Southwestern Ontario animal welfare agencies form new advocacy and support network

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Nearly a dozen animal welfare agencies from across the province are formally joining forces to create a new advocacy and support network focused on the care and well-being of Ontario’s pets. 

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Founding members of the Ontario Animal Welfare Network announced their partnership Thursday. There are 11 agencies involved so far, including many of Southwestern Ontario’s shelters in Stratford, London, Kitchener, Sarnia, Windsor, Guelph and Burlington.

“This collaboration has been tremendous,” said Steve Ryall, the executive director of the Humane Society London & Middlesex. “The most obvious (benefit) is just a peer group for all our staff and all of the staffs involved to be able to share and exchange ideas openly.”

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The group has been growing organically behind the scenes since about 2016, added Kathrin Delutis, chief executive at the Humane Society of Kitchener Waterloo & Stratford Perth. 

She said the informal partnership was especially helpful at beginning of the pandemic when animal welfare agencies in the region were grappling not only with new obstacles in the not-for-profit world, but questions about how the pandemic would impact key services such as veterinary care, adoptions and shelter space. 

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“The only information we had was what was happening in the U.S., which was a lot of animals were being surrendered or being abandoned,” Delutis said. “We shared and developed policies together … so it wasn’t like each of us were reinventing the wheel. Probably the biggest asset (of the group) is the ability to network and share our common knowledge and skills.”

Under more normal circumstances, the group was already organizing access to animal welfare services spread out among its members, which also include humane societies in Kawartha Lakes, St. Catharines, Oakville, Milton, Ottawa and Sault Ste. Marie.

There is an animal hospital in Kitchener-Waterloo and a spay and neuter clinic in Stratford, for example, services that might not be available in other parts of the province. Over the years, neighbouring members in the region have also communicated regularly about shelter space, making transfers when needed.

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“This has been an amazing partnership that was missing in Ontario,” said Melanie Coulter, executive director of the Windsor/Essex County Humane Society. “If I need to run an idea past someone, if I need a policy or a recommendation for a supplier, I have colleagues across the province to turn to.”

Besides encouraging others to consider joining, Ryall said the move to formalize the network will enhance the amount of advocacy work its members can accomplish. 

“As individual humane societies, it’s tough for us to find time sometimes to dedicate to that as we deal with our normal urgencies,” he said. “We really all have those same types of beliefs and values and so … this will give us a little bit of a larger platform.”

Many members were involved in supporting the provincial government’s takeover of animal welfare enforcement when the Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act went into effect in January 2020.

“We continue to advocate for changes to the legislation to ensure animals are protected throughout Ontario,” Delutis said. “More than anything it’s really about being able to collaborate and have the support from my colleagues in Southwestern Ontario to make sure that we can ultimately keep people and pets together and provide the support that’s needed.”

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