Animals in the spotlight in 2016


Animals seem to slither their way into the news every year. And 2016 saw numerous animals become the centrepiece of high-profile court proceedings and political hot potatoes.

Here are some of this year’s Canadian animal newsmakers:

High Park capybaras — Two large rodents escaped a downtown Toronto zoo last May and remained at large for weeks in a giant park. High Park Zoo staff dubbed the animals, just six months old, Bonnie and Clyde. The daring escape led to dozens of sightings. Animal detectives flocked to the park to try to find the critters. Zoo staff laid traps with food near the park’s waterways since, they explained, capybaras like to hide in the water with just their noses above the surface — and that’s where they liked to mate. One was eventually caught June 12 and the other remained free until June 28. The hunt for Bonnie and Clyde reportedly cost the city $15,000.


Animal House — In August, the Ikea monkey’s former owner, Yasmin Nakhuda, threw an annual party for her supporters where she met her two new monkeys, Caesar and Diva — the latest additions to her growing menagerie. Guests roamed Nakhuda’s sprawling property in Kawartha Lakes, Ont., watching burlesque dancers, sipping wine and snapping photographs of the other animals: two miniature donkeys, a wallaroo named Wall-E, a few alpacas groomed like best-in-show poodles, two tiny marmosets, two ferrets and a skittish black-and-white fox.

Nakhuda moved there in 2014 after losing her “son” Darwin, a Japanese macaque that escaped from her car and wandered into an Ikea store. Images of the tiny monkey wearing a beige shearling coat triggered a social media frenzy and a legal battle that Nakhuda eventually lost to an animal sanctuary where Darwin now lives.


New Brunswick python — In an emotional trial that ended in November, a jury found a New Brunswick man not guilty of criminal negligence causing death after his African rock python escaped its enclosure and killed two young boys three years ago. Four-year-old Noah Barthe and Connor Barthe, 6, died during a sleepover in Jean-Claude Savoie’s apartment in August 2013. The python escaped by travelling through a ventilation duct and dropping into the living room where the boys slept. A pathologist who performed autopsies on the boys said they died of asphyxiation and each was covered in puncture wounds from snake bites.

The boys, who were best friends with Savoie’s son, had spent the day of the sleepover petting animals and playing at a farm owned by Savoie’s father. They stayed over in Savoie’s apartment, which was above the Reptile Ocean pet store he owned at the time. A former Toronto Zoo curator of reptiles testified that snakes become more aggressive when they detect possible sources of food — and an attack would have been unlikely had there been no animal smells on the boys.


Montreal pit bulls — A pit bull escaped from a Montreal home in June and savagely attacked and killed a woman in her own backyard, setting in motion a fierce political battle that has ended up in court. Police shot and killed the dog as it stood over a lifeless Christiane Vadnais.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre led the charge as the city swiftly passed a bylaw banning new pit bulls and placing strict rules on current owners of pit bulls when walking the animals or keeping them outside the home. The bylaw was quickly challenged by the local SPCA in court, which suspended it until it hears legal arguments. The Montreal SPCA argued that some elements are discriminatory, unreasonable and unenforceable and would result in all pit bulls being penalized regardless of their behaviour. In November, the Crown said it would not lay charges against the dog’s owner, further galvanizing Coderre’s belief the city needs the bylaw.


Alleged fighting dogs — Last January, Ontario’s animal welfare agency filed a court application to destroy 21 dogs seized in a raid on an alleged dogfighting ring. The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Chatham-Kent police took 31 the dogs in October 2015 from a home in Tilbury, Ont. Five people now face more than 300 criminal charges related to animal cruelty and weapons offences. Three of the dogs were euthanized for medical reasons, but the OSPCA requires court approval to put down 21 others for behavioural reasons. The American SPCA evaluated the dogs and said they are some of the most aggressive dogs they had ever seen.

The dogs have been kept in a secret location for more than a year now as the case makes its way through the judicial system. Some of the dogs had puppies that are now fully grown and stand a good chance at being adopted outside the province — pit bulls are banned in Ontario — once the case is complete. Throngs of animal activists have shown up to every court date. Even Don Cherry, a noted animal lover, wants the dogs saved. Two animal groups, Animal Justice and Dog Tales, tried to intervene in the case, arguing they would represent the best interests of the dogs. A judge in December denied their application. The case continues.


Dead belugas — Two beluga whales, a mother and her daughter, died mysteriously nine days apart at the Vancouver Aquarium in November. Aquarium officials said the pair — Aurora, 29, and Qila, 21 — exhibited similar symptoms before dying, but examinations failed to pinpoint why they died. They were the last two belugas at the facility, although it does own five others that are currently housed at marine parks in the United States. Officials said none will return to Vancouver and plans to expand the beluga tank will be put on hold.


Hot pigs — In August, an Ontario woman went to trial to defend a criminal mischief charge for giving water to pigs on their way to slaughter. Animal activist Anita Krajnc told court she gave pigs water through a porthole on June 22, 2015, and got into a heated argument with the driver of the truck transporting the animals to a slaughterhouse. The pigs’ owner filed a complaint with police the next day and later told court he was worried for the safety of his animals, which, by law, are his property. The Crown agrees with the farmer, saying Krajnc was interfering with his property when she gave the pigs water.

Krajnc pleaded not guilty and used her defence to put the meat industry on trial, testifying that giving bacon to kids was akin to child abuse. The case has dragged due to a sporadic court schedule and isn’t expected to conclude until next March. Krajns was back in the news in October after a transport truck carrying pigs to slaughter crashed, killing 40, while more than 100 were walked to the nearby abattoir. Krajnc was arrested and charged with obstructing a peace officer. She said she was arrested after she went behind police tape to take photographs of the pigs.


Bowmanville Zoo tiger — The owner of an Ontario zoo famous for providing animals for Hollywood movies was charged with five counts of animal cruelty in April after a video surfaced of a man appearing to whip one of his tigers. The video taken at Bowmanville Zoo, east of Toronto, was captured by an undercover operative working with the activist group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which released the footage in December 2015. Months later, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) charged Michael Hackenberger with four counts of causing an animal distress and one of failing to comply with the prescribed standards of care for an animal. Hackenberger said he was not guilty of the charges. A Bowmanville Zoo spokesman, and long-time friend of Hackenberger, said the zoo believes in his innocence.

Hackenberger stepped down and the zoo closed in October, blaming the video for a “catastrophic” drop in attendance. The zoo, which was established in 1919 and claims to be the oldest private zoo in North America, is now in the process of finding homes for its animals. Two lions were recently sent to a zoo in New Brunswick.


Bears, guinea hens and a peacock — In late November, Ontario’s animal welfare agency laid five animal cruelty charges against Marineland, allegations of mistreatment that were quickly rejected by the Niagara Falls, Ont., tourist attraction. The OSPCA charges relate to the park’s bears, guinea hens and one peacock. The agency inspected Marineland after receiving a complaint about alleged animal cruelty.

Marineland has denied all allegations and said it will “vigorously defend” itself in court. Marineland also said the OSPCA visited the park in response to a complaint “by a former animal care worker who was fired for poor performance and inappropriate behaviour.” Marineland said the former employee is seeking revenge with the help of a “radical” animal rights organization based in California that filed the complaint.


Drowning penguins — Seven penguins drowned at the Calgary Zoo last week prompting calls for surveillance cameras in all animal enclosures. The zoo’s penguin exhibit had been closed for maintenance and a colony of 22 Humboldt penguins was staying in a back holding room with two pools. Officials believe the incident happened some time between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, when a zookeeper found seven penguins dead.

Jamie Dorgan, the zoo’s director of animal care, said staff sampled the water and checked temperature and air conditioners, but nothing was out of sorts. Necropsies on the penguins confirmed they drowned.