Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


Hide & go sheep: Woolly Houdini raises questions about how agency fights livestock disease

May 3, 2012 The National Post

Houdini, a year-old ram bleating and blinking indifferently on an Ontario farm, stands as testament to the skepticism his impassioned shepherd has for the government agency that says her flock is contaminated with a deadly neurological disease.

The lamb, named after the legendary escape artist, is supposed to be dead; his head severed and brain sliced to allow a government laboratory to test for scrapie, a degenerative disease in sheep similar to mad cow disease in cattle.

Instead, Houdini — with his black nose and shaggy wool, his left ear still pierced with the yellow tag from the day he was marked for destruction — remains at the farm of Linda “Montana” Jones, 170 kilometres east of Toronto.

When agents with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency came last month to monitor the killing of 12 quarantined sheep in an ongoing scrapie scare, the animals were caught, tagged and loaded into a truck for the trip to a slaughterhouse, she said.

As they were loaded, officials checked that all were accounted for and the truck was then sealed and followed to the slaughterhouse by agents to ensure none went missing, she said.

The next morning she was told one was unaccounted for. A CFIA agent returned for a search. There, in a pen of adult rams, was the little lost lamb, she said. Despite the security and the quarantine and radio-frequency identification tag, it had somehow been left behind.

Houdini earned his name that morning and Ms. Jones now points to him as a living example of why she does not trust CFIA officials and why she refuses to relinquish her heritage sheep without a fight.

Further fuelling her skepticism are the agency’s unwillingness to let her arrange for independent testing to corroborate the government’s lab results and the discovery of a signed provincial certificate condemning her sheep’s meat over “contamination with scrapie” — dated two weeks before they had been tested.

And after Friday’s announcement by CFIA that a sheep tested positive for scrapie, she doubts it. “I’ve had so much experience over two years with their errors. I’m seeing mistake after mistake after mistake. I have been expecting them to come up with a positive. It was pre-ordained,” she said. The agency says it works diligently and professionally to eradicate scrapie.

“The CFIA conducts stringent definitive testing at its laboratory in Ottawa, which is held to the highest international standards,” said Brian Evans, CFIA’s Chief Veterinary Officer for Canada. “Responsibly dealing with diseases like scrapie is critical to protecting animal health and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the livestock industry, on which thousands of livelihoods depend. “The agency has empathy for those whose flocks are determined to be infected,” Dr. Evans said in a written statement.

This woolly saga started in 2010 when a sheep in Alberta tested positive for scrapie. The Alberta farmer told agents the animal came from Ms. Jones’s farm, although the ear tag that might have proved it was missing. The agency moved in with a kill order for her flock.

Her Shropshire sheep, however, are considered a rare breed that traces its lineage back to the first sheep imported to Canada from England. Deeming them irreplaceable and seeing no symptoms of scrapie, she has lived with a quarantine while fighting to keep them alive. Last month the stakes escalated.

On the morning of last month’s scheduled slaughter, Ms. Jones went to her barn and instead of her flock of 31 death row sheep found a hand-written note nailed to a post. Signed by the “Farmers Peace Corp” it read: “We have taken the animals into protective custody until an alternative to killing has been found or conclusive, independent proof or clear evidence of disease has been proven. This has been done without knowledge and participation of the owner.”

While police investigate, Ms. Jones and the inspection agency continue to butt heads over the missing flock and those still on her farm. The latest row is over the pregnant ewe that CFIA says had scrapie.

The day before it died on her farm, she asked a visiting CFIA vet to take it with others being culled because it was clearly not well, although not with scrapie symptoms. The vet examined it and declined, saying he could only take animals suspected of scrapie, she said. The next morning the ewe was dead and the government’s test came back positive for scrapie.

With that, her farm was raided again on Friday by CFIA agents with a destruction order for nine additional sheep. Security officers guarded the farm overnight, presumably to avoid a return of the Farmers Peace Corp. The next day, nine sheep were killed. On Thursday, all nine tests came back negative, she said.

Ms. Jones has 10 sheep left on her farm, in addition to the 31 still on the lam — unless any of the pregnant ewes among them have since given birth. Said Ms. Jones: “What’s getting me through this is hoping those sheep are still safe.”

December 3, 2016 update: Justice Laura Bird stayed the charges against Jones and Schmidt this week. She agreed with their lawyer that the delay in bringing the case to trial was unreasonable. Bird wrote in her ruling that "the applicants have established on a balance of probabilities that their right to be tried within a reasonable time ... has been infringed." (Source: The Canadian Press)

Read more: CFIA puts rare Shropshire sheep on death row; now on the lam; CFIA returns to farm; charges laid; charges stayed 2016; the fight to save Sunshine the goat from CFIA-ordered slaughter