Melbourne Weekly; 21 Feb, 2011
Shelters and rescue organisations try to help find homes for the millions of surrendered and stray pets that come through their doors every year. But with little regulation and disagreements over how best to help, they are stepping on each other’s paws. Genevieve Gannon sniffs out the heart of the issue.
One summer day, a Jack Russell who had somehow become separated from her human took a ride on a Frankston train. She rode the line until a pair of hands scooped her up and delivered her to the Save a Dog shelter in Melbourne’s east. She was put into a cage, and a card detailing her sex and date of arrival was taped to the bars. The date was important because if she was still there after eight days, she would be vaccinated, assessed and prepared for re-homing. Because she was taken to a no-kill pound she would be housed in the shelter until adopted or claimed. Or, if nobody was found to take care of her, she would be put into a foster home until an owner was found.
The Jack Russell was lucky. If she had been taken to an animal pound that didn’t foster animals and nobody came to claim her, she could expect to live a maximum of 28 days, but she might have been euthanised within eight. If she didn’t have any ID – including a microchip – that time frame could be as short as 48 hours.
According to Good for Dogs blogger Mike Bailey, the centralisation of pounds makes it difficult for owners to find their pets. ‘‘Lost’’ signs in Preston will do little good if the dog has been found in the city. Many of the larger pounds – such as The Lost Dogs’ Home – have their own foster systems and work to re-home as many animals as possible. But rescuers still fear too many animals are being killed.
Bailey is one of the growing number of people who think too many domestic animals are being put down is too high. Like many others, he believes Victoria can achieve a zero kill-rate for healthy dogs. The internet has provided a networking tool for such groups, and there are now hundreds of community foster groups and no-kill pounds seeking to re-home animals that end up in shelters.
‘‘You need time, for many different reasons, to save animals,’’ says Save a Dog founder Pam Weaver. ‘‘Not all animals can be re-homed within that period of time. Sometimes it’s not the best thing for the community, either.’’
The guardians of lost animals fall into two categories: pounds and shelters, which are subject to a government code for the care of animals, and rescue groups, which are not subject to the code as they do not have the capacity to house animals. And tensions are on the rise between the two groups.
Managing director of The Lost Dogs’ Home, Graeme Smith, says foster carers need to be able to handle their responsibilities. ‘‘There are risks and animal welfare issues around medical treatment for fostered pets, hoarding, caring for dangerous dogs and overcrowding.’’
Weaver says some rescue groups are not up to the task. ‘‘There are a couple that I have reservations about,’’ says Weaver, whose Glen Iris- and Yarrambat-based shelters adhere to a state government code of conduct but foster animals out before their time is up. Her policy is no-kill, but she calls it ‘‘virtually no-kill’’ for the sake of transparency. Pounds with a euthanasia rate as high as 5 per cent qualify as no-kill. ‘‘You can’t keep dogs that are dangerous or are going to kill another dog,’’ she says.
Overall the various volunteer groups that work to re-home dogs are doing a ‘‘tremendous’’ job, Weaver says, ‘‘but there’s this division. It’s evolved to the point where you say: how do you regulate this?
‘‘They do it all through the internet and they fly [dogs] interstate – things we would never do,’’ she says. ‘‘There needs to be regulation, but without extra deaths. We don’t want any animals to suffer.’’
The Department of Primary Industries is due to release a new draft code for the management of animals and shelters. Rescuer Trisha Taylor of the Dog Rescue Association of Victoria says she expects it will recognise foster groups whose efforts are being frustrated by red tape, preventing more animals from being saved. ‘‘Some pounds would release to us, but others would say, ‘You’re not a shelter’.’’
Pounds are obliged to ensure the dogs they release are desexed, vaccinated and microchipped. This creates difficulties for groups such as Taylor’s when they are trying to convince shelters to relinquish pregnant dogs or unweaned pups who are approaching the deadline for time kept in a shelter.
The issue was confused last year when the DPI released a bulletin to councils that implied they could only release pets for re-homing to registered shelters. This was quickly over-written by a clarification that rescue groups could enter into written agreements with councils. ‘‘It is now clear that these animals can be released to us,’’ Taylor says. ‘‘But there is nothing to say that they have to.’’
An often-quoted statistic is that about a quarter of a million animals are put down in Australian shelters each year, but pounds and rescue groups alike say it is impossible to know the real number. About a quarter of the dogs that come through The Lost Dogs’ Home are euthanised, according to the organisation’s annual report figures. The RSPCA euthanised 3297 of more than 17,700 dogs received last year. The dogs killed were deemed either unhealthy or unsafe.
Smith says The Lost Dogs’ Home is 100 per cent committed to re-homing dogs where possible, but to not kill any is impossible.
‘‘There are various vicious and terminally ill animals that there is simply no way can be re-homed,’’ he says.
But those working in rescue groups are quick to question the guidelines for safe and healthy dogs. ‘‘The justification for harming a dog includes aggression, urinating, fear, cowering, hackles raised, lip licking,’’ Bailey says, arguing that these behaviours should not necessarily be a death sentence.
The Lost Dogs’ Home backs a campaign run by Bailey called Stop the Clock, which aims to have the 28-day rule abolished.
Two years ago, independent NSW MP Clover Moore tried to ban the sale of cats and dogs in pet stores, limiting the transactions to the domain of shelters, pounds and recognised breeders. The argument was that too many people were buying pets on impulse and surrendering them when the realisation of the commitment they’d made sunk in.
But Bailey says a ban is unnecessary. He says there just needs to be a better link between shelters and the pet-buying public. ‘‘There are 900,000 dogs in Victoria who live on average 10 years, which means just to keep the population we need another 90,000 puppies a year,’’ he says. ‘‘The shelters couldn’t supply all of that. At the moment they’re supplying half of that.’’
But Bailey wants pounds and shelters to be a more attractive option. ‘‘They have short hours, poor customer service,’’ he says. ‘‘If you wanted to sell pets would you only be open 9am to midday on Saturday and Sundays – your busiest days?’’
Foster group Beagle Rescue Victoria points the finger at ill-prepared owners for the socialisation problems some dogs have when dumped at pounds.
‘‘You get a human [who] doesn’t know how to cope with him and ties him up out the back. He’s not happy because he wants to be involved in the family. And then he starts howling and digging and doing all of the bad stuff you hear about. That’s when they end up dumping them at the pound,’’ Victorian group secretary Kath Malone says.
As the group works with pedigree animals, a lot of its rescue work involves puppy farms. Sometimes animals come in with serious health problems that cannot be cleared in 28 days. ‘‘We’ve got two girls now that are just covered from head to toe in ringworm that hasn’t been treated for ages and ages,’’ Malone says.
Bailey says Victoria remains the only state with a time limit, but the 28-day rule is only one part of the problem. Shelters and carers alike are looking forward to the new code providing clarity and support for those working to improve the lot of domestic animals. Though for many, the responsibility starts at home.
‘‘You’ve got to be relaxed [with dogs],’’ Malone says. ‘‘Do you really need that shoe? They’ll get into your socks and they’ll help landscape your garden. But they’re not for everyone.’’
The Jack Russell was certainly one of the lucky ones. She has been adopted and named Trish, and she now has a loving family. But hundreds of thousands of other animals don’t get a second chance.