The business of animal shelters

animal shelters
Dr Jenny Wingham, co-owner, Mona Vale Veterinary Hospital. Photography: Arunas Klupsas

Community animal welfare is usually the responsibility of local councils, but should local vets have more input into the process? By Frank Leggett

Community animal management is a broad and challenging welfare area. It can include the capture and holding of stray animals, reuniting lost animals with owners, euthanising unwanted companion animals and ferals, and fostering animals. 

While the responsibility is shouldered by local councils, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) has been involved in consultations at a state and national level for many years. Despite this, no standardised agreement has been reached.

“At present, there is no Australian Government animal welfare strategy for companion animals,” says Dr Julia Crawford, AVA president. “Every state has differing Acts and councils within states vary in how these Acts are interpreted and executed.”

Dr Jenny Wingham, who co-owns Mona Vale Veterinary Hospital on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, is actively advocating for a centralised shelter and holding facility in her local area. Northern Beaches Council was formed in 2016 with the amalgamation of Manly, Pittwater and Warringah councils. It covers a huge area, stretching from Palm Beach to Manly, and includes approximately 51 wildlife protection areas.

At present, Northern Beaches Council has an arrangement with two local veterinary practices that act as holding facilities for stray animals. Both practices tendered for these positions and this type of set-up is common in many other local council areas.

“Council works with a great team at the two veterinary clinics that cater for distressed and abandoned animals,” says Ray Brownlee, CEO at Northern Beaches Council. “We believe it’s an effective way to ensure we are conducting our core duties to the highest standard.”

However, Dr Wingham has a vision of a more comprehensive and integrated community animal welfare centre on the Northern Beaches

A better way?

“The Animal Welfare League ran a registered shelter at Ingleside for years,” explains Dr Wingham. “They took in strays, organised rehoming and would even do behavioural work. They utilised a lot of volunteers, and local people would drop in to walk the dogs.

“This facility was permanently shut down in late 2018 due to issues relating to the building code and waste water management. Now it just sits vacant. I’m advocating the establishment of a cooperative animal and environment facility that would incorporate a pound, a self-funded animal shelter, boarding kennels/cattery, and a base for local wildlife rescue groups. The facility could be used as a community educational resource for council and local wildlife groups with strong emphasis on responsible pet ownership and caring for the local environment. The facility could be manned by council rangers and shelter employees with help from animal welfare and wildlife volunteers.”

animal shelters
Staff at Mona Vale Veterinary Hospital on Sydney’s Northern Beaches treating a patient.

Of course, to set up this type of facility is entirely reliant on logistics and cost, but the benefits to animal welfare and the community would be exceptional. 

As Dr Wingham points out, “It’s important to recognise the benefits provided by such a facility in terms of animal health and welfare, as well as community mental health. Additionally, there would be the chance to educate kids and help them connect with nature. You can’t assign a dollar value to that.”

The AVA Policy on animal shelters and municipal pounds is quite extensive but, in part, states that a municipal pound or animal shelter plays an important role in reuniting lost animals with their owners, the control of surplus dog and cat populations, and the provision of veterinary services. 

“The AVA believes it is important that the pound or shelter is owned by a municipality rather than by individuals or private organisations so that solutions to unwanted companion animal problems are recognised as a responsibility of the whole community,” says Dr Crawford. “However, it should be noted that this policy was written in 2013 and there are now council areas where microchipping has reached a level that very few stray animals need impounding. This may be leading to the outsourcing of pound facilities.”

Easing the burden

Having a central, council-owned animal welfare facility would also ease the burden and costs that local veterinarians often have to carry. If an injured animal is brought to a veterinarian, there’s an obligation and responsibility of care. This is entirely appropriate. However, there are many situations that could be handled more efficiently if the local community has access to a council facility. 

“There is a fabulous opportunity for vets to work with local government to lessen the load on everyone by improving efficiencies, helping each other and most importantly, advancing the cause of pets in our communities.” 

Dr Jenny Wingham, co-owner, Mona Vale Veterinary Hospital

For example, someone may find a tick-affected animal and drop it at the local vet. The staff will treat the animal, administer first aid and do whatever is necessary to save the animal. Then, if the animal is not microchipped, they either have to hold it for two weeks or transfer it to a holding facility. If there is no local shelter, things become even more difficult. 

A centralised shelter run as a cooperative between local government and local vets could better triage, treat and recuperate such a patient—and then seamlessly organise rehoming. This would be a health benefit to the animal and a time and money saver for the local vet.

Another issue, and one that Dr Wingham has noticed in her local area, is the growth in the number of fostering groups. “For want of a better system, foster groups have set up their own shelters and rehoming charities that are run entirely by volunteers. These groups do a great job but there is no over-reaching governance and that opens the system to inefficiencies, burnout and individual’s agendas. Surely this is something that should fall under the jurisdiction of a government agency and require veterinary guidelines.”

Once again, a council-run facility could organise and regulate foster carers in a cohesive way. It could even institute background checks to ensure a gold standard of animal health and safety.

Different departments

In each council area, different aspects of animal management are run by different departments and organisations. At Northern Beaches Council, rangers and animal management officers conduct patrols and enforce regulations in wildlife protection areas. Principally, they are dealing with the management of dogs and cats on council land. Management of animals in national parks is the responsibility of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Animals removed from unhealthy situations are the responsibility of the RSPCA. Injured wildlife is normally taken to animal welfare agencies. Key educational events for the community is one of the core requirements for their council’s animal management team. These include educating the public about responsible pet ownership.

animal shelters
Dr Jenny Wingham (seen here with a volunteer from S.A.F.E) believes there are opportunities for vets to work with local government to lessen the load on everyone by improving efficiencies, helping each other and most importantly, advancing the cause of pets in our communities.

While this is an entirely workable system, Dr Wingham would like to see better communication and interaction between all arms of animal management. Once again, a central, council-run animal management centre could house representatives of all these different organisations and departments, facilitating a more cohesive approach to animal management in their area. 

“The easier it is for everyone to communicate, the better it is for the animals, residents, staff and professionals in that local area,” says Dr Wingham.

Role of vets

Veterinarians are always going to be a part of community animal welfare but should that involvement be through a more formalised agreement? While most councils—such as Northern Beaches Council—are doing the right thing, the possibility that vets could be exploited is a concern. In country areas where local councils cover large areas but have limited funding, there is often an expectation that the local vet will take in a stray dog at any hour. Further, they are often left holding the dog for extended periods with no cost to the council. What’s needed is for vets to be part of the local government structure. 

“Veterinarians should be involved in an advisory capacity,” says Dr Wingham. “I know of several animal management centres run as cooperatives in local government areas that are having a crack at getting this right. There is a fabulous opportunity for vets to work with local government to lessen the load on everyone by improving efficiencies, helping each other and most importantly, advancing the cause of pets in our communities.”

The AVA guidelines clearly state that “animals kept in pounds and shelters must be housed under appropriate conditions that ensure their health and welfare, meeting the animals’ physiological, behavioural and social needs. All animals must be cared for humanely but only animals with suitable health and behaviour should be rehomed. Veterinarians should be involved in assessing an animal’s behaviour and suitability for rehoming.”

Dr Crawford states it bluntly when she says, “Ideally, every council should have an animal care and management advisory committee which would include a local veterinarian or veterinarians.”

Northern Beaches Council is very proactive in animal welfare management. It works with local vets when conducting information nights and when holding events throughout the year, including dogs day out and canine days. 

“Council is always willing to work with our local stakeholders in managing companion animals,” says Ray Brownlee. “Our local vets are well-trained and a very good source of information on animal behaviour in many different kinds of situations.”

The current situation sees each state operating under different Acts and each council interpreting their requirements differently. While it’s a workable system, it also means that, sometimes, vets can be taken advantage taken of and best practice not be followed. 

“In my opinion,” says Dr Wingham, “the best thing would be for each council area to have a local government-owned facility that runs as a pound, a shelter, an education hub for community groups, and has educational facilities for children. There would be volunteers helping out and dog walking opportunities for people who can’t own dogs. It would be a hub for all the different arms of animal welfare in the local area. And last but definitely not least, it would deal with stray animals in a commonsense and compassionate way.”

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