Normand Trahan was arrested Tuesday morning by SPCA investigators, with the assistance of provincial police, on charges of animal neglect and cruelty.
If found guilty, Trahan could face up to five years in prison and a lifetime ban on owning an animal.
"To our knowledge, this is the first time in Canada that a zoo owner is facing criminal animal cruelty charges," said Sophie Gaillard, animal advocacy director with the Montreal SPCA.
It is also the first time in Quebec that animal cruelty charges have been laid by way of indictment under the federal Criminal Code, Gaillard said, which opens the door to harsher penalties than under provincial laws.
Video: Animal cruelty charges raise questions about controversial roadside zoos
"We're really pleased that this file is being taken seriously by the prosecutors involved," she said during a news conference at the zoo on Tuesday.
The animals found at the Zoo St-Édouard, about 120 kilometres north of Montreal, include lions, tigers, zebras, camels, kangaroos and bears.
"We received a complaint from the public and conducted a thorough investigation, that led us to discover other pieces of evidence," said Gaillard.
Two alpacas were seized in October 2018, following an initial inspection in August of that year. Four animal carcasses, including those of two tigers, were also found, as well as two birds.
Humane Society International (HSI), a non-profit organization, is tasked with caring for the remaining animals and finding them new homes.
SPCA and HSI employees have spent the day going around the zoo to take inventory of the living conditions.
"Some animals didn't have access to water and proper food," said Ewa Demianowicz, senior campaign manager with HSI/Canada.
"Some animals needed veterinary care, so these are not conditions that we usually see in zoos," said Demianowicz.
So far, none of the animals were found to be in "imminent danger," but it will take weeks to transfer them to other sanctuaries in the HSI network, in Canada and in the United States.
"This is without a doubt the most complex animal rescue we've undertaken in Canada," said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of HSI/Canada.
The costs of the operation are partially being covered by the Eric S. Margolis Family Foundation, which supports wildlife advocacy organizations.
The Ministry of Wildlife, which is responsible for issuing permits to zoos, could not confirm at this time whether Trahan had the proper permits to run an exotic zoo.
The 69-year-old appeared at the Trois-Rivières courthouse Tuesday afternoon and was released on promise to appear on June 21.
His lawyer, Michel Lebrun, said Trahan had always collaborated with officials and was planning to open the zoo this week.
"As far as I know, he has had the proper permits with the Ministry of Wildlife and the MAPAQ [Quebec's food and agriculture inspection agency] for the past 30 years," said Lebrun.
Trahan took over the property in 1989 when it was known as the Centre d'Observation de la Faune.
According to the zoo's website, visitors can see up to 100 species of exotic animals, including lions, tigers, baboons and leopards.
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ST-EDOUARD-DE-MASKINONGE, Que. — In what theyre describing as a Canadian first, animal welfare officials announced Tuesday that they were charging the owner of a Quebec zoo with criminal animal cruelty and moving to seize over 100 wild and exotic animals from the rural property east of Montreal.
On Tuesday afternoon, some 20 animal welfare investigators worked busily behind the fences of the barricaded St-Edouard zoo evaluating the condition of lions, tigers, wolves, deer and dozens of other species.
A spokeswoman for Humane Society International Canada said the animals living conditions were worrying.
"There were animals that didnt seem to have access to adequate food and water, dilapidated enclosures, animals that appeared to be in need of veterinary care," Ewa Demianowicz, the groups senior campaign manager, told a news conference in front of the zoo.
The Montreal branch of the SPCA said Tuesday that St-Edouard zoo owner Normand Trahan faces two charges under the Criminal Code — one count each of criminal animal neglect and criminal animal cruelty.
Sophie Gaillard, a lawyer and spokeswoman for the SPCA, said its the first time that animal cruelty charges have been laid by way of indictment in the province. That means tougher potential sentences — a maximum of five years behind bars and a lifetime ban on owning animals in the current case.
She also said that to her knowledge, it was the first time in Canada that a zoo owner has been charged with criminal animal cruelty. The charges stem from a visit in August 2018, when the SPCA said it noted several alleged violations. In a subsequent visit in October, officials seized two alpacas that were in poor health and found four deceased animals, including two tigers.
According to charges filed in court in Trois-Rivieres, Que., the alleged infractions are alleged to have taken place between May 2016 and October 2018. A clerk at the Trois-Rivieres courthouse said Trahan was released under several conditions and his case will return to court on June 21.
On Tuesday, officials began the task of removing the animals from the site — a list that also includes zebras, primates, camels and kangaroos.
Gaillard said SPCA officials were at the site about 120 kilometres east of Montreal as of 7 a.m. conducting inventories. She said seizing all the animals could take several weeks.
Rebecca Aldworth, the executive director of Humane Society International Canada, said the St-Edouard operation was the most complex rescue the organization had ever conducted in Canada.
"An operation this big requires a huge number of resources and co-operation, from specialized animal handlers to specialized veterinarians, skilled animal transporters, literally tons of animal feed and equipment," she said.
No animals had been moved as of Tuesday afternoon, but a veterinarian was documenting the animals living conditions and health status.
From a campground next door, which is not affiliated with the zoo, small herds of alpacas, goats and deer could be seen nibbling the sparse spring grass in enclosures strewn with rocks and fallen branches, while a group of wolves napped behind a chain-link fence nearby.
Outside the facility, some local residents expressed shock at the arrest, while others said they werent surprised.
Alain Lambert, who lives nearby, said he has seen dead or dying animals on the property. He said residents would bring apples for the deer in winter out of fear they werent being well fed.
Another resident, who did not want to give her name, said she visited the zoo last summer and felt that the place wasnt clean and that some of the animals had green water, or none at all.
On Tuesday, a small wooden train and picnic shelters sat empty within the fence. The zoos 2019 season — its 30th anniversary according to its website — was slated to begin this Saturday.
Michel Lebrun, Trahans lawyer, told reporters in Trois-Rivieres that his client needs to verify what is going on with the property.
"We will take stock of all this, and after that, well let you know our position," Lebrun said with Trahan by his side. "We prefer not to comment at the moment."
The zoos website says Trahan has been the owner since 1989 and has held a zoo permit for exotic animals since 2015.
Gaillard said the responsibility for issuing exotic animal permits and inspecting zoos falls to the provinces wildlife department.
While its the first time Trahan has been charged criminally, she said the zoo has previously been ticketed under the provincial wildlife act.
Animal welfare officials say they have arrested the owner of a Quebecs St-Edouard Zoo and are in the process of seizing its animals. (St-Edouard Zoo via Facebook)