Article by Anastasia Casey, October 2009
“Australia … is considered a pet loving nation but what we actually do behind the scenes isn’t particularly pet loving at all,” says Vickie Davy, animal trainer and Director of Pet Rescue, the largest online directory for animal shelters in Australia. So, what really are the costs of that doggy in the window? In today’s homes, pets are increasingly regarded as part of the family. Ideally, we play with them regularly and nurture them as best we can. But to what extent does this reflect reality?
In a typical scenario, you see a cute little puppy in the window of a pet store, the window is ‘conveniently’ set at child height and just like any other impulse item, like that new sweater you saw in the window of David Jones last week that you just had to have, you buy that brand new puppy because you want it now! However, once the novelty wears off, some of us no longer care and kick that once brand new puppy out onto the street, like that sweater eventually making its way to the back of the closet or even the bin. In today’s modern consumer society, where the average person endures five career changes compared to no change in earlier generations and where technology is rapidly updated, it seems that nothing is made to last a lifetime. We want everything new, and we want it now. Have we developed this same attitude with our pets?
The pet industry worldwide is a multi billion-dollar concern and despite our current economic downturn, according to US industry research giant, IBISWorld, pet sales are expected to increase this year by 1.3% in the United States. Are we, in Australia, to follow?
As Australians we spend more than $2 million annually to kill unwanted pets. Vickie says, “It’s probably a lot more… “. Most of the statistics come from the RSPCA but there are many shelters and pounds that euthanise animals whose statistics are not considered. Vickie estimates that 250,000 unwanted pets are killed each year while “at the same time puppy farms are producing hundreds and thousands of puppies for the pet shop industry…” These ‘puppy’ farms are legal in Australia as long as the proprietors meet the minimum standard of care and, according to wheredopuppiescomefrom.com, this “usually requires that the dog can stand up, turn around and lie down and that the pen has a partial roof. The dogs can remain in these cages their entire life – there is no requirement for socialisation, grooming or bathing, human contact, exercise and certainly no requirement for love.”. So why isn’t this information well known? Most likely because a lot of us simply don’t want to know or just don’t care. Hey, it’s just animals… Right?
The Department of Fair Trading has no specific legislation governing the sale of companion animals and despite the fact that they are living beings, they are classed as goods. Nor is there specific legislation in NSW governing the ongoing care of animals and the only legislation governing guardianship is the Companion Animals ACT (NSW) 1998. Struggling to be heard over the barking of homeless dogs, Sutherland Shire Animal Shelter Manager, Linda Rodriquez states “it’s rather basic… (with) low standards (of care)”. The Act stipulates guidelines such as; “PART 5 – DANGEROUS DOGS, Division 1 – Power to declare dogs dangerous and PART 3 – RESPONSIBILITIES FOR CONTROL OF DOGS.” Hence, there is no legislation addressing the care for animals only how we must control them. The only legislation in NSW with any substance covering the mistreatment of animals is the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (NSW) 1979. It seems that we only act when something goes wrong and because it’s the RSPCA, a charitable organization, which has the responsibility of enforcing anti-cruelty laws, due to budgetary constraints, they can only act in extreme circumstances. According to Pet Rescue’s Vickie, the few cases that do get to court “take three years (and) it’s … just a slap on the hand”. Paul Archer, besuited business consultant, activist for animal rights and developer of website, deathrowpets.net, says “there isn’t really a focus on the mistreatment of animals (either)… the law is very weak and hard to enforce…” and, he states, “there’s a huge legislative grey area… there needs to be a radical overhaul of all animal welfare laws.”
Currently, in NSW, animal welfare legislation is governed by the department of Primary Industry who’s Minister, Ian McDonald, is a farmer. According to Paul, a farmers mentality says “we breed, grow, market and slaughter animals as a primary industry.” Surely there is a difference between animals raised as livestock and those we keep as companions.
It seems there is absolutely no effective regulation of the pet industry. Puppy farmers and breeders can produce hundreds of animals at a time when, if they don’t sell are, just like consumer products, easily disposed of. It’s a vicious cycle: cute little puppies are bred, sold to pet shops at a wholesale price, pushed to consumers and a large percentage are dumped or surrendered to shelters. The usual procedure if they are dumped: the pound picks them up and if the animal is micro chipped and it is not claimed within 14 days it is killed; if it is not micro chipped, it is only given seven days. Linda from the Sutherland Shire shelter sates that the “Majority of the dogs and cats … are found astray and never claimed.” Theirs is the only council run shelter in Sydney that has adopted a low kill policy and she states that as a result “we’re always full capacity. A lot of shelters don’t have the funding, they don’t have the facilities to hold large amounts of animals, therefore euthanasia is realistic…we are government funded… Obviously a shelter environment isn’t the best environment for a dog or a cat”. We are breeding more and more companion animals when there are so many healthy ones in shelters facing death. Today, when we talk so much about recycling, what about these harmless living creatures?
In an effort to find a solution, Lord Mayor and Member for Sydney, Clover Moore, has been actively campaigning for animal welfare. Her Animals (Regulation Of Sale) Bill 2008 proposes to ban the sale of animals in pet shops and limit trading to shelters and high quality registered breeders. She recognizes the lack of regulation and effective legislation regarding animal welfare and stated in her advocacy speech, “The welfare and wellbeing of animals has not been a priority of any of the five NSW Parliaments I have served since 1988. Notwithstanding, I have been a strong and often lone advocate for animals in the NSW Legislative Assembly… While Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, governments and councils have the attitude that pets are not a legitimate part of life…The wholesale lack of political response to this was shameful.” Ms Moore recognizes the “strong link between pet shops and the large numbers of pets being dumped” and is actively campaigning for a public Parliamentary Inquiry into companion animal welfare. Paul Archer believes that “The forces of opposition are too great” and vested interests “that don’t want to create regulation within the pet industry… have done a very good job of lobbying government.”
In the UK, animal welfare groups including the Dogs Trust and the RSPCA have spent more than twenty years educating the public on the issues of buying animals from pet shops. This is why, according to Vickie, they now have the philosophy “you either get your pet from a breeder or a rescue.” Unfortunately, Vickie predicts that, “We seem to be heading the American way where they have mass, mass puppy mills that are churning out hundreds and thousands of puppies in just really poor conditions.” She explains that these puppy mills are like battery chicken cages, “they’re literally in cages breeding… and these are supposed to be people’s pet dogs.” It’s a profit driven industry but certainty not a humane one. Paul Archer claims that the US is much further advanced than we are in terms of implementing strategies to halt the killing and abandonment of our pets, “In the United States the best practice seems to be to sit down with people and find out why they are surrendering it, if there are other solutions that they might not have been aware of and try and put the onus back on them to take responsibility for the animal.” In Australia, what the pounds and shelters in most cases do not tell people, is that there is only a 20 or 30 percent chance that they’ll be able to find any animal a home and the chances are it’s going to be euthanised. As we seem to be following the US in most regards, hopefully we will continue do so in their adoption of new strategies to help prevent the abandonment and killing of pets.
As much as we like to say that we love our animals and they are one of the family, it would seem that the way we are treating them today is evidence to the contrary. With no ‘real’ enforcement in NSW prohibiting us from dumping our animals on the street, it begs the question: what kind of a society are we if we can discard our ‘pets’ the same way as that once new sweater we couldn’t live without?