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In what they're 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 didn't seem to have access to adequate food and water, dilapidated enclosures, animals that appeared to be in need of veterinary care," Ewa Demianowicz, the group's 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 it's 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 animal's 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 weren't 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 weren't 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 wasn't 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 zoo's 2019 season — its 30th anniversary according to its website — was slated to begin this Saturday.

Michel Lebrun, Trahan's 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, we'll let you know our position," Lebrun said with Trahan by his side. "We prefer not to comment at the moment."

The zoo's 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 province's wildlife department.

While it's the first time Trahan has been charged criminally, she said the zoo has previously been ticketed under the provincial wildlife act.

— With files from Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal