Lost Dogs Home - the challenge of calling on volunteer organisations to change.

There's been a lot of stuff in the media and on social media recently, about the Lost Dog's Home, which is over in northern Melbourne, as well as having locations in other Australian cities. Being an eastern Melbourne girl, I've never had much to do with the LDH, since the RSPCA has a big presence in the eastern suburbs, so I had to do a bit of research to understand what was going on. But my (probably controversial) view was to approach with caution - there was so much passion in the discussions that I saw, that I felt people were losing sight of the big picture. So, forewarning - you may not like what I have to say here!

Firstly, the outcry started with the tragic case of Fonzie.  Fonzie, a two-year-old Pomeranian cross, went missing from home on the 2nd January, scared by thunder. He had no collar, tags or microchips when he was picked up, so the LDH couldn't contact the family. The family located him on a council lost dog's facebook page on the 11th January, but when they arrived at the LDH (which runs pounds for a number of northern and western councils in Melbourne) hoping to identify him, he had been put to sleep. That's a horrible, distressing situation, no matter how you look at it.

Click the image for the Yahoo News Article from 20th January.

Click the image for the Yahoo News Article from 20th January.

LDH was apologetic, but this was small consolation to Fonzie's family. They were particularly upset about the fact that they'd rung the day before, and been told to come in because it was too difficult to work out which dog they were calling about. They felt that if the LDH had taken their call more seriously, Fonzie wouldn't have been put to sleep until they'd had a chance to come and collect him.

"Every one of us at The Lost Dogs’ Home loves animals, and every animal that is put to sleep is a tragedy,’’ [Shelter chairman,] Dr [Andrew] Tribe said.

Fonzie's story was picked up by a rescue group coordinator and used to spear head a public awareness campaign into the kill rates at the LDH. 

"Kae Norman, of Rescued with Love, said she had been working to highlight concerns about the shelter for the past decade.
"I think there's been a lot of convenience killing," Ms Norman said.
She said the shelter had previously put down dogs deemed to be "too exuberant" and others with minor medical conditions. " Source

When you speak to people who work with rescues, pounds and shelters, this complaint about "convenience killing" is a common view point about nearly every group out there. I think that stems from the fact that most humans are deeply affected by the act of putting an animal, especially a trusting, domesticated animal to sleep. Its one of the biggest challenges for vets, who "are five times as likely to experience the death of a patient, and the grief that goes with it, than their counterparts in human medicine" Source

Some individuals are able to cope with this, to rationalise it, to look at the individual cases and the big picture of animal welfare, and to continue to work with euthanasia to avoid being overwhelmed by the number of animals that find their way into shelters and pounds. Other people will always be horrified, and even traumatised, especially if they are working with an organisation that takes in huge numbers of strays and seems to perform endless killings. This second group are unable to stay in large animal welfare organisations and strive for "no-kill" shelters, where euthanasia is either not used, or only used to prevent suffering in terminally ill animals. 

No-kill shelters and rescues are a wonderful idea. Living with three rescue dogs, I know that some really damaged dogs can be rehabilitated and become loving and wonderful family members, given enough time. Bolo is our most extreme case, and he came out of LDH, a filthy, emaciated, abused and neglected wreck, only a year old, who would not acknowledge people or other dogs. J estimates that it took six to nine MONTHS before Bolo would see people or dogs - would even look at other living creatures. It took twelve to eighteen months for Bolo to learn to trust humans enough to seek pats or attention. After two years, Bolo, then aged three, was something like the snuggle bunny we love today.  

Bolo, now nine, spent time on Christmas morning lying across my lap. He is, of course, far too big to be a lap dog, but he enjoys physical contact, often in positions that look highly uncomfortable. He proves the saying "second hand dogs give first class love." J and I acknowledge that Bolo still has a lot of special needs and special management, especially when it comes to interactions with other dogs. But he is deeply loving and enjoys demonstrating affection towards people.

If J, on behalf of SHCV Rescue, hadn't taken Bolo out of the LDH, he would have been put to sleep. J recalls that LDH believed that Bolo had psychological issues, which is hardly surprising, given that he had spent most of the first year of his life chained up in a backyard, without adequate food, shelter or socialisation. He had failed the LDH temperament test, and was deemed inappropriate for rehoming. This means that they recognised that he was going to take too much time and too many resources to be made suitable for rehoming, but they were happy for SHCV to take him on and see if they could achieve some rehabilitation. For a breed specific rescue that handled a smaller number of dogs in foster care situations, and had more specific breed knowledge, this was a more manageable task. However, extreme cases like Bolo's require foster carers with particular skills and time, and sometimes SHCV Rescue has had to (and still does) turn down dogs because appropriate foster carers couldn't be found. Rescue groups that take in all and sundry, rapidly find themselves getting swamped in difficult, expensive cases.

So, how many animals does the LDH euthanize? According to their 2013-2014 Annual Report "84% of all dogs were reunited with their owners or adopted into new homes (14,134)". They have set themselves goals to reduce euthanasia, and this has been an enormous success. Managing Director, Graeme Smith says that when he first started at LDH in 1986, only 20% of dogs were given homes, old or new. In that time, LDH have campaigned to improve awareness of animal rights, the need to desex, the need to adopt and microchip, rather than buy from puppy farmers. They have formed good working partnerships with a wide range of volunteers, foster homes and rescue groups. As a result, euthanasia has become only a small part of the work they do, but with over 16,000 dogs coming through their various doors in the 2013-2014 financial year, it has unfortunately still been necessary to manage their resources, and give dogs like Fonzie a limited window to be reclaimed. Fonzie was found with no collar, tags or microchips and stayed at the LDH for ten or eleven days (the legal requirement is eight days). He was advertised on Facebook to try and reunite him with his family, but it took over a week for them to find him. Fonzie, like Bolo, was deemed unable to be rehomed, and an appropriate foster carer couldn't be found, especially during the busiest time of the year for pounds and shelters. 

Following through the media reports, I felt that at this point, the situation had been well covered and both sides had had their say. The family had received lots of support and sympathy for the tragedy of having a dog put down on the very morning they were trying to reclaim it. LDH had had an opportunity to explain why the dog was euthanised, had apologised, and had promised to review the situation to try and continue to improve their performance. Public scrutiny had been applied and would help them follow through with their promises. Unfortunately, at that point, the waters seemed to get really muddy, and I assume that this was due to statements by rescue groups and former employees who had concerns about the number of animals being put to sleep. Instead of the 17% kill rate that had been reported voluntarily by the LDH, the press revised this to 50%. 

Tom Elliott on 3AW seemed to get several calls from people who had worked or volunteered at the LDH, making horrific claims about temperament assessments done in traumatic conditions that set them up to fail and be put to sleep. Kae Norman herself admitted on 3AW that she had seen these things done "some years ago", whilst raising concerns that the LDH was secretly still operating on the same procedures, killing "every second dog". Casey Lee, former employee, backed the claims that Kae Norman had made, but didn't state at what point in time she'd worked at LDH. She said that she'd been very upset, unable to return after maternity leave, because of the trauma of watching dogs that she believed could have been rehabilitated being euthanised. I think her reaction to repeatedly watching animals humanely killed is normal, and probably shared by many of us, even if we understand the reasons behind the killings. What she didn't state was how crowded the LDH facilities were at the time, or how many rescue groups had spaces available to take dogs. Emotional images about rooms where dogs and cats were killed and dumped in large bins didn't leave room to ask for clarification.

Ms Norman then organised a vigil outside LDH's North Melbourne site, with 500 people turning out to protest the supposed 50% kill rate. It was a peaceful protest, with flowers, balloons and cards laid at the entrance. Many of the images used in the media reports focussed on the most passionate and emotive or horrific messages on the cards. The Age stated that 

The Lost Dogs' Home in North Melbourne has been accused of wrongful and unnecessary euthanasia after revelations that nearly half of unclaimed dogs were killed last year. Source.

but didn't say where that revised kill statistic had come from. They also didn't acknowledge that while the LDH openly admit in their own reports that kill rates have been appalling in the past, that their statistics represent an enormous improvement in the last decade. We will have to wait and see what the State Government inquiry says to find out whether these accusations were justified or not.

Now, I am thoroughly in support of an inquiry. I am thoroughly in support of organisations like LDH being transparent and being held to account by the wider community. I would love to see all such organisations continuing to strive for the smallest possible kill rates. 

But I am deeply worried about the impact of the media and wider community demonising LDH and their volunteers. Casey Lee stated in her 3AW interview, that part of her reason for leaving LDH, was dealing with the public. What will happen next?

How many LDH staff and volunteers had to deal with nasty confrontations from the well meaning and uninformed, after the media outpouring? How many people had to walk into the North Melbourne site through placards and flowers making horrible accusations about killing cats and dogs? How many people will lose their trust and respect for the LDH and their messages about desexing and microchipping? How many people won't bother to look for adoptive pets at LDH? How will LDH continue to decrease their kill rates without the manpower and support of their staff and volunteers? And, if LDH struggle to maintain their funding, to find volunteers and staff, how will they continue their work? Will we have noone able to look after strays in the 13 councils areas of Melbourne that rely on LDH? What will happen to the animals like Fonzie, who escape on a stormy night, if there is noone to keep them safe while their owners try to track them down? 

Because, while the end for Fonzie was a sad one, he spent his last week safe and sound, fed and cared for. When the end came he was humanely put to sleep. I won't paint a horrific picture of the sorts of things that can happen to a stray, terrified dog out in the world on a dark and stormy night. But I will say thankyou to LDH for what they've done for many dogs and cats. Including Fonzie. Including our own snuggle bunny, Bolo.