Marisa Debattista had to pivot the business model of Second Chance Animal Rescue several times within the last six months. Here’s how she could. By Rob Johnson
There are lessons to be learnt during every disaster. How you survive depends partially on an ability to think on your feet, to be ready to make decisions. In short, you need to think the way Marisa Debattista thinks. It’ll take more than devastating bushfires, a global pandemic and economic meltdown to sway the founder of Second Chance Animal Rescue (SCAR) from her mission.
Having said that, staring down those three apocalyptic challenges wasn’t simple. “When all the restrictions started happening because of COVID-19, it panicked us to begin with because we didn’t know what was going on due to the lack of information from the government,” she says. “We’re pretty quick at thinking on our feet and trying to put protocols into place. With the information that we did have, we wanted to ensure that we could make decisions that would mean that we wouldn’t have to close the charity’s door. That was the biggest concern for us at that time. We were already struggling financially at that time, and we were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to reopen.”
As the smoke cleared—literally—from summer’s disastrous bushfire season, people were focusing their charity dollars on those directly impacted by the fires. As they should, Debattista points out, even though that meant less charity dollars for organisations like hers. But pet rescue costs money, as she already knew. And she had already pivoted SCAR to set a plan in train that would fund it. In fact, SCAR itself is a pivot from the traditional, informal animal rescue work that many vet nurses do.
The difference with Marissa Debattista is each pivot in her career stayed true to her bigger picture. Each one was driven by empathy but focused by facts. And if you find that balance, you find the place where you can stare down anything.
Here’s a timeline for you. In September last year, SCAR opened an onsite clinic as an adjunct to the animal rescue facility. In November, fires started in East Gippsland, adding to the unfolding catastrophe further north. That fire wasn’t contained until the end of February. Then at midnight on 29 March this year, Victoria went into stage 3 lockdown.
“I have an advisory board that we speak to and our team is very close-knit,” Debattista says. “We have 18 staff members and we all work very closely. Being a new business in a new area, having to build new foot traffic in our facility and get a whole new set of clientele for our community animal hospital, was already hard in the first year anyway. I knew that if we didn’t make some big decisions and quickly, we’d be in trouble.”
The first call was to close the animal shelter. “We pretty much lose money on every shelter animal that comes in the door,” she says. “With the amount of medical work they need, even if it’s just routine desexing, vaccinations and vet checks and microchips, it all adds up. And most animals needed dental or lump removal or other exploratory procedures done to make sure that they’re fit and healthy for adoption.”
They had to make the call to limit intakes when it came to adoptions. They closed their shelter facilities so they weren’t losing money on staff who were caring for the animals in that section of the facility. “The staff who were working in the shelter have been put on deck in the animal hospital to help build up clientele and hit the floor running with new protocols and procedures and just getting everything working as effectively as possible,” she adds.
At that time, they had about a hundred animals in the shelter, so they put out a plea to their network of foster carers. “And the community rallied together, and we were able to put all the animals into foster care and close our walk-through shelter.”
With more staff to help the vets, the clinic became more efficient. They instituted curb side drop-offs for clients, and started spreading the word.
“To be honest, it’s the busiest that it’s ever been, which is just absolutely mind-blowing,” she says. “Our team have really surprised me. I knew that they’re always great, but they’ve really done everything possible to make sure that our doors stay open. A lot of them haven’t worked in a clinic before so they have to learn on their feet. And our experienced team have been great mentors. We are close to fully booked nearly every day and for the next coming weeks. And being a community animal hospital, our fees are already quite low, so we’ve got a unique selling point there. Any surplus we make generally goes back into running the charity and helping animals in need in our shelter. This will help us build up a bit of funds to get out of the red and then be able to take new intakes in slowly, which we’ve been able to start doing recently.”
Debattista is quick to credit her team with the rapid growth of SCAR. But these things don’t happen spontaneously. Back in 2012, Debattista was a vet nurse who was doing some volunteering at a local shelter. Like many in the profession, she was horrified by the number of animals who would be surrendered at the clinic and who were eventually euthanised. So she started putting her name on a few animals, rescuing them after their time in the pound and finding them homes.
“We opened up a small shelter about four or five years ago and we outgrew that within six months,” she says. “Then we saved like crazy and fundraised 24/7 and until we were able to raise the funds needed to open our brand new facility [in Craigieburn], which is nearly four times the size. And we now have our community animal hospital, which happened a lot quicker than we initially anticipated. It just snowballed into this organisation where last year we hit our 10,000th adoption.”
That sort of growth needs to be driven by an astounding amount of energy. “I’m not the sort of person that can just sit back and do nothing. Chaos is my middle name,” she says with a laugh. “Even being in isolation for the last four days of the Easter period just killed me. I had to do things. I need to constantly be busy and I’m a mother of three young children, so my life is always quite chaotic anyway. But doing something like this just means that I can give back as an individual in such a large way, to people and animals in need.”
But energy alone is not enough, and chaos generally leads to burnout. And a key part of SCAR’s success has been managing her own and her staff’s expectations. “I think if you start an organisation like this with unrealistic expectations, burnout is a common issue,” she says. “We help every animal that we possibly can, but we also understand that we can’t help every single animal. So we look at the resources that we have. If we can’t take an animal in, then we offer the owner other resources that they may not be aware of; other organisations that can help or programs that are running.”
The team also documented the five reasons people give up their pets, then used that to guide their procedures (see box). And it’s that map, as much as the ability to pivot, that has allowed SCAR to survive and thrive.
“I think every vet clinic is going to see these issues,” she says. “At the end of the day, they’re still going to have people potentially euthanise for reasons that may not be acceptable to them or their teams. Being able to look at programs to assist with those is an amazing duty of care to helping animals in the community and pet owners; those pet owners will remember that assistance. And which clinic do you think they’re going to go back to that really helps them when they’re ready and in a better position to get a new pet?
“I feel like it’s just great customer service if anything. Sometimes you’ve just got to go above and beyond. You may not get paid any extra to do these certain things in some cases, but at least you know you’ve done something that’s socially good in the community and people will see that.”
The five paths to rescue
“We didn’t want to just have a bandaid effect,” says Marisa Debattista. “I felt like we were never going to get to the bottom of the cycle of animal homelessness in Victoria by doing that.”
So she studied the five main reasons animals end up in the pound in the first place, and tries to address each one on a number of levels.
Financial reasons “We created the community animal hospital which offered low-cost care options for people that may not be able to afford that care, which means that people have another alternative rather than surrendering their pet.”
Desexing “Unwanted litters are really common. So desexing pets will help with that. We also run desexing drives within our clinics, with cheap or heavily subsidised desexing rates. We run desexing education campaigns in the local community. If we take a litter of puppies from an owner, we will then desex the mum for free as well, as a part of that.”
Multicultural issues “We live in a very multicultural community, so worked out ways to message those in the community who either haven’t been messaged before because of language barriers, or have been, but just not in the way that they understand. So we did a multicultural campaign in our area to ensure that we’re able to message all pet owners.”
Behavioural issues “Pet behavioural issues was another main reason why people were surrendering animals. So we’ve created a behaviour modification program within our clinic, where we look at behaviour, medications, behaviour training, all those sorts of things to help with behaviour in animals specifically.”
New babies “A lot of owners were pregnant or had a new baby and couldn’t look after their pet as well, as it was all a bit too much. So we’re working on some new baby and pet workshops. We do a lot of community workshops and seminars as well, to help with education in the community.”