Newmarket resident Dale Johnston got an unexpected call for help while on his way home from work last week.
He recounted a baby squirrel approaching him, putting its arms up “like a kid would.” He said the squirrel followed him, he was able to pick it up, and it was clear that it needed help.
But he said he felt he made a mistake by contacting municipal animal services and handing over the squirrel the next day. He alleged animal services deceived him by saying the squirrel would be taken to wildlife rescue, but then was later told that the squirrel was released — potentially to meet its end.
“I felt like I killed it myself. It reached out to me of all people, and I was trying to do what was best for it,” he said, adding that just releasing it was not right. “It’s not something any decent human being would do, especially when you got somebody that’s trying to do a good deed."
The Town of Newmarket opted to bring its animal services in-house after July 1, ending a previous partnership with Georgina and Aurora, citing approximately $67,000 in potential annual cost savings. But that has resulted in changes, with Georgina-based rescue Shades of Hope Wildlife Refuge no longer taking wildlife directly from the town without a new contract.
Johnston said after he brought the squirrel home, he had first contacted Shades of Hope, which had a place for the squirrel, but he had no way to get it there himself without a vehicle. That's when he contacted animal services to fulfill that role. He said he was assured it would go to Shades of Hope or the Toronto Wildlife Centre.
But he said he had misgivings. He said he followed up with the town and was informed the squirrel was released, and not taken to a rescue as he was told.
“We should have a little more respect for wildlife,” he said, adding that he feels the release was “needless.”
Animal services lead Ben Worthington said the squirrel was brought in-house for a full assessment and it was determined it was healthy and at an age where it no longer needs its mother. The squirrel was then immediately released where it was found. He said it then left the cage and ran up a tree.
"Wild animals are self-reliant by nature and only depend on humans as a last resort if they are in a state of distress ... The goal of our rehabilitation efforts is to return animals back to the wild as soon as possible once they are in a healthy and stable condition," Worthington said. "The experience and knowledge of the animal services officer on this topic allowed for the squirrel’s successful release back into its natural environment."
But Shades of Hope director of operations Cathy Stockman said a squirrel reaching out to a human generally means something is wrong.
She said they were in touch with Johnston and ready to receive the squirrel to care for it.
"Wildlife, if you can pick it up, there's something wrong. Whether it's too young, whether it's too injured," she said.
Stockman said they had a contract for years with the Town of Newmarket and its neighbouring municipalities for their combined animal services, acting as a place where injured wildlife could be taken for treatment. But she said the town did not put in place a new contract once they brought animal services in-house, and they are not taking in wildlife directly from the municipality as a result.
“We took about 400 animals a year from Newmarket. We gave them monthly reports,” she said, adding she thinks it could lead to more decisions for euthanization or release “because they have nowhere to send these animals."
Regulatory services manager Flynn Scott said the municipality had considered a contract with Shades of Hope after bring animal services in-house, but the charity had "changed the scope of services offered," so the town looked elsewhere.
Scott said the town has partnered with a local veterinarian to provide better interim care, and relies on other formal and informal partners to provide the town with options.
"We continue to work with a vast network of rehabilitation organizations and sanctuaries," Scott said. "Ultimately, we make all decisions with the lens of what will be best for the welfare of animals in our community. "
Regardless, Stockman said they are willing to take wildlife from the Newmarket public if they contact Shades of Hope directly.
“We will never say no to any finders,” she said. “We’re only saying no to animal services in Newmarket because they’re not willing to hold up their end as far as showing us they’re committed.
“What they did with this baby squirrel and what they did to this man is unconscionable,” she added.
Those in public service should not deceive, Johnston said.
“You’re representing a town, and your citizens are reaching out. I would like to see a little bit more honesty,” he said.