The OSPCA, which formed in 1873, is an organization with unusual powers: a charity that enforces provincial laws. In addition to running animal shelters, the OSPCA hires and licenses inspectors, called peace officers, who work on behalf of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to investigate incidents of animal cruelty by individuals and by operations like puppy mills. Although it receives government funding to train inspectors, it relies on charitable donations to carry out its enforcement work. (In 2009, it received gifts worth $15.6 million.) In the decades after the OSPCA’s founding, as various humane societies formed across the province, many joined forces with it. Branches are now governed by the main OSPCA office in Newmarket, while affiliates manage their own affairs and hire their own inspectors.

The THS is the rebel affiliate of the OSPCA family. It was launched 14 years after the OSPCA, by John Joseph Kelso, a Toronto journalist who was concerned about the cruel treatment of animals in the city. Many of the THS’s recent members were involved in or influenced by the 1970s radical animal rights movement, which condemned the subjugation of animals in society. One THS president staged a hunger strike protesting medical testing on animals; others have organized campaigns against the fur industry and whaling.

The practice of euthanasia has been the biggest flashpoint in the OSPCA’s dispute with the THS. Before deciding to euthanize an animal, veterinarians typically consider its level of pain or distress, the probability of curing serious diseases or chronic medical conditions, and whether the animal is aggressive or dangerous. An overdose of the drug phenobarbital is injected into a vein on a front leg (more common for dogs) or hind leg (more common for cats, who dislike the anaesthetic’s smell of alcohol). The phenobarbital usually shuts down the animal’s heart and lungs within a minute, sometimes before the full dose is delivered. It induces sleep, making for a calm death, although reflex brain activity will sometimes make an animal twitch.

The THS—especially under Trow—kept euthanasia rates low. He argued that if our hospitals didn’t have enough beds, or if pneumonia was prevalent there, we wouldn’t exterminate the patients. The OSPCA and most other shelters regularly dole out lethal injections in order to keep the shelter population under control or to cope with infectious diseases. This past May, there was a public outcry when the OSPCA’s Newmarket shelter revealed plans to euthanize more than 300 animals because of a ringworm outbreak. (Ringworm, similar to athlete’s foot in people, is contagious but curable and not terribly painful.) In the end, the OSPCA euthanized 102 cats while protesters lined the streets demanding the animals be spared.

(Photo-illustration: Lindsay Page) 

Trow grew up on a farm in North York, surrounded by dogs, cats, rabbits and horses. He worked for 28 years as a solicitor for the province, dealing with First Nations land claims and the implementation of French language services. He’s now 65 and lives in a quaint red-brick house at Mount Pleasant and Davisville with his partner, Richard Stainton, a therapeutic counsellor.

In the 1970s, as a young lawyer, Trow spent many evenings perched on benches outside stands offering horse and carriage rides to tourists. He documented the outside temperature and the hours the horses worked, and he tracked police reports of traffic accidents involving horses. He took his findings to city council, and soon the city began to regulate the industry so aggressively that it essentially collapsed.

Trow became a member of the THS in the mid-’70s and was eventually elected to the board, along with several of his friends and fellow animal activists. He took over as president in 1982. Not everyone on the board was a fan. A group of old guard members disliked Trow’s autocratic managerial style and accused him of demoralizing staff and taking in more animals than the shelter could handle. The chief veterinarian told the media that the board should be charged with cruelty to animals, citing a new, Trow-sponsored foster care program that “forced these poor animals to live sick, against nature’s way.”

In 1984, with the THS mired in controversy and his term as president ending, Trow quietly slipped away and focused on his legal work. Ten years ago, he saw an opportunity to seize control again when the board, in an attempt to sideline its critics, annulled the voting privileges of the society’s 1,000-plus members. Trow launched a suit against the board, and a judge agreed to nullify the new voting rules. As the man who fought for them, Trow asked members to give him their proxy votes at the next board election. He and his allies won by a landslide, and he once again became president of the THS.

Although the presidency of the THS is a volunteer position, Trow often worked seven days a week—he retired from his job with the province in 2000 and received a pension. He dedicated many of his hours to writing articles for the society’s AnimalTalk magazine and letters protesting such perceived animal rights abuses as the seal hunt and Fido ads depicting a dog tethered by a ball and chain. Trow’s disciples believed he was an animal-care revolutionary. He converted part of a customer parking lot into a dog park and built a $1-million cat ward with views of the rooftop patio. He championed the kitten nursery, where volunteers and staff bottle-fed newborns, and he spent $8,000 installing nebulizer units (oxygen tents for treating upper respiratory infections) as well as hospital-quality sanitizers for cages and food bowls. His insistence on prolonging the lives of animals appealed to the society’s members and opened their wallets. The majority of the shelter’s operating funds came from preauthorized monthly donations. Around 30 per cent of the $10 million yearly budget came from bequests. (The pianist Glenn Gould loved animals and left half his estate to the society.)

Trow often bragged about the society’s low euthanasia rates. He printed tables in AnimalTalk comparing the THS’s rates with the city pound and several OSPCA shelters. Where the average rate for shelters in Ontario is around 50 per cent, the THS’s in the Trow years hovered around seven.

Some of Trow’s schemes for the shelter were less effective. He introduced a system of colour coding that the shelter used to identify aggressive dogs: white and red for the most dangerous, orange and yellow for the moderately difficult ones, and green for the gentlest. Though staff considered it a useful tool, it was quickly scrapped. Trow’s detractors say he cared more about the welfare of the animals than the staff and was primarily concerned that the system made it too easy to avoid caring for dogs with violent streaks or histories of biting.

As much as Trow obsessed over saving every animal at the THS, he didn’t have enough staff to care for them. Turnover was high—some people quit in frustration, and others were fired. Some registered veterinary technicians were replaced by cheaper animal care workers with little specialized training. THS employees and volunteers worked in fear of Trow’s tantrums. One volunteer says of Trow, “If he didn’t get his way, he’d flip over tables, pull his own hair and bite his fingers.” Trow insists the complaints about him are untrue. “I dealt only with senior management,” he says. “If I saw things weren’t clean or such, we’d have meetings and I’d raise my voice because it needed to get done.” His supporters viewed his behaviour as proof of passionate dedication to the job.

(Photo-illustration: Lindsay Page) 

From the moment Kate MacDonald took over as the CEO of the OSPCA in 2007, she heard stories about problems at the THS. A plump, middle-aged woman with short, dark-brown hair and a round, serious face, she arrived at the job after many years of experience in the non-profit sector, including as a fundraiser at the United Way. Complaints about the THS had been submitted to the OSPCA anonymously by the society’s own staff. In the spring of 2009, MacDonald met with a former THS veterinarian named Amanda Frank who told her about neglected animals and how she was forbidden to euthanize without permission. The Globe and Mail, relying on tips from unhappy staff and a rogue group of THS members called the Association for the Reform of the THS, ran a series of stories about troubling conditions at the shelter. MacDonald was keenly aware of criticism that the OSPCA had let the THS run amok.

On June 2, MacDonald’s inspectors descended on River Street. The media was alerted (though no one admits to making the call) and showed up first. The shelter’s managers guided the OSPCA inspectors through the building to look at the animals. Of the shelter’s 1,000-plus animals, one cat was found to be in desperate need of medical treatment. While the facility was cramped, it didn’t appear nearly as badly run as the OSPCA’s sources and the Globe had claimed.

But soon after the search, a group of THS staff told the OSPCA that their managers, tipped off by the early arrival of reporters, had ordered them to hide animals from the inspectors, and some animals were hastily euthanized before the inspection. One vet on duty said workers ran into the clinic, holding sickly-looking animals and telling her, “They can’t see this!” A manager told one staff member, “Tim wants us to move all the sick cats, anything that looks really bad.” Others said employees were moving animals from rooms the inspectors hadn’t seen yet into rooms they’d already visited.

From then on, the OSPCA’s investigation became more secretive. MacDonald hired the Investigators Group, a private detective firm, which conducted interviews with disgruntled past and present THS staff members and volunteers, and heard more stories about understaffing and overcrowding, Trow’s micro­managing, animals suffering in cages and missing their treatments, and vets forbidden to euthanize. One vet testified there were two to three dozen animals that, over the eight months she worked there, should have been euthanized but weren’t; she would find them dead in their cages or would get permission to euthanize only in the last minutes before death, when an animal was gasping for air. In one case, several diabetic cats died after untrained staff administered too much insulin.

The detectives also combed through Trow’s personal garbage after it had been left out on the curb and found he was ghost-writing many of the supervisors’ correspondence, such as internal discipline letters—evidence, they argued, of his control over the THS’s daily affairs, and of his knowledge of its problems.

All of the evidence went into an application for three warrants, and on November 26, 2009, the OSPCA descended once again on the THS. To prevent another tip-off to THS management, no OSPCA investigators based in the GTA were told about the raid. Instead, it was conducted by a team of 40 consisting of private investigators, Toronto police officers, private security guards, and OSPCA inspectors and agents from Hamilton, London and the Niagara region. To further ensure no one leaked the plan, before the raid, the non-police team members were asked to deposit their cellphones into a basket carried by the president of the private investigation firm. The media found out, despite their efforts. A Citytv news crew spotted the convoy of OSPCA trucks and police cars driving along Shuter Street, suspected another raid, and followed them to the humane society.

When the team reached Trow’s office, the first thing they encountered was Bandit. He growled and charged at an officer, who shot a burst of pepper spray in retaliation. Bandit yelped and backed off. The inspectors handcuffed Trow, as well as the society’s chief veterinarian, Steve Sheridan, and three managers. They gathered the five men in a waiting room next to the reception area on the first floor and informed them that they were charged with conspiracy to commit an indictable offence of cruelty to animals, causing unnecessary suffering to animals and obstructing a peace officer (a charge dating back to the supposed cover-up of evidence during the June raid).

The officers led the handcuffed group out of the building and to the assembled police cruisers, providing the news cameras stationed outside with a perp walk. While the five men were taken to 52 Division, inspectors were also rifling through Trow’s car and home for evidence. In his house, they found boxes and boxes of THS paperwork, which they carted away in a cube van.

The OSPCA inspectors counted 1,238 animals—far too many, they say, for the facility to comfortably accommodate. A veterinarian who had left the shelter nine months earlier and came back to help with the cleanup claims that she had been the last veterinarian to make an entry on many of the animals’ kennel cards. The next day, acting on a tip from an employee, inspectors lifted a section of a suspended ceiling and found an abandoned live trap containing a cat’s petrified remains. An OSPCA investigator immediately disclosed the gruesome finding to the reporters congregated outside the building. When asked how long the cat had been in the trap, he answered gravely, “The cat appears to be mummified.”

The OSPCA was concerned with how the raid and arrests would play out in the media and hired the Daisy Consulting Group, a PR company led by Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella, to coordinate interviews and help provide journalists with ghastly stories of abuse at the shelter. It was a Daisy employee who filmed the discovery of the mummified cat and later led the media on guided tours of the shelter.

MacDonald arrived at the THS soon after the raid and worked on site for four months. She hired a counsellor to meet with employees who had been reporting problems to the OSPCA for months and worked in fear of getting caught. Extra vets and animal workers were brought in to help.

One hundred and forty-seven of the THS animals were promptly euthanized. The remaining animals were adopted out or placed in foster homes. The last animal at the shelter was Bandit. He was deemed to still be dangerous and was euthanized. Trow, for all his proselytizing about the shelter’s mission, had failed over six years to rehabilitate his companion.

Trow resigned from his job, and in a final blow to his regime, the OSPCA requested new elections for the THS board of directors. The new board was formed by a group of THS reformers, employees, some current and former volunteers, and veterinarians who had complained about the conditions under Trow. Michael Downey, the CEO of Tennis Canada, was elected the new THS president. He had shown interest in running for the board a year earlier but was told by Trow there were no vacancies.

Trow bragged about his dramatic lowering of the THS’s euthanasia rate to seven per cent. The typical rate at other shelters: 50

MacDonald’s victory over Trow was short-lived. On August 16, less than nine months after the raid, Trow and his four co-accused were cleared of all charges. The Crown’s lawyers felt that the investigators had violated the rights of the defendants in order to obtain their evidence, so much of it wouldn’t be admissible in court. It turned out the OSPCA, despite all its grandstanding about policing its affiliates, had botched the bust. It had used a search warrant with no end date, and items unrelated to the case were mistakenly seized from Trow’s house, including his grandmother’s pendant necklace and his prostate medications. The OSPCA had also compromised the investigation’s findings by touring reporters through the facility during the raid. And, in the Crown’s view, the witness statements recorded by the OSPCA’s private investigators failed to provide sufficient evidence that Trow and the board intentionally mistreated animals.

The ruling was an embarrassment for the OSPCA. MacDonald and the OSPCA chair Rob Godfrey held a melodramatic press conference in which they excoriated the Crown for not taking animal cruelty seriously. MacDonald sat beside pictures of infection-ridden cats (evidence from the raid) as Godfrey cuddled an eight-week-old stray kitten they named Hope. “This cat had a better chance of survival being abandoned on the side of the road than pretty much any animal did about one year ago at the Toronto Humane Society,” Godfrey intoned. He denounced the Crown for not looking at the investigation’s evidence, and for not letting the case come before a judge. He said he planned to complain to the attorney general. (The AG’s office stood behind the decision.)

Still, MacDonald had succeeded in transforming the THS into a radically different kind of shelter. The new board and management repainted the facilities, enlarged the animal cages, retrained staff and volunteers, and limited intake so they won’t end up with unmanageable numbers. The THS accepts unwanted pets but no longer takes in strays, redirecting them instead to Toronto Animal Services, which euthanizes many of the animals it receives.

The biggest problem at the new THS is money. Members, who pay an annual fee of $40, have dropped from 2,800 under Trow to 1,675. Monthly donations have plummeted, too, from approximately $800,000 to $500,000. For all Trow’s faults, his passionate activism had a following.

In the year since the raid, Trow has lost more than 100 pounds. He told me how he speed walks through Mount Pleasant Cemetery and along the Belt Line trail each morning. When he isn’t walking, he tends his garden.

The first few months after his arrest were extremely lonely: as a condition of his release from jail, he wasn’t allowed to talk to any THS members—a group that included most of his friends and relatives.

I visited Trow at home and discovered evidence of a pack rat. The tables and floors of his home are covered in piles of old tablecloths, sheets, kitchenware and books that belonged to his deceased parents. In his living room, there’s a painting hanging on the wall of an old family horse named Ella. He shows me some empty spots on the floor and says the piles of papers that had been there were all taken in the raid. “It was time to redecorate anyway,” he says with a hint of sarcasm.

He claims he’s baffled by the campaign against him. “I never hurt an animal in my life,” he says. “And if we were unwise as an organization or made mistakes, we tried to be as wise as we could be.” He is building a file of news clippings and court documents, just in case he decides to sue the OSPCA. “I want peace for what I think was a scandalous thing done to me.”

There may be some truth to his claims. The OSPCA presumed the worst, and carried out its raid on the THS and its arrest of Trow as if the main goal was a public shaming, not the reformation of the shelter. The arrests were a warning to other affiliates to keep in line with OSPCA policy and avoid the emotionally charged terrain of animal rights advocacy. In reality, many of the people who work and volunteer at shelters like the THS do so because they feel profound bonds with their vulnerable charges—especially the pathetic lost causes like Bandit—and saving them from a needle of phenobarbital becomes an act of heroism.

Trow is currently without a pet. His dalmatians, King and Sable, died in the past two years. Sable was euthanized after her cancer was found to have metastasized; King died of old age. Trow is now waiting to hear of another unwanted dog. He knows it won’t be long. There are so many out there.