Each year in Australian shelters it’s estimated well over a hundred thousand animals are euthanased, the majority of them cats and dogs. The single most positive influence people can have on reducing the number of killings each year is to be responsible pet owners. The other is to adopt from shelters. Although adopting from shelters is not for every situation or every person, as Karen Graham discovers, apart from the ‘feel good’ factor of saving a life, adoption from shelters can be successful, positive and rewarding.
Michelle Williamson was volunteering for a shelter and working for an IT company when she came up with the concept of bringing individual animal shelters together to harness the full potential of the internet. PetRescue, established in 2004, represents more than 220 shelters and seeks to encourage people to think of shelter animals first when looking for a pet.
Michelle says one of the biggest problems for shelters is a lack of resources. Their voices go unheard because they don’t have the money or the marketing power to compete with corporate businesses or individuals mass-producing pets. ‘Generally it’s not because there is anything wrong with the animals, but purely because the shelters don’t have the reach other organisations have,’ says Michelle.
And most shelters are stretched for resources due to the sheer number of unwanted pets. In the 2005–06 financial year the RSPCA alone received nearly 150,000 animals into their shelters. One of the biggest challenges in the fight against overpopulation is educating people to de-sex their pets. ‘There are some shelters taking 150 kittens a day,’ says Michelle. Desexing is paramount to reducing these numbers.
While desexing is not compulsory, microchipping may soon be. A major initiative of the Australian Veterinary Association is to introduce compulsory microchipping across the country. New South Wales is currently the only state that enforces compulsory microchipping, however from 1 May 2007, Victoria will also introduce legislation. All cats and dogs registered with a council for the first time must be microchipped prior to registration. Councils will also have the power to require compulsory microchipping of all cats and dogs housed in their municipality.
‘From an animal welfare point of view we are ecstatic,’ says Andrew Foran, manager of the RSPCA Animal Shelter in Burwood, Victoria. ‘It enables us to get lost animals reunited with their owners.’
Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 the penalty for abandoning cats or dogs is up to $6,000 or six months’ imprisonment. Compulsory microchipping is a significant step forward in forcing pet owners to take responsibility for their animals, along with the obvious benefit of less euthanasia.
‘We’ve got people working at the RSPCA who are passionate about animal welfare, and the irony is, it’s these same people who have to stick needles into the veins of cats and dogs because there are too many of them being admitted into shelters,’ says Andrew.
One of them is RSPCA adoption officer Katrina Webb, who recently rescued a feral kitten that had lost a leg. The kitten was biting and hissing when she picked it up, but after five weeks in the shelter began to improve. Katrina decided to foster the kitten for six weeks to improve its chances of adoption.
‘It was wonderful watching her change,’ says Katrina. ‘Then I bought her back to the shelter and sold her to a young couple with a daughter. She’s going really well now.’
Contrastingly, Katrina says the worst thing about her job is the lack of understanding of an animal and its needs. She gives the example of a couple that returned a dog the day after purchasing him because he had tried to bite their cat. Katrina had advised them not to introduce their pets in the first couple of weeks.
‘Meanwhile the dog is really stressed,’ says Katrina. ‘If he’d actually bitten the cat we’d be putting him to sleep, just as a result of them being impatient and a bit careless.’
Monash University Anthrozoology Research Group member Dr Linda Marston recently completed her PhD on factors affecting the adoption success of shelter dogs. One factor her research revealed was that many people who returned dogs had not developed a satisfying relationship with them – they petted them far less than those whose adoptions were successful and also had low levels of interaction.
Linda wondered if she could improve the success of adoptions by encouraging the development of a good relationship between the new owner and their dog. To test this, Linda surveyed two groups of people – the first group had little or no contact with the shelter after the adoption; the second group participated in a four-week post-adoptive training course which covered basic obedience and behavioural problems such as jumping up. This group also had hands-on interaction by learning dog massage.
‘After training, people interacted a lot more with their dogs, experienced greater emotional fulfilment and found ownership less work and effort than the other group,’ says Linda. ‘Also, fewer dogs were relinquished by that group.’
Linda says one of the biggest challenges facing shelters is improving temperament testing of dogs, and then matching them with suitable owners. Fellow researcher and animal behaviourist Kate Mornement is currently undertaking a PhD on the behavioural assessment of adult shelter dogs. Once complete, Kate’s aim is to use this research to develop national standards for identifying shelter dogs suitable for rehoming.
‘Hopefully what comes out of the study is a standardised and validated test that’s reliable and effective in screening the dogs coming into shelters, so that dogs not suitable for adoption will not get put out into the community, allowing more resources for dogs that are suitable,’ says Kate. ‘One of the main aims of the test is to increase adoption and reduce euthanasia by increasing public confidence in the quality of shelter dogs.’
Of course, preventing the surrender of dogs is also important. Kate says many people do not fully understand the responsibilities that go with dog ownership, particularly in terms of vet care, food and exercise. ‘I think obedience training is very important and dogs should be walked every day to burn off energy,’ she says. ‘People wonder why their dogs are hyperactive, why they dig in the backyard or why they bark – it’s probably because they are bored and need exercise.’
Hunter Animal Rescue, in the Lower Hunter region north of Sydney, has another approach to prevent euthanasia. Hunter Animal Rescue is a not-for-profit organisation whose volunteer members rescue abandoned pets facing euthanasia in shelters. According to the code of practice for shelter management, it’s recommended that animals are not kept in shelters for longer than 28 days. Hunter Animal Rescue has been established to give these animals ‘extra time’ for rehabilitation and rehoming through its foster program.
‘Our main goal is to rescue dogs from the pound that have been mistreated,’ says Lynette Garrett-Preston, who is currently fostering three dogs. ‘If a dog has had an abusive owner we feel it should get another chance in life.’
The animals are cared for in a safe environment with plenty of social interaction and training. The majority of them are rehomed. ‘It can be sad at times,’ says Lynette. ‘I’ve shed a lot tears. But it’s rewarding to see them go to a home where they will get lots of love, and to know that we’ve saved them from death.’
Similarly, Pam Weaver established the Save-A-Dog-Scheme in 1985 to try to change the ‘culture of killing’ and to save as many animals as she could. The organisation has a ‘no kill’ philosophy, which Pam stresses is ‘virtually no kill’, as there are occasions when an animal needs to be euthanased, for instance, if it poses a risk to the community. Pam believes a ‘no kill’ philosophy encourages people to find a solution, rather than just admitting that it’s a terrible situation.
‘As part of changing the culture, I feel that if we call them companion animals and regard ourselves as their carers or guardians, rather than their owners, it does create a different mindset,’ says Pam.
One of the greatest challenges facing the animal welfare industry is public awareness of shelters. One of the initiatives helping the cause is a campaign utilising both television and internet. Mike Larkan’s Give a Dog a Home website is the brainchild of Chris Strange and his partners at SP Creative Media, who wanted to bring attention to the plight of shelter dogs. Each week three dogs from North Melbourne’s Lost Dogs’ Home feature on the website. Then on Friday evenings, during the Channel Ten News, one of these dogs appears with weatherman Mike Larkan. Mike also gives the website a plug. Chris says the segment is only short, ‘Blink and you will miss it, but that’s the incredible part – it’s enough to get 15,000 hits per week on the website and send about 200 people to the shelter the following morning.’
Melbourne resident Michaela Newell also uses the power of the internet via the use of email, although her service for unwanted animals started unintentionally. Her email-based re-homing service developed after she rehomed a few animals for friends and family. She now has an email list with several hundred people on it.
‘It’s like a matchmaking service for animals in need and people looking to adopt them,’ says Michaela, who points out that many of the animals come from owners whose circumstances have changed, such as divorce or shifting. ‘The problem lies 99 per cent of the time with the owner’s inability to keep their pet, not with the animal itself,’ she says.
There can be advantages to adopting from shelters, or services like Michaela’s. Animals for adoption can already be toilet trained and have basic obedience skills. In addition, a good adoption service will provide advice on vet care, feeding, housing and other relevant information. The cost of a pet is mostly far cheaper than a pet store or breeder and is used to cover the cost of microchipping, worming, desexing and vaccinations, which are all compulsory for shelter pets being rehomed.
Of course with any new purchase – particularly one with serious commitment – research is strongly advised. That’s what Danielle Kovacic did before choosing a dog and it proved invaluable. Danielle had her heart set on a Pug so went to a pug rescue organisation. Sammy, a Japanese Chin, was at Pug Rescue Victoria by default, rescued at the same time as a group of Pugs. Sammy had been badly neglected, had rotting teeth and matted hair and needed hospital treatment. Danielle had never considered a Japanese Chin before, but she did some research and found out they were ‘perfect little apartment dogs’. Danielle decided to adopt Sammy. After he was released from hospital, Sammy went home with Danielle and has been happy and healthy at her house ever since.
For those wanting to help but reluctant to commit to a pet for life, there’s the option of fostering. The Greyhound Adoption Program (GAP) is an initiative of Greyhound Racing Victoria, dedicated to finding homes for Greyhounds no longer suitable for racing. During fostering by GAP volunteers, the dogs’ temperaments are tested and they are exposed to as many different experiences as possible, including interaction with cats, children and other small animals.
‘The role of the foster carer is to help the dog adjust to life off the track before we adopt them out. They are normally in foster care for about three weeks,’ says Larrisa Darragh from GAP in Victoria. Her New South Wales counterpart Leanne Pearce says fostering with a view to adopt is another option. The NSW organisation has many people wanting to adopt, but not enough foster carers.
Melbourne’s Lort Smith Animal Hospital (LSAH) is also using the option of fostering. They recently started a program for kittens. Director of Operations, Diane Aitken, says volunteers take kittens home until they are big enough to be re-homed. ‘People like the idea because they can have the kitten for three weeks and then take a break for a couple of weeks,’ says Diane. ‘They get a lot of satisfaction from knowing they are helping kittens that may not have made it otherwise.’
Denise Farmery, a volunteer at LSAH for 14 years, says that after seeing the work animal shelters do she would not consider going anywhere else for a pet. So far she has adopted two dogs, both of whom have been loyal and loving. ‘There is just something about them,’ she says. ‘Maybe they know they’ve been given a second chance.’
This article first appeared in Issue 6 of Adore Animals magazine … Ed’s note: very little has changed from then until today – hundreds of thousands of animals are still being euthanased and few too many people rehome from shelters. So if you are thinking of a new companion, please see the links below.
Photography: Lisa Louden
PetRescue – Bringing together more than 200 shelters offering pets for adoption
Hunter Animal Rescue
Mike Larkan’s Give a Dog a Home
The Lost Dogs’ Home
Pug Rescue Victoria
Greyhound Adoption Program (Victoria)
Greyhound Adoption Program (NSW)
GAP is also located in other states across Australia
Lort Smith Animal Hospital
To contact Michaela Newell about her Animal Re-homing Service
Find links on: http://www.tars.org.au/michaela.htm
For information on the research by the Anthrozoology Research Group of Monash University visit: www.animalwelfare.net.au/arg
Animal Welfare League of South Australia
Companions For Life Pet Rescue
DCH Animal Adoptions (dog, cat & horse rescue)
For information about responsible pet ownership, and contact details for relevant organisations, visit: www.pets.info.vic.gov.au