Saving Lives in New Zealand: Interview with Robyn Kippenberger of the RNZSPCA; DECEMBER 13, 2010; BY: VALERIE HAYES

The No Kill Advocacy Center has announced this year’s recipients of the Henry Bergh Leadership Award. The award, named after the founder of the first animal welfare organization in the United States, recognizes outstanding leadership in the quest to end the killing of healthy and treatable shelter pets. There are five recipients this year and I will be interviewing each of them—one per week for the next five weeks. Each has approached the problem of animal shelter reform from a different angle and so brings a different perspective to the issue at hand—how do we stop this needless killing?

First up is Robyn Kippenberger, the CEO of the Royal New Zealand SPCA. The RNZSPCA is the equivalent of HSUS in the United States, but unlike its U.S. counterpart, it is using its position to lead the way towards a No Kill New Zealand. Their Saving Lives manual is a step-by-step program for achieving this audacious goal. You won’t see the RNZSPCA making excuses for killing, or backing up shelters which neglect and abuse the animals in their care, or attempting to thwart advocates campaigning for reform.

What would U.S. shelters look like if HSUS and ASPCA showed this kind of leadership? What if they committed their considerable resources and influence to the reforms that would make the American animal sheltering system into a true safety net for animals? How much closer would we be to saving all healthy and treatable animals entering American animal shelters? That is the 4-million-animals-a-year question.

View slideshow: Robyn Kippenberger of the RNZSPCA is a 2010 Henry Bergh Award recipient.

Robyn Kippenberger of the RNZSPCA is a 2010 recipient of the Henry Bergh Leadership Award.

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In doing this interview, I had to remind myself that she wasn’t talking about a parallel universe, but a place here on earth, a place where a large national organization takes as its mission:

To treat every animal that arrives across our threshold as if it were our own, and to undertake to give it every opportunity to live a full and happy life in the knowledge that all life is precious. To undertake the responsibility of healing the injured, accommodating and restoring the sick, repairing the abused, and extending the life of all those who have a quality of life ahead of them. To make every decision a life-saving commitment.

And means it. They don’t equivocate. They’re in the business of saving lives. They say “Can do!”

No, attitude and commitment trump geography. It isn’t a parallel universe. It is a place right here on earth. It is the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Robyn Kippenberger will be presenting a workshop on leadership at the No Kill Conference 2011 in Washington D.C.

How did you become involved in animal welfare and the No Kill movement?

My passion and ethics came from my mother who raised me on a diet of animal welfare literature and who passed on her high level of empathy for all animals – not just our cats and dogs but mice, rats and rabbits and farm animals too.

I have always had companion animals and was brought up on a free range chicken farm then had farm animals of our own on our kiwi and avocado orchard including pigs, chickens and geese.

Then, while serving as a minister in our New Zealand Government from 1996 to 1999, I sat on the Primary Production (Agriculture and Fisheries) Select Committee through many animal related Bills including our present 1999 Animal Welfare Bill.

I was invited to apply for the SPCA CEO position by a recruitment agency, was chosen and appointed at the end of 2004, and have been the SPCA National CEO for the past 6 years. This includes responsibility for 48 regional branches of the New Zealand SPCA

Our euthanasia/kill rate nationally was above 60% then with some centres killing as many as 87% of their intake of animals – a great shock to me as I was under the impression that the SPCA saved animals! I can remember that my first address to our National Conference – less than 4 months after taking up my role – was informing the assembled attendees that this needed to be addressed immediately. I don’t think it was a very well received presentation!

I introduced proactive de sexing [i.e. spaying and neutering], including a putting a national mobile de sexing clinic on the road by the following February, to travel throughout the country offering free de sexing for pets of low income families. To date we have achieved more than 14,000 operations from this clinic alone.

I then brought Michael Arms from San Diego to New Zealand to run workshops on reducing our kill rate having already attended a 2 ½ hour workshop with him. He was inspirational but while we managed to push the rate down to a little under 50% over 2 years this was not the dramatic result I wanted.

Then in my search for more answers I read Redemption and shortly after heard Nathan Winograd present in Australia. I knew that I needed his help so I persuaded him to come to New Zealand to convince our organisation that they could achieve No Kill.

What are some of your accomplishments from this past year that led to your being chosen for this honor?

Having my Saving Lives initiative embraced by our National Council (Board) and headed up by our National President, Bob Kerridge – very important for its acceptance by the wider SPCA community.

Bringing Nathan to New Zealand to speak at our National Conference and then traveling him through the country to run workshops – he presents the No Kill Solution with the conviction borne of having achieved exactly what we are striving for.

Appointing our own Saving Lives Ambassador, Sara Elliot Warren, who travels to SPCAs throughout New Zealand to assist them to put the Saving Lives protocols in place to push their kill rates radically downwards.

The first of our SPCAs to reduce their kill rate into the 20s – and some to mini single figures!!!! Two centres have zero euthanasia.

Having the majority of our SPCAs working towards their own Saving Lives protocols and initiatives.

We have done all of this in a falling economy – a challenge on top of the radical change in culture we are asking of our SPCAs.

Tell us about the nationwide campaign to make New Zealand the first No Kill country.

It’s called Saving Lives – No Kill has a connotation in New Zealand – we have been fed the usual about no kill centres – “they are not open access – that would never work for us because we have to take all animals”, “they kill animals anyway and don’t count them”, “it won’t work here because…”

We wanted to avoid that initial easy dismissal by putting our own ‘stamp’ on the campaign making it impossible to deny. Do they really want to say they don’t want to save lives?!

We added “Every life is precious” as the by line so that they considered every animal – even the tiniest kitten, the fiercest- looking pit bull or the wildest feral cat – and really made the best attempt to save it.

How did this campaign come about?

Too many animals dying! We are now, as Michael Arms told us, “in the business of Saving Lives”.

And it had to be a nationwide campaign so that everyone was coordinated in their efforts

We do a lot of swapping of animals from one SPCA to another to give the animals the best chance of adoption. We have a national memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a very reputable pet store chain. They will take our kittens and pups and promote them as SPCA Special Animals.This has already achieved several ends. Back yard breeders and puppy mills are being frozen out of the pet market, people are feeling great about helping an SPCA orphan and we now have 20 plus more ‘outlets’ for our de sexed, vaccinated and micro-chipped babies. The next step will be enabled off site adoptions of adult animals in the pet store environs – more adoptions to a target audience!

What was the state of animal sheltering in New Zealand prior to the campaign and how has it changed?

I must say that, despite being told they were doing things the wrong way (not a popular position to approach people with at the best of times) SPCAs have largely embraced the changes from the start. I am often approached and told how grateful workers are for the positive changes I have led and they have made. In the end there aren’t many people who enjoy killing animals!

What was the smartest thing you did?

Two really:

Enlisting our National President Bob Kerridge whose name is synonymous with SPCA in New Zealand (he is nationally trusted and regarded for his work in animal welfare over more than 25 years) and giving him ownership of the program that we call Saving Lives.

He used his huge knowledge of animal sheltering in New Zealand to adapt Nathan’s No Kill stepsto our own circumstances in a manual for all SPCAs.

And bringing Nathan Winograd to New Zealand – faced by his conviction and personal achievements it is impossible for our SPCAs to say they cannot do this.

What would you do differently?

Nothing so far – I just wish I had started sooner. This is really feeling as though it is a culture change whose time has come.

What was your biggest disappointment?

When, having put so much in place to reduce the kill rate it wasn’t working – at least not quickly or effectively enough. Now we’re cooking!

What was your biggest success?

Bringing Nathan to New Zealand – we love him. He’s feisty and inspirational – and just such a nice guy. He is No Kill – it’s very hard to turn away from someone who eyeballs you and asks you why you are still killing animals when you don’t have to.

Coming after the Michael Arms sessions that asked the same question it was compelling.

When did you realize you were succeeding?

When, straight after National Conference where I exhorted SPCAs to share their successes andask for help to achieve what we were asking of them, I had centres ringing and emailing, telling me of their Saving Lives initiative and more asking for help!

What advice do you have for someone embarking on a similar venture?

Be sure of your objectives – you have to really want this down to your bones – it has to rule you personally not just as a job you have-to-do. Look at every animal as an individual.

Our by-line is ‘every life is precious’. You have to be completely authentic then you give no one any excuse but to try themselves.

Then find someone to carry the message – Bob was perfect as he has the trust and confidence of our organisation and the New Zealand public.

Or/and if you carry it yourself build a great support team – I had and have the will and support of my National Council, all my 20-plus staff and several centre managers.

We did have the hard discussion at the Board table that if they personally weren’t totally with us then we couldn’t ask the SPCAs to sign up to what is a huge culture change.

And make the program your own by working through every aspect and tailoring the application to your own circumstances – I didn’t do this as my experience is not so much at the cat cage end of the business. Bob Kerridge wrote the manual as he has the experience of running a large SPCA at every level and my staff developed the Saving Lives check list – our really easy tool that SPCAs can use to see where they need to put their efforts to change their centres to a Saving Lives SPCA.

What does this award mean to you?

Being recognized by an American award is ‘important’ here in New Zealand – it really means something special and is a great honor.

The reward for this work is the lives of all the animals we save daily now that would otherwise have died and that is so precious that you don’t look for anything else. But the Henry Bergh Award also gives us a chance to highlight the importance of what we are doing here and we will use it both within our organisation and to the wider public to promote the importance of Saving Lives and thus increase its chances of success.

What are your plans and goals for the future?

To make New Zealand the first No Kill Nation of course.

But immediately, by next May, to have achieved that no animal coming to an SPCA throughout New Zealand is killed for lack of space – that looks very much achievable already.

Then to drive our kill rate down below 20% nationwide by 2012.

And finally to secure funding streams to both SPCA National and our SPCA centres throughout the country that are robust and match the tasks prescribed to ensure Saving Lives is maintained and entrenched.

What was the most difficult part of your accomplishment, your biggest challenge?

Knowing, when I first presented my plan to my National Council, that if they didn’t agree to progressing the initiative I couldn’t continue to stay in my job – I just couldn’t remain and be responsible for all that killing when I knew there was another, better way. In the darkest hours of the night, because I love my job, that was my greatest fear.

Then presenting Saving Lives to the organisation – telling them they were killing too many animals – in a way that wouldn’t alienate them but encourage them to participate.

Funding continues to be a huge challenge but we are pushing boundaries in that area too. Unlike many charities in this time of economic downturn I have added to my fundraising team – and they are fantastic too – they foster animals as well!

What was the most surprising thing you learned along the way?

That my leadership really matters – and that an organisation that has been established more than 125 years in New Zealand can absorb and effect a huge culture change really quickly and with a great deal of joy.

Is there something outside of animal welfare that informs your work and advocacy?

My strong support from family – my children and wider family – friends who pour the wine at the end of the frustrating days and colleagues who offer advice and assistance when I ask.

My political knowledge and experience – I advocate into Government for my job regularly and understanding the system makes me effective and more efficient in my work.

My personal knowledge and experience of media – and the help an outstanding media advisor.

And importantly my relationship with my own companion animals – they remind me of the importance and relevance of the work that I do.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I have been fortunate that my Board have allowed me to travel to see what other countries are doing in the full animal welfare arena.

I have found in the United States the answers to my most urgent questions about animal welfare over a host of difficult operational areas – not only ‘sheltering’ but our inspectorate, fundraising, disaster relief and education.

I know that in such a large country you have both excellence and the other end of the spectrum but I have found solutions for many of our pressing needs and for that I am extremely grateful so it is all the more significant to me that I have been honored by this American award

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