Sydney Morning Herald; RACHEL BROWNE; June 6, 2010
Death-row dogs… unwanted pets at Blacktown Animal Holding Facility. Photo: Anthony Johnson
MORE than a quarter of a million healthy cats and dogs are destroyed in Australia every year because there are not enough homes for them.
Behind the numbers there is a vicious debate about the oversupply of animals and what can be done to tackle the problem.
On one side, animal welfare groups backed by Sydney lord mayor and NSW independent MP Clover Moore blame commercial breeders for breeding too many animals and pet shops for supplying them to an unsuspecting public.
On the other side, pet shops say they are operating within ethical guidelines and buy their animals from reputable breeders rather than so-called puppy and kitten farmers.
But there are points they can agree on. Breeders need tighter regulation and kill rates are too high.
The RSPCA has taken the first step, releasing a discussion paper on puppy farming and inviting interested parties to make submissions.
”One of the reasons that we introduced the discussion paper was to get the debate happening,” RSPCA NSW chief inspector David O’Shannessy said. He agrees that puppy and kitten farmers – who range from large-scale commercial breeders to smaller backyard breeders – are contributing to the problem of oversupply but says many of them are operating within the law.
There is a variation between properties you might describe as puppy farms. Some of them are absolutely deplorable. But others are meeting the minimum requirements of care and are therefore legal.”
The RSPCA has conducted high-profile raids on puppy farms in the past three years, including on one facility in NSW where 190 dogs were being kept in filthy conditions, surrounded by faeces and dead puppies.
The RSPCA find it a difficult area to police and enforce.
”It’s hard to actually track these people down,” Mr O’Shannessy said. ”Often they will advertise dogs on the internet and only give a mobile number as a contact. They won’t sell to people on the premises. They’ll arrange to meet you in a car park or another public place so you don’t get to see the conditions that the animals are living in.”
Australian Veterinary Association president Mark Lawrie agrees the lack of regulation on breeding makes it problematic to enforce legislation. ”It’s hard to know the extent of the problem of indiscriminate breeding. It’s hard to get any reliable statistics.”
Dr Lawrie claims that animal lovers who accumulate large numbers of pets contribute more to over-population than farmers. ”I actually think animal hoarding is a bigger problem in terms of indiscriminate breeding. That’s a complex issue because it involves mental health.”
But welfare groups maintain there are hundreds of puppy and kitten farms in Australia, and groups such as the RSPCA and local councils are not doing enough to stamp it out.
”At the moment it is completely unregulated,” said Animal Liberation NSW project officer Jacqueline, who prefers her surname not to be used due to her undercover field work.
”Anyone with two animals can call themselves a breeder. They do so with the complicity of local councils who are supposed to inspect the premises and with the complicity of the RSPCA, which is reluctant to investigate.
”They have the complicity of the pet shops, which then sell the animals, and the complicity of vets who tend to the animals. Many of these animals are sold sick or with inherited problems due to inbreeding or with behavioural problems.”
Paul Archer, of welfare group Death Row Pets, said farmers specifically targeted pet shop chains and websites to offload their animals. ”The bad breeders will sell to anyone. They don’t care – they’re in it for profit, not the welfare of the animal. We need the public to stop and think about what they’re doing before they buy an animal from a pet shop or a website.”
But the Pet Industry Association of Australia’s chief executive Roger Perkins denies pet shops are selling animals farmed cruelly. ”Retailers buy their animals from reputable sources. They offer vet services post-sale, vaccination, microchipping and desexing. In terms of controlling over population, retailers are doing the responsible thing.”
Jacqueline disagrees, based on her first-hand knowledge of pet shop practices: ”Apparently the pet industry believes it’s OK to breed animals, export them all over the country, fly them around in small crates when they’re only seven weeks old and put them in the window of a shop. Apparently that’s not cruelty.”
Clover Moore plans to re-introduce a bill that would ban the sale of non-rescue animals in pet shops next year. The bill has won the support of welfare groups.
Lisa Wolfenden, owner of Double Bay shop Dogs in the City, whose brother William made a documentary about puppy farming, refuses to stock animals at her business.
”I am an animal lover. I think it would be totally hypocritical of me to sell animals which have been bred in a cruel way,” she said.
Both the RSPCA and Australian Veterinary Association, while not supporting the ban on animals in shops, are calling for greater regulation. As Dr Lawrie points out, vets ultimately bear the burden of unwanted animals. ”They are doing the euthanasing. That is traumatic – no one wants to kill animals.”