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As RSPCA Victoria’s Inspectorate veterinarian, Dr Rebecca Belousoff investigates some of Australia’s most horrific animal abuse cases. But being part of the solution helps her deal with the challenges of the job. By Shane Conroy
Dr Rebecca Belousoff has a very tough job. As RSPCA Victoria’s Inspectorate veterinarian, she investigates animal abuse cases and gathers evidence used to help prosecute the perpetrators of animal cruelty.
In her line of work, Dr Belousoff has seen some horrific things. From severely emaciated dogs to brutal puppy farms and live baiting, she has a long list of terrors. But it’s watching video footage of animal cruelty that she finds most confronting.
“Reviewing video footage of acts of cruelty on animals is one of the harder aspects of my job,” she says. “Often I’m involved in rehabilitating the animal in the video, so watching the abuse being carried out is really distressing.”
This is a world away from the idyllic childhood Dr Belousoff enjoyed in country Victoria. She remembers frequent visits to her grandparents’ farm, and the animals that were so much part of her young life.
“I remember always wanting to surround myself with animals,” she says. “It didn’t matter if it was spending time with our family dog, patting our neighbour’s cat, or interacting with all the farm animals—I always wanted animals around me.”
The young Rebecca Belousoff also found an early passion for science at school. Combined with her love for animals and her empathetic nature, veterinary science was a natural pathway for her.
She graduated from Melbourne University with a Bachelor of Veterinary Science in 2005, and went to work for the Cat Protection Society in Melbourne. Two years later she joined RSPCA Victoria.
“I divided my time between doing consults and surgery at the RSPCA clinic, and welfare shifts working within the shelter,” she explains. “RSPCA Victoria inspectors would bring seized animals to the shelter, and I’d assess the animal, work out what had happened to it, and figure out what we needed to do to rehabilitate the animal.”
Early in her career, Dr Belousoff predominantly dealt with neglected animals. Many were severely emaciated.
“It was very confronting to see animals suffering in such poor condition and in such distress,” she says. “It was difficult to grapple with the fact that someone had allowed an animal to get to that stage.”
Caring for the abused
Dr Belousoff was the first vet in the country to study veterinary forensics (at the University of Florida), and today plays an important role in prosecuting animal abusers.
In her current role, she is involved with investigations into some of Australia’s most high profile and horrific animal abuse cases. Part of her job is to gather evidence of animal abuse, and serve in court as an independent expert witness in animal cruelty cases.
She was involved in the live baiting case that helped to bring significant reform to Victoria’s greyhound racing industry. Dr Belousoff has also assisted in puppy farm investigations that have helped to close down major intensive breeding operations.
“Many of the long-suffering animals removed from these intensive breeding facilities need extensive rehabilitation to try to regain some sense of happiness,” she says. “They may have been living in a puppy farm just pumping out puppies and have never even been touched by a person.
“In most instances, we can treat and fix the medical conditions, but it’s the mental scarring that requires dedicated treatment and potential adopters who are willing to take an animal that has significant mental health challenges.”
That’s why Dr Belousoff believes revised animal cruelty laws should also cover emotional suffering inflicted on animals. “Emotional abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse of animals,” she says.
Another major challenge is the length of time RSPCA Victoria must care for seized animals while they await their court dates—particularly as COVID outbreaks continue to delay court proceedings.
“Generally, the seized animal is at RSPCA Victoria in our care while it awaits a court date, in which case it may or may not be returned to its owner based on the magistrate’s findings,” Dr Belousoff explains.
“It has become really evident through COVID that we’re holding onto animals for a really long time. It’s in the animal’s best interest to be rehomed as quickly as possible. So I think there’s some scope to look into the length of time we are required to hold onto animals for these kinds of court proceedings.”
Part of the solution
Many animal abusers also have human victims. Dr Belousoff says there is a clear link between animal cruelty and domestic violence.
“The link between interpersonal violence, elder abuse, child abuse and animal abuse is very clear. In a lot of instances people who are abusing animals are also either abusing other family members or are involved in other violent acts. Some of the cases we see, the people are already well-known by the police for prior problems.”
This makes some site visits particularly challenging. While COVID restrictions have significantly reduced the number of site visits Dr Belousoff is now involved in, she is occasionally called out to animal abuse scenes with RSPCA Victoria inspectors.
“Generally, RSPCA Victoria inspectors and police officers will deal with suspects if they are present, and I focus on assessing the animals,” she says. “But it certainly puts an added strain on when you have abusive people there in your presence. The inspectors take the brunt of that. They are dealing with that every day. It’s a really tough gig.”
This is not an easy job, but Dr Belousoff is part of the solution. And that’s what helps get her through the difficult days. She sees her cases right through from initial assessment and prosecution, to rehabilitation and ultimately rehoming.
“I help to get the animal to a point where it’s able to be adopted out to a new family,” she says. “I’m still very much involved in seeing that animal get into a forever home with a loving family that dotes on it. That’s the most rewarding part of my job, and helps me to continue to do the work.”
Dr Belousoff says the family vet can also be part of the solution. Vets have an important role to play in identifying potential cases of animal abuse. Repeated or unexplained injuries such as broken bones can be red flags, or if the animal presents with injuries that don’t match the owner’s account, this too could be an indication of abuse.
However, it’s important not to jump to conclusions that the person seeking treatment for the animal is the abuser.
“Be mindful that this person might also be the victim of domestic abuse, so you have to be careful about how you deal with these situations,” advises Dr Belousoff. “Ask if the person is safe, and allow them to use a phone at the clinic if they need to because their mobile phone might be being monitored. This might be their way of trying to reach out for help.”
Dr Belousoff advises vets to contact police if you are concerned about the wellbeing of a client. And if an animal is involved, get in touch with the RSPCA Victoria’s Inspectorate.
“RSPCA Victoria can work with the police, and no details of where the complaint has come from are shared. That is all private,” she says. “RSPCA Victoria inspectors can get out there fairly rapidly and assess if it’s an urgent situation.