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Ottawa's swans deserve better

By Donna DuBreuil
Guest Columnist
The Ottawa Sun
August 29, 2006

I agree with one thing in Susan Sherring’s article ‘The feathers are set to fly’. That is the City of Ottawa should be able to make a sensible decision about the Royal Swans and move on to more important issues.

Sherring’s article states the city’s decision to not release the swans because of avian flu “was based on guidelines developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada”.

Not so. In fact, the Public Health Agency of Canada issued a clarification to city staff on June 2 stating that these guidelines were clearly not meant to apply to captive birds.

This clarification, also posted on the Agency’s website www.phac-aspc.gc.ca (Media Room – News Releases June 2006), was further reinforced by Health Minister Tony Clement’s Press Secretary on July 13.

In an email to Councillor Rick Chiarelli’s assistant, he states “the guidelines were meant to apply to wild birds, and not birds in captivity. Certainly not to the Royal Swans. There is no reason that the swans should be kept indoors this summer”.

Other experts agree. Biologist Ken Ross, the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Ontario migratory bird department head, said the risk of captive birds contracting avian flu from wild birds was almost non-existent. “In North America right now, the risk is essentially zero”, he said.

The question that needs to be asked is why did staff withhold this information from the mayor and councillors and let this controversy drag on over the summer?

Because of the city staff’s unwillingness to back down from a bad decision, the swans have spent the summer cooped up in a facility that is unsuitable even for the 5 months they are over-wintered, never mind what will be 18 months of forced captivity.

It also means considerable extra cost to city taxpayers for the facility up-keep and staff salaries. As it stands, it is a $150,000-a-year program so how can the City justify spending even more public funds for such a highly-criticized endeavour?

City councillors should be upset that they have been misled by staff about the rationale for keeping the swans in this summer and by the statement that the facility “was the envy of others”.

What has been exposed on national television is a derelict old building with the paint peeling off and shoulder high weeds. The pens and pools are very small and do not meet recognized standards for the humane care of large waterfowl such as swans.

In contrast, Stratford Ontario’s swans spend their winters in a building that has free access to a large outdoor compound and pond. They spend the rest of the year on the Avon River.

Information in a report from the Deputy City Manager on August 23 confirms that councillors were knowingly misled a month earlier when they were told the Ottawa facility was “the envy of others”.

The newest report states “a facility audit was conducted in 2003 and, as a result, staff is aware that it requires upgrading and/or replacement”.  

The ‘small group of swan-loving e-mailers’ referred to by Ms. Sherring are actually 215 residents of Ottawa who come from all walks of life.

They are not only concerned about the swans’ welfare and the black eye this is giving the City but also about the misinformation relayed by bureaucrats and the response of too many of our elected representatives who seem unwilling to do much about it.

The almost unanimous opinion outside City Hall is that the swans need to be released next spring or transferred to another city that will release them.

In the meantime, their living conditions need to be improved. This need not be a costly undertaking. In fact, digging a pond on the property would please both the swans and taxpayers by reducing the maintenance and staffing costs involved in keeping them indoors.

The mayor and councillors need to get back into the driver’s seat on this issue.


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