The deeply acrimonious relationship between the Toronto Humane Society (THS) and the city’s animal services department has become warmer, say those on both sides of the long-standing rift. But with the city’s much-delayed new south shelter scheduled to open in spring 2003, the two sides are still a long way from agreeing on how they might best work together.

“I think there’s a much more positive relationship than before, I can say that for sure,” says Toronto Councillor Paul Sutherland (Ward 33, Don Valley East), who sits on the THS board. “Whether or not they’ll agree? The jury is still out on that.”

Animal advocates have said it’s crucial for the well-being of Toronto’s animals that the two organizations have a civil relationship.

They cite reduced euthanasia rates, improved low-cost spay-neuter clinics and a reduced burden on crowded shelters as some of the results that could be expected if the THS and Toronto Animal Services put aside their differences and worked together.

But even getting the parties talking has been difficult.

“The fight that occurred [when the THS lost the city contract to shelter animals downtown] resulted in a fairly rancorous discussion,” says Liz White, a director of the Animal Alliance of Canada. Prior to the contract’s lapse in April, 2001, the THS had sheltered animals in downtown Toronto for 114 years.

eye reported on May 9, 2002 that relations between the city and THS were so strained it was nearly impossible for them to just pick up the phone and talk.

The relationship between the city and the THS collapsed in late 2000 when, the city says, the THS’s board suddenly asked for 35 per cent more money — an increase from $776,000 to $1.05 million — to provide sheltering services in the former city of Toronto. Animal services staff determined they could run services downtown more efficiently, and city council agreed.

Relations continued to sour, however, as a new THS board lobbied unsuccessfully to have the contract renewed, and then asked to be involved in the design of a new city shelter in the Horse Palace at Exhibition Place. That shelter was originally scheduled to begin accepting animals in January, 2003, but construction delays and labour strife have set the date back until spring.

The next major bone of contention concerned how two major downtown shelters — the THS’s River Street facility and the new city shelter — could complement each other by taking on different roles, transferring animals to the THS when the city’s shelter became overcrowded, or using the THS as a “second-chance” shelter that could help hard-to-adopt animals.

It’s this kind of relationship that both camps are now trying to sort out, and Sutherland says there is a draft agreement “floating around.”

“There’s a willingness to work together,” says the THS’s Amy White. “We just need to work out some of the details.”

Eletta Purdy, manager of Toronto Animal Services, points out that the city enjoys a good working relationship with humane organizations in other areas of the city where it runs shelters, and agrees that discussions between the THS and animal services are progressing, but slowly.

“With [THS] there’s been a lot of history over the years, and it just takes a while to get past that history,” she says.

Purdy says that the only area in which the city and the THS are involved in formal negotiations is in creating a pet placement program, whereby animals who might otherwise be euthanized could be held for adoption at the THS when city shelters become overcrowded.

“There are plenty of animals to go around,” Purdy says. “So there’s lots of opportunity for these organizations and the city to be placing animals in new homes.” She thinks the THS has other important roles to play in investigating cases of animal cruelty and that it also has an important advocacy role to play.

Meanwhile the THS has turned its attention to developing a new role for itself. A new kennel run behind the River Street shelter provides space for training and dog walking, and the shelter has been taking in animals from overcrowded shelters outside the GTA.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on November 21, 2002.