Canada needs to stop poisoning predators and pets

Nothing could have prepared Cristina Blackmore for what would happen that summer afternoon.  Her beloved border collie, Dulce, was busy chasing ground squirrels in the horse corral next to their house. Suddenly Dulce ran to her with fear in her eyes and dropped to the ground in a massive convulsion. Their veterinarian arrived 15 minutes later but nothing could be done: Dulce died in Cristina’s arms moments later as her grandchildren looked on in tears.

Post-mortem examination confirmed that Dulce was a victim of strychnine poisoning. Tragedies like this one happen every summer in Canada as pets accidentally ingest poisons intended for wolves, coyotes, and other wildlife. These deaths are entirely preventable, and they need to be stopped.

Most people are shocked to learn that Health Canada still allows the use of strychnine, sodium cyanide, and Compound 1080 to kill wildlife – an archaic, inhumane, and unnecessary practice that poses a deadly threat to wildlife, pets and children.

Strychnine  is a deadly neurotoxin made famous in film and literature, featured prominently in several of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, and more recently identified as the likely culprit for King Joffrey’s death in Game of Thrones. It is best known for its gruesome method of death, producing some of the most dramatic and painful symptoms of any known toxic reaction. When inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed by the nose and mouth it causes extremely painful muscular convulsions, ending in asphyxiation.  Strychnine is used in Alberta as part of the wolf kill program, and in Saskatchewan to kill gophers, ground squirrels and other small animals.

Sodium cyanide is another poison used in Alberta to kill wolves and coyotes. It causes violent and painful convulsions, severe anxiety, and loss of bodily control as it attacks the heart, circulatory system and central nervous system.  This poison is most often used in a device called an M-44, also known as a “cyanide bomb”  A small, spring-loaded cylinder containing sodium cyanide is driven into the ground on a stake, and delivers a deadly dose of poison when an animal licks, bites, or pulls on the fabric covering of the cylinder. Since cattle, horses, dogs and other animals will lick or step on the device they too are at risk, as are children who may investigate a strange object unaware of the danger. Sodium cyanide is extremely poisonous and can kill all warm-blooded animals including humans if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Poisoned animals may suffer as long as 8 hours before death.

The use of sodium cyanide recently gained international attention this spring when one of the devices exploded on a 14 year old boy walking his dog in Pocatella,  Idaho, resulting in the tragic death of a Labrador retriever and hospitalizing his young owner. Between 2000 and 2012, M-44 devices killed more than 1,100 dogs in the USA. There is currently a Petition to the US Environmental Protection Agency, and a Bill before the US House of Representatives to ban M-44 sodium cyanide devices in the United States. 

Compound 1080 – sodium monofluoroacetate – may not have the widespread recognition of the two previous poisons, but it is just as deadly. It has no antidote, and is toxic to mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates, creating a high risk of residual poisoning for scavengers and many other species. Compound 1080 is currently authorized for use in Alberta and Saskatchewan to kill wolves and coyotes. The poison is placed in meat baits set out to lure in predators, or placed in collars worn by livestock such as sheep. Manitoba and BC have discontinued the use of Compound 1080.

The use of these poisons is widely acknowledged as an inhumane method of killing animals due to the intensity and duration of suffering caused.  Victims suffer an excruciating and painful death, which can last several hours or even days. The use of strychnine to kill wolves is in contravention of the animal welfare standards set by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the Canadian Council on Animal Care guidelines, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Society of Mammologists.  Furthermore, its use does not meet the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines for wolf management, which note that when wolf reduction measures are used, “the methods must be selective, specific to the problem, highly discriminatory, and have minimal adverse side effects on the ecosystem.”

Although these substances are intended to target wild predators, their indiscriminate nature also results in the death of non-target species. A review of Alberta’s wolf reduction program in the Little Smoky woodland caribou range between 2005 and 2012 reported 154 wolves killed by poison, and 180 ‘non-target’ animals including lynx, coyote, fox, ravens, fishers and martens.

Pets and livestock are also at risk. Pesticides represent over 30% of the accidental poisonings identified in livestock, companion animals, and wildlife in western Canada since 1998, with at least 93 cases of strychnine poisoning in dogs in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba during this period. A ten-year study of sudden death in dogs described toxicity as the second leading cause of death, following heart disease, with strychnine accounting for 96% of these cases. An Alberta Department of Agriculture and Forestry web page on prairie dog control admits that “many dogs like the commercially-prepared [strychnine] bait and will consume a lethal amount if allowed to do so.”

Further, there is growing scientific evidence that killing predators such as wolves and coyotes does not reduce predation on livestock, and non-lethal alternatives can be far more effective in reducing and preventing conflict with predators.  

It is time to end the cruel, unethical, and unnecessary poisoning of predators – and pets - in Canada.  

Please take action and ask the Minister of Health to bring an end to the use of these poisons. Together, we can make Canada poison free for wolves, wildlife, and pets.


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