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Animal advocates call for alternatives to coyotes, foxes in Ontario dog training areas

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Advocates are hoping the Ontario government will consider alternatives to using wildlife—such as foxes, rabbits and coyotes— in off-leash dog enclosures for the purpose of tracking as officials push forward with a proposal to expand training areas in the province.

Public commentary has now closed on a regulation that will see licences issued to operators of fenced-in train and trial areas, where sport dogs can learn to track wildlife.

If passed, the government will set a one-time 90-day window in which new applicants can submit their request for a licence. Operators may also transfer licences to others, something not previously allowed.

It’s a proposal that hunting groups support but animal advocates have called cruel.

Liz White, director of Animal Alliance of Canada and leader of the Animal Protection Party of Canada, told CTV News Toronto there was a reason why licencing was halted by the Progressive Conservative Mike Harris government about two decades ago. As it stands, there are 24 licenced train and trial areas in Ontario.

There used to be between 50 and 60 facilities prior to the change.

“I think there's a general recognition, even back in 1997, that this kind of activity was just cruel and really indefensible,” White said. “That worked well until, you know, we have the Ford government here who, I would argue, has waged war on wildlife.”

Under the law, operators of these enclosures need to ensure certain standards of care for wildlife, and adhere to “minimum standards for facility size and areas of wildlife refuge.” This includes bushed areas and escape routes or culverts where animals can hide from the dogs within.

They must also provide the animals with adequate food, clean water and medical attention.

“The reason that training and training areas are important is because they help to create well-trained dogs to go after legal game, in legal and fair chase environments,” Kirsten Snoek, wildlife biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, told CTV News Toronto.

“It's not endorsing abuse of life of any kind, but rather a means to create responsible dogs and hunters in the in their pursuit of various legal and ethical hunting activities and sporting competitions.”

Snoek said that at no time are dogs encouraged to attack or harm the wildlife. Firearms are also not allowed within the enclosures.

However, White says she has seen videos and photographs of dogs who are cornering, and then injuring, coyotes.

“If the coyote is cornered in a place where they can't get into the culvert, then they are often set upon by dogs. And unless there's some kind of intervention by the people who are training these dogs, the dogs will are very likely to kill the coyote.”

White says that if owners want to train their dogs to track scents, there is a way of doing so that eliminates the need for real wildlife in the enclosures.

“You can have the compound. You have what you call a drag that has a scent of whatever animal you want on it… a person drags that around the compound in whatever manner they want the dog to trail,” she said.

“Why the government will not consider that option is beyond me.”

Snoek, who is adamant there is no interaction between the dogs and the wildlife in these training areas, said that idea is something that “could be looked into,” although she questioned how the operators would get the scent.

“These areas are huge, like they're hectares in size,” she emphasized. “They've got all kinds of cover and escape routes that, honestly, the interactions I have seen are just extremely minimal.”

There are strict minimum size guidelines for train and trial areas. Those that use coyotes must be licensed for an enclosure that is at least 80 hectares—or the size of about 200 football fields.

For foxes the minimum size is at least 32 hectares and for hares or cottontails, the area has to be at least four hectares.

The government also restricts the kind of sport dog breeds that can participate. Snoek added trainers also wouldn’t want to put their dogs at risk by encouraging them to do more than track within the enclosure.

A coyote walks through Coronation Park in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. Following a string of unprovoked coyote attacks on humans in Burlington, Ont., in recent weeks, experts agree that the animals' aggressive behaviour is more than likely the result of humans intentionally feeding them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Evan Buhler

The Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry would not discuss the feedback he has received on the proposal, with a spokesperson saying “all comments received during the public commenting period will be considered before a decision is made.”

The regulation in question is part of a piece of legislation expected to soon pass its third reading at Queen’s Park.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said he was he was confused as to why something like this was a priority for the Ford government.

“I mean, to take wildlife and cage them up and then have dogs go after them, just seems inhumane,” he said. “This, to me, came out of nowhere.”

“I think there's definitely going to be blowback,” Schreiner said.

Snoek said that while there is demand for more train and trial areas, she doesn’t anticipate “a huge overload” of people applying for licencing, especially considering the 90-day deadline.

“It's not a very quick thing to start up and running this type of business,” she said.

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