News

Petition for inquiry into SPCA

Since a nationwide amalgamation in 2017 there have been mass resignations at the SPCA, claims of bullying and employment dispute payouts. Now an online petition calling for a government inquiry has gained nearly 1000 signatures in five days

A petition for a government inquiry to be launched into the transparency and accountability of the SPCA has gained almost 1000 signatures since Thursday.

The petition asks the House of Representatives to inquire into whether the merger of 46 individual branches into 'One SPCA' has improved the lives of animals in New Zealand.

There’s been growing disquiet about the outcome of the amalgamation. Services were lost in some areas, stray cats are being turned away, there have been mass resignations, and employment dispute payouts. Staff say issues, such as poor conditions in a Gisborne shelter, were hushed up with staff attempting to conduct a formal inspection told to stand down by management.

Confidentiality clauses included in settlements have silenced former staff from speaking about their reason for leaving. 

Those who have been able to speak to the media talked of bullying and a culture where local input was ignored by the national management team.

One of the former inspectors involved in the attempted Gisborne inspection, Andy Saunders, said he felt he was edged out of the job after the incident.

"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.”

In some cases almost the entire staff at local centres have resigned. 

"A lot of them run organisations that are competing with each other and their best way to gain attention is to create headlines.” -- SPCA CEO Andrea Midgen

The SPCA wouldn’t tell Newsroom how much it has spent on employment disputes. Former employees say they estimate “at least a dozen” payouts.

An internal SPCA communication from CEO Andre Midgen seen by Newsroom told staff not to be disheartened by negative media stories and not to engage with bullying, abuse or harassment on social media, saying "simply switch off your device".

She said the amalgamation was necessary for financial reasons and standardised policies were put in place to ensure consistency and for financial viability.

"... some in our communities have struggled to adapt to the new normal."

The email also suggested other animal welfare organisations were trying to gain attention due to an economic pinch.

“As the economic pinch continues to be felt by many charities around the country some of our detractors have felt the need to go to media with their thoughts around service delivery models and other concerns. A lot of them run organisations that are competing with each other and their best way to gain attention is to create headlines.”

Since publicising the issues, Newsroom has been contacted by numerous former staff who said they had similar stories to those highlighted in last month’s story: Division and dissent after ‘One SPCA’ amalgamation.

The petition

Rachel Hucklebridge, the person who created the online petition, formerly volunteered at the SPCA for 30 years. 

In her area, all animal welfare inspectors have resigned. All calls from Southland are serviced by the Dunedin team, who are around three hours' drive away. These calls are not always attended. 

She created the petition because she wants to know what’s happened to an organisation she said she used to be proud of, and that people used to respect.

“I was proud to wear my uniform, I was proud to be part of that organisation. I know of cases where inspectors or staff have gone into public places in the uniform and been abused. How did we get to the point where so many people have little faith in the organisation?”

She hopes an inquiry could answer two main concerns, the first around the direction.

“What’s happening? Why the high staff turnover?”

Secondly, she would like to know what’s going on with the inspectorate, which provides the animal welfare enforcement function.

“It’s not producing the results that it should be. There’s not the prosecution numbers that there should be.”

In the 2017/2018 financial year, the SPCA responded to 15,584 complaints and pursued 62 formal prosecutions - 0.4 percent. In the 2018/2019 financial year, the SPCA filed 144 charges against 26 people. It did not publish how many complaints were responded to. 

Are New Zealand’s animals well-protected?

The loss of staff raises the issue of the state of animal welfare in New Zealand. We’re seen internationally as having some of the best regulations in the world for domestic and agricultural animals. 

However, the best set of rules in the world aren’t much good if there's no one to enforce them.

University of Otago’s Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere researched New Zealand’s animal welfare in 2019. His report, completed with the help of funding from the New Zealand Law Foundation, found enforcement lacking. 

It’s largely due to an odd arrangement where a charity has been deputised to be enforcer but is grossly underfunded to perform this job. 

In New Zealand, enforcement powers for animal welfare are held by the Ministry for Primary Industries for agricultural animals and the SPCA for companion animals. The police also has powers, but these are seldom used.

No charity other than the SPCA has enforcement powers in New Zealand. Running the inspectorate - the inspection and enforcement department - costs it about $9 million a year. For years it only received $400,000 a year in government funding. This has recently increased to around $2 million.

The remainder of the costs need to be covered by the organisation itself.

“Government has been successfully and quite happily able to delegate this function to the SPCA. If they want to do this, they should pay for it,” said Rodriguez Ferrere.

He also thinks enforcement powers should come with oversight and transparency. At present the SPCA is not subject to the Official Information Act as other enforcement agencies are. 

Rodriguez Ferrere’s report included several recommendations to improve New Zealand’s animal welfare system, including: 

  • An increase in funding for the SPCA and MPI for animal welfare enforcement
  • Increased oversight of the how the funding is used
  • A public or government inquiry into the adequacy of animal welfare enforcement
  • The establishment of an Independent Office of the Commissioner of Animals.

His report was completed around the same time as Meka Whaitiri was sacked. She previously had a role that encompassed animal welfare. This role was never replaced despite Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens all promising to install a minister responsible for animal welfare.

He said he’s had little in the way of official feedback on the recommendations.

While supportive of Hucklebridge’s petition, he thinks the situation shouldn’t have reached the point where a member of the public felt the need to set up a petition calling for an inquiry. 

Personally he would like to see a broader inquiry question asked which looks at the entire system, not just the impact of One SPCA amalgamation on animal welfare. 

He notes the SPCA is performing a number of activities from animal shelters, adoption and rehoming, de-sexing, education and even accreditation of eggs on top of the enforcement responsibilities. With that much on the plate of any organisation, he suspects it would be stretched to the point of fraying around the edges.

“Maybe you give them more money and that solves the problem, or maybe you have a good think about who's doing what and why and whether or not there's something you want to continue.”

In some countries, special police units are devoted to animal welfare.

“I would strongly argue that the system be switched up completely so the police use the jurisdiction it already has, rather than a charity taking the lead.”

Newsroom sent a number of questions to the SPCA yesterday seeking comment on the petition, any comment on allegations raised in the previous story, and a current count of animal welfare inspectors after hearing rumours of further resignations. The organisation did not respond to the question prior to publication.

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