Arthur Plasschaert has been breeding pigeons as a hobby since he was 13 years old in the Netherlands.
A retired real estate agent, he has spent the past five decades raising and racing the birds about 140 kilometers east of Toronto, in Brighton, Ont. Now he says that his pigeons have been taken away and that he is left with nothing.
“I miss my birds,” Plasschaert said.
“I have no wife. I have no children. That was all I had, my birds.”
Until last winter, Plasschaert housed around 600 carrier pigeons in lofts he built himself on a property he owns in Brighton. But the day before Christmas 2021, he was hospitalized with COVID-19. Over the next two months, he would be moved to the intensive care unit at Belleville General Hospital twice.
When he was finally discharged last February, the Humane Society had confiscated his pigeons and he was left with a $5,867 bill from the province. Since then, that bill has ballooned to nearly $23,000.
Plasschaert relies on his Canada Pension for his income and said he doesn’t have the money to pay the bill.
When he was hospitalized, Plasschaert did not have a plan to care for his pigeons.
“I had no backup. I never thought I would end up like this,” he said.
From the hospital, he called a couple of friends who work for the Township of Brighton. They said they would take care of the birds for him, but the city soon called them in to clear roads after a big snowstorm. This meant they were unable to feed the birds for several days, he said.
Meanwhile, a concerned neighbor who hadn’t seen Plasschaert in a few days called the Ontario Provincial Police to investigate his absence. When OPP arrived at Plasschaert’s property, they found 337 of the pigeons dead. The Humane Society was called in to remove the birds that survived, Plasschaert said.
Still at the hospital, Plasschaert said he received a phone call from the Humane Society telling him to arrange a new place to house the birds within 10 days. He would also be required to pay to house and feed the birds during that period.
Plasschaert said he indicated he would not be able to pay, and with his medical condition in mind, he told the Humane Society representative they could keep the birds.
The representative told him the birds would become Crown property after 10 days, Plasschaert said.
During this time, he could barely stand up, he said. He would often be out of breath just trying to walk from his bed to a chair in his hospital room, and that was before he was moved into the ICU.
At one point during his stay, a black envelope addressed to him at the hospital appeared in his room, but he was unable to read the contents at the time.
Months later, after spending time at a friend’s house to continue his recovery, Plasschaert discovered the envelope contained the original $5,867 bill.
It also included a notice that he had five days to appeal the charges.
He has since attempted to schedule a court hearing with the Animal Control Review Board (ACRB), the body responsible for resolving disputes and conducting hearings related to animal welfare in Ontario. The board has indicated that because he has not appealed within the five-day period, it will not open an appeal case for him.
Plasschaert has received several letters reflecting the rising costs of housing and feeding his birds over the months. The most recent amount is $22,937.
The ACRB declined to comment on Plasschaert’s case and did not respond to CBC Toronto’s questions about whether an exception could be made for someone in a situation like his.
Simon Dexter, a friend and neighbor of Plasschaert’s, told CBC Toronto he doesn’t understand why an exception can’t be made.
“It’s sad. He’s been so dedicated to looking after these pigeons,” he said. “He gets COVID, he’s in the hospital, he’s unable to do anything, and he’s being sandbagged by it.”
Dexter said the fact that Plasschaert was physically unable to open the original envelope should be reason enough to drop the charges.
“It would be very kind if the people who bill him significant money every day, if they could look in the mirror and ask themselves ‘why?’ when they heard he was in the hospital,” he said.
But Jennifer Friedman, an animal welfare lawyer based in Toronto, told CBC News it’s not that simple.
She believes Plasschaert could possibly argue that an extraordinary circumstance prevented him from appealing the decision to remove his birds, but she said it may be too late.
“I’ve never seen a case that has been allowed after several months,” Friedman said.
She said Plasschaert’s best bet might be to ask the ACRB if they’d be willing to consider letting him just pay for the first 10 days the birds were cared for.
“In many of these situations … the agency will ask if the individual wants to surrender the animals,” she said. “I’m not sure in this scenario why that opportunity wasn’t offered to him.”
Friedman also pointed out that the short five-day appeal period is deliberately in place because animals are different from inanimate forms of property.
“If you leave your bike or your couch for weeks on end, they’ll still be there,” she said. “But with living things, they need to be cared for on a daily basis.”
She also stressed the importance of having an emergency plan in place to ensure the animals are taken care of, whether it’s 600 pigeons or a dog or cat.
“There is a responsibility when you take on the responsibility of acquiring or adopting animals that you care for,” Friedman said.
Despite the emotional toll this situation has taken on Plasschaert, he says he still hopes he will get his pigeons back one day.
“If I can get a complaint from the animal review board, then I can file my case,” he said.
“I hope that [they] will be sympathetic enough to say, ‘yeah, you know, look at the situation the guy was in.'”