SPCA fears for animals through lockdown

Despite a surge in pre-lockdown adoptions, the SPCA is still housing plenty of animals and wondering what the future holds as families and owners feel the strain, reports Bonnie Sumner. 

When the national lockdown announcement was made on March 23, people began turning up to their local SPCA centre in droves. By end of the following Wednesday, with the lockdown due at midnight, 1157 animals had been adopted with another 2000 animals out for foster – three times more than the SPCA would normally process in a few days.

Just under a week earlier, an urgent adoption call had gone out on the SPCA’s social media, offering reduced fees for anyone looking to take on a furry new family member. They pitched it well – who wouldn’t want a friendly pet to keep them company when stuck at home? 

“We knew lockdown was coming,” says SPCA CEO Andrea Midgen, “so we did this humungous effort across our teams and SPCA to adopt as many as we could, because we didn’t want them to be stuck in a shelter for this time”.

“We were absolutely inundated,” says Bruce Wills, area manager for centres covering Gisborne down to Dannevirke. “We had 50 adoptions in three days, where we usually have five adoptions in a day. It was pretty tough on the staff, but we got all adoptable animals out which was fantastic, which we couldn’t have done without the support of the community.”

Now there are only 1400 animals left in centres around the country, where there would normally be between 3000 to 4000 at any one time. Midgen is quick to reassure: animals left behind that were not ready to be adopted or fostered will not be put down, despite online rumours.

Pirate was a stray with a chronic eye infection, probably due to cat flu. Photo: Rachel Sumner

“There’s this amazing myth out there that SPCA euthanise willy-nilly – we only euthanise if there’s a severe health issue. We keep them until we can adopt them or get them into foster homes,” she says.

As an essential service, the SPCA continues to operate, but in a changed capacity. People can still bring injured animals in – although the procedure for this now involves calling first and arranging drop-offs in secure locations. They have stood down most of their volunteer workforce, and staff in each centre work split shifts. 

“We’ve got a whole set of temporary procedures in place, maximising distance and minimising contact, and have put in new processes so people can drop animals off without a physical handover between people,” says Midgen.

The SPCA wants people to contact them if they see or know of any injured, abused, neglected or sick animals.

“We are still here for the vulnerable and any welfare cases,” says Wills. “We are having to strike a balance between the services we provide and the risks to staff, but we are still attending complaints. We even picked up an injured swan today on the side of the road.”

Inspectors now work from home, completely separate from the centre staff, and adhere to very strict procedures. 

“Inspectors going out into the community are one of our biggest concerns because it’s far less controllable than what happens in the centres,” Wills explains. “But they do have some pretty robust procedures in place to protect them. They have to gather very rigorous information before going onto any property, obviously avoiding contact with people as much as they can. We are also implementing procedures such as decontamination of animals, which involves washing animals down if necessary.”

These nine puppies have all been found homes and will be de-sexed to avoid them adding to the unwanted animal problem. Photo: Rachel Sumner

But what happens when a centre reaches capacity? They currently can’t adopt any animals out, and if people start becoming sick and have nowhere for their companion animals to go, they will inevitably end up at an SPCA centre. 

“Long term, there’s uncertainty about what’s going to happen,” Wills say. “Everyone’s second guessing how long the lockdown will be. We can probably handle the four weeks okay, but much longer and things will start getting pretty tough, because obviously we still have a commitment to the community to take in sick and injured animals but don’t really have any avenues to get them out of the centre. So it’s one-way traffic until we’re able to find another alternative. But we’re working on that. 

“At the moment things are quiet in the community, but we’re concerned as time goes on and there’s financial pressures put on families. We obviously have some concerns about how that will affect animals and whether that will result in an influx to us.” 

Like so many businesses and organisations, the biggest challenge right now is an uncertain future. The SPCA receives $2 million annually from the government towards its $10 million inspectorate service. 

To operate, it relies heavily on generous donors, fundraising, and income from its opportunity shops around the country (which have had to shut). Midgen says they have applied for both the government wage subsidy and some of the recently-announced $27 million to support social service charities. But she is worried about what happens if the lockdown continues longer than expected.

“Our first priority has been sorting out our people and our animals, and now we look at how we survive through this time. I think you’d be crazy if you didn’t have concerns. I can’t even begin to understand what our new normal is when we get out the other side of this, it’s pretty frightening.” 

There is one bright spot. “The silver lining is that I’ve seen more people out walking dogs than I’ve ever seen in my neighbourhood. I think the dogs are thinking ‘Oh my gosh, not another walk’. It’s great, if that starts new habits for people being healthier and fitter that’s awesome.”

But, Midgen says, it’s important people keep their distance from others when walking their dogs, keep leashes short (never off leash). And for cat owners, keep them inside if possible. And, of course, wash your hands.

Neglected by a previous owner, this pony faces months of rehabilitation on her hooves. Photo: Rachel Sumner

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