Division and dissent after ‘One SPCA’ amalgamation

A storm has been quietly brewing within the SPCA after a national amalgamation process has led to widespread resignations and a reduction in services. One former staff member is calling for a commission of inquiry.

Former SPCA staff say an overhaul of the SPCA has contributed to resignations and a reduction in the service the charity offers.

One ex-staffer is calling for an independent audit and commission of inquiry. She would like the SPCA to share how many staff who have left since 2017 have been silenced by confidentiality clauses in personal grievance employment settlements. 

Another ex-employee said an amalgamation has been big centre-centric and has forgotten the needs of the provinces.

The ‘One SPCA’ project saw 46 local branches amalgamated into one national body. It was supposed to strengthen the organisation by centralising funding to ensure all animals could be cared for. Former staff say instead it’s led to provincial dissatisfaction and a reduction of services. 

After-hours services have been cut in places meaning injured animals are not picked up by animal ambulances. There are reports of the SPCA refusing to take homeless cats if someone has fed them for more than three days, and in one region all animal welfare inspectors have resigned.

Staff at one SPCA branch were so concerned about the poor conditions animals were kept in they attempted to formally inspect their own branch for animal welfare issues. This incident appears to have been quietly managed away. The inspectors were stood down by management and it’s been reported a settlement that included a confidentiality clause was reached with another staff member.

SPCA CEO Andrea Midgen said the 2017 amalgamation was necessary because the organisation was not financially viable. 

"At that time, 15 SPCA centres were under financial administration by the national body. SPCA donors and supporters want and expect a consistent level of care for all abused, neglected and vulnerable animals no matter where they are located."

As a result of the amalgamation, some services have changed.

"Under the old SPCA system, each SPCA centre operated independently, each with its own governance. As such, the range of services offered depended on the centre. Since becoming one, SPCA have now standardised policies and procedures nationally, so services which were previously offered at some centres across the country, may now be different to what is currently in place. For example, the cost to adopt a puppy is now the same from Kaitaia to Invercargill."

She said services have been allocated based on need. 

Newsroom has spoken to six former SPCA staff. Only three spoke about their reasons for leaving the organisation. Others told Newsroom the use of confidentiality clauses in employment was thought to be common. Newsroom’s query on the amount of money the SPCA has spent on employment settlements with linked confidentiality clauses was not answered. The SPCA said it was not able to comment on the matter.

Despite receiving government funds and having enforcement powers under the Animal Welfare Act, the SPCA is not subject to the Official Information Act, which would require it to share certain information. 

Mass resignations in New Plymouth

Jackie Poles-Smith volunteered and worked at the New Plymouth SPCA from the 1990s. Her duties ranged from fundraising and public relations to animal rescue training and coordination. She said she held on for a year and a half after the amalgamation before resigning. 

Initially she supported the vision of the 'One SPCA'.

“There were significant advantages. Particularly for the animals because the driving force behind it was that every animal, no matter where in New Zealand, no matter how small the region, would have access to the SPCA. That was the primary focus.”

The vision did not play out as she hoped; instead she said the opinions of local branches were sidelined and services reduced.

“We found that none of our ideas were listened to. Our staff weren't respected, our knowledge wasn't required or respected. All of our staff bar one inspector left. That’s nine of us who all loved our jobs and have now left the SPCA after many, many years.”

Poles-Smith resigned as she felt that under the new regime she was unable to fulfil her role as she used to and she felt the SPCA had lost direction. 

“It seemed to become a far more financially driven organisation, concentrating on income generation rather than communities and animals.”

She said while direct management in the branch was good, at the level above that she saw “episodes of bullying and disrespect of staff”. 

When asked why the internal issues, including the high number of resignations, hadn’t made headlines she suggested confidentiality clauses could be a reason.

“I would like to see the SPCA board tell the public how many SPCA staff have left the organisation since ‘SPCA as one’ commenced and why they have left ... and probably most importantly, how many took PGs [personal grievances] and have been silenced.

“Then let’s have an independent audit ... not by MPI who fund the SPCA - I think around $2 million per year - followed by a commission of inquiry. 

“The SPCA needs to redefine its role to the public if they are no longer going to be a political voice for animals or provide care to all animals while small under-resourced groups pick up the pieces.” 

One of her current concerns is if a person feeds or attends to a stray cat, she’s heard the SPCA is declining to take them. A local rescue in her area has rehabilitated and re-homed more than 400 cats this year.

“The SPCA should be stepping in for every animal in every situation. It’s what people donate money for.”

Waikato Animal Outreach Trust founder Stephanie Hall helps families in lower socioeconomic areas with their pets, especially with de-sexing. She’s a former SPCA employee.

She’s also had the public tell her the SPCA has refused to take cats if a person has fed it for three or more days, saying the cat is now that person’s responsibility. She calls this “bollocks”.

“There’s nothing in law to say [if] you feed a cat for three days, it's yours.”

Hall also helps out with after-hours emergencies.

“In the old days you could ring up at three in the morning if you hit a cat on the road and the SPCA would come and get it. Now it just goes through to an after-hours vet and the vet just tells you to scrape it off and bring it in.”

It’s a reduction in service she thinks needs to be rectified. 

“Not everybody is confident putting a 60kg Rottweiler in their car to take it to the vet.”

Animal abuse and neglect and the SPCA Inspectorate

Along with the Ministry for Primary Industries and the police, the SPCA enforces the Animal Welfare Act. It’s the only charity with enforcement powers under the Act. 

It’s responsible for companion animals, racing animals on non-race days and petting zoos. MPI has the responsibility for farms, racing animals on race day and commercial zoos. Animals on lifestyle blocks fall into a grey area with either agency picking up responsibility.

SPCA inspectors can enter properties to inspect animals. They are also able to remove animals and can seek justice through the courts. 

This function is partially funded by MPI. Previously this was around $400,000 a year but it has been recently increased to $2.4 million. However, the SPCA says its inspectorate service costs around $9m a year to operate. It makes up the balance through fundraising efforts and donations.

The SPCA’s latest annual report says 77 animal welfare inspectors are employed across the country. This number has now dropped to 65. An SPCA spokesperson said there weren't areas that lack inspectors. 

"SPCA operates a national inspectorate service. Our inspectors operate under a hub-and-spoke model which means when required our inspectors travel to investigate complaints."

Rachel Hucklebridge volunteered at the Southland SPCA for nearly 30 years. During those years she was an animal welfare inspector, animal ambulance driver and local chairperson. 

She was also on the national board during the roll-out of the amalgamation. Local branches didn’t have to agree to join the national body, but by opting not to they could miss out on future funding.

After initially supporting the ‘One SPCA’ process she resigned in 2018 disillusioned with what was occurring. During the restructuring there had been assurances local centres would be asked for input to national policy decisions and their views would be considered.

“That hasn’t happened at all.”

She says she wasn’t the only one who resigned.

“Everybody pretty much left. And it’s still happening in Southland.”

The turnover has touched all parts of Southland’s operations, said Hucklebridge.

“A year and a half ago an op shop manager resigned, 22 volunteers walked with her.”

Previously the area had three animal welfare inspectors. Now it has none. 

Phone calls relating to animal welfare concerns are passed on to inspectors in Dunedin, three and a half hours' drive away. These are not always attended.

Hucklebridge is frustrated by the situation. Recently a call was made about a dog in the back of a vehicle parked outside a pub. A member of the public could see the dog had no water and the back of the truck was full of droppings and was concerned for its welfare.

She said the Dunedin inspector did not make the after-hours three and a half hour drive to assess the situation. 

Invercargill had a high level of service before the amalgamation.

“We had an ambulance officer that was 24/7, we had three inspectors and six-odd shelter staff including weekend staff, plus some contractors.”

Now she says she hears the shelters are empty of animals as the public turn to other animal rescue organisations. During the Covid-19 lockdown she said the SPCA in Southland was telling people to let cats and kittens go if they couldn’t be cared for.

Visits to adoption centres in Southland and around the country are now by appointment only. 

When asked if the SPCA had plans to reduce staff, Newsroom was told: "As an organisation we are always working on ensuring we operate at maximum efficiency. Staff do leave the organisation for a wide range of reasons and we are always thoughtful about filling vacancies to ensure we can effectively provide our services in the most efficient way."

Despite her concerns, Hucklebridge is still supportive of the SPCA and its role. 

“I don’t want them to fall over. I want them to start listening to the public.”

Mind your own business

At least twice, SPCA staff or former staff have instigated investigations into the treatment of animals at its own facilities which may have breached the Animal Welfare Act. 

Prior to the amalgamation, the Waikato SPCA was investigated by MPI after complaints about neglect were raised by former staff. Newsroom has not been able to contact a staff member able to talk about this. 

After the amalgamation, the Gisborne Herald reported on ‘Horror at the haven. It was alleged during the 2018/2019 summer break, the conditions at the SPCA centre were dire due to overcrowding of animals. Reporters had been shown video footage of sick and dead animals, poor hygiene and overcrowded cages and been told dozens of animals suffered or died because of the issues. 

An SPCA spokesperson told the Gisborne Herald the issues at the haven were due to an incredibly busy summer season and work had been done since to improve facilities and procedures.

Several staff and volunteers left according to the Gisborne Herald, including staff who tried to flag the situation.

One of the inspectors who attempted to inspect his own workplace for Animal Welfare Act breaches, Andy Saunders, has talked to Newsroom about the situation.

He said a new, inexperienced manager had allowed the shelter to become overcrowded. Cages were stacked on top of each other with “shit falling from top to bottom” and many of the animals became contaminated with the same diseases. 

Concerns about conditions at the shelter had been raised but he said he had been told to mind his own business.

Considering the situation “diabolical”, he and the other inspector began conducting an inspection on the facility they were based at. He said the shelter manager saw what they were doing and called the area manager. This manager then told the inspectors to stand down. 

“Days later the shelter was closed for weeks and weeks while every single animal was moved, euthed [euthanised] and the place was given a huge clean.”

The SPCA told Newsroom: "The Gisborne centre was closed for a period due to a zoonotic disease outbreak which happens in animal shelters from time to time. The healthy animals were moved to other SPCA centres for adoption. The sick animals received veterinary treatment."

The two inspectors were moved to office space in the local op shop. Part of the role of inspectors is to remove animals from situations where they’re neglected or mistreated. There were no facilities to house animals at the op shop and he said the facilities that should have been available at the shelter were “always full of puppies”.

“They were making our job more and more intolerable as the weeks went by.”

Newsroom asked the SPCA if it had a whistleblower policy. It said it had an employee code of conduct that included a section on reporting breaches and "how we work to support employees who make such reports".

Saunders said mediation occurred but eventually he resigned, feeling the situation was untenable as he was unable to fulfil his role. The other inspector also resigned. He feels they were edged out.

“The inspectorate is just there to allow the SPCA to operate … The SPCA is a charity. It's top-heavy with big earners. The boots on the ground are the reasons why the SPCA was first founded - I mean the Inspectorate by that - they’re not valued; under-utilised, disrespected and treated with contempt.”

Saunders said remuneration for the role often attracts entry-level applicants. He worries some may not have the life experience to steel them for the required duties.

“You’re kind of doing the job of police. If you’re incapable of dealing with someone six inches away from you screaming in your face, then you’re in the wrong job.”

Inspectors are trained through an internship programme run by the SPCA. The SPCA did not directly answer a question about the internship retention rate but said:

"Our new inspector retention rates have lifted over the last three years and at the end of 2019, no new inspectors recruited in that year had left. Some interns either didn’t complete the course or didn’t reach the standard required to be warranted, to address this a new and more rigorous selection process has been introduced."

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners