This cat's story illustrates why Calgary's humane society and police work closely together

Gus went through a traumatic situation as a kitten, and his story shows how collaboration between Calgary organizations can lead to positive results. (David Mercer/CBC - image credit)
Gus went through a traumatic situation as a kitten, and his story shows how collaboration between Calgary organizations can lead to positive results. (David Mercer/CBC - image credit)

Gus, a two-year-old tabby cat, sits on a fluffy, white pet bed in his Calgary home, the afternoon sun making his orange fur glow.

The tips of his ears are missing, and so is a part of his tail. A portion of his back toes are gone, and under a snug, green shirt, there are patches of skin where his hair will never grow back.

But when Margaret Doyle enters the room with catnip, he bounces over to the piano bench, where her extended hand waits.

"He's mentally exactly the same as any other cat, which is awesome because he did go through such horrible, horrible things when he was a baby," Doyle said.

"I always thought of myself as a dog person, and this cat has turned me into a cat person."

David Mercer/CBC
David Mercer/CBC

Doyle is a forensic veterinarian who helps investigate cases of animal abuse. She met Gus when he was an eight-week-old kitten, after the Calgary Humane Society delivered him to the clinic where she works. About 30 per cent of his body was covered in burns.

"He was really borderline," she said.

"We started caring for him at the clinic, and he came home with me basically every night because he was on an IV, and I wanted to be able to assess him every couple of hours."

Gus's previous owner reported coming home to find the kitten badly burned, says Acting Sgt. Dennis Smithson, the Calgary Police Service's animal abuse liaison.

The owner indicated her partner had tried to wash the cat and maybe the water was too hot.

But the woman noticed chemical or bleach stains on her partner's shirt, and so she rushed Gus to the emergency veterinary hospital, where he was handed off to the humane society, Smithson says.

David Mercer/CBC
David Mercer/CBC

The offender was charged under the Criminal Code for Gus's abuse, Smithson says. He received an 18-month prison sentence along with a lifetime ban on ever residing with or caring for an animal again.

Through the investigation, Smithson says, the police also found a history of domestic violence.

"This doesn't happen in a vacuum," Smithson said.

"If we can use these animals as a tool to get into that home and into their life and get that offender away from them, we can stop that domestic violence early before it escalates."

David Mercer/CBC
David Mercer/CBC

Through months of diligent care, Gus pulled through and found his forever home.

Besides being partners in the animal welfare field, Smithson and Doyle also happen to be partners outside of work and share a home. And after spending so much time nurturing the cat back to health, they decided they couldn't let him go.

"I suppose even before we decided to keep him that, yeah, he wasn't going anywhere," Doyle said. "Even now, still, you know, [it] bothers me to know that that happened and that someone would do that to him."

The Calgary Humane Society says it sees between 100 and 150 animal abuse cases each year, not including abandonment and neglect situations. Additional cases are reported to the Calgary police. By working together, both organizations say they're able to help animals, and humans, dealing with abusive situations.

'Taken more seriously'

The humane society started working with police only in the past decade, says Brad Nichols, the organization's director of operations and enforcement.

These days, he says, they have near daily contact with the police service.

"It's fairly short-sighted to see animal cruelty as just animal cruelty. There's certainly a segment of society or agencies like ours that take that very seriously on its own face. But there are things happening in the background," he said.

"By dealing with animal cruelty, you're also dealing with, you know, elder abuse, interpersonal violence, domestic violence, child abuse."

The humane society has a team of provincially appointed peace officers who typically work in tandem with police any time a suspected animal abuse has occurred. People can be charged either through the code or through the provincial Animal Protection Act.

Smithson says that in about 80 to 90 per cent of the animal abuse files he works on, there's a domestic violence component as well.

"What I've seen through many of those cases is those victims are more willing to reach out and speak about their animals and make sure their animals are protected than they are to protect themselves," he said.

The organizations have created an informal relationship and gathered an impromptu team of experts, including Doyle.

David Mercer/CBC
David Mercer/CBC

The team is helping to get convictions, said Nichols, with longer sentences being handed out for animal cruelty cases. When he started with the organization just under two decades ago, sentences ranged from a weekend to 90 days in jail, he says.

"Now we've progressed to a point where we're seeing two years, three years, 18 months in jail. So it's being taken more seriously by the courts," he said.

"But the maximum jail period for an animal cruelty offence is five years. We have not even approached that yet."

Some cities are taking these investigations even further.

Last year, the Edmonton Police Service created an Animal Cruelty Investigation Unit after making a link between animal cruelty and other forms of violence.

David Mercer/CBC
David Mercer/CBC

For Smithson, Gus is a living reminder of the importance of continuing to push this work forward.

"He reminds me every day of when I see those sad calls and I read those sad reports and I see these terrible things that people are doing to each other and their animals, I come home and I see him and he's a success," Smithson said.

"What he's gone through, to still trust people and still want to be part of somebody's home.… He's absolutely resilient."