The Wonder Down Under
Communities across Australia embrace progressive shelter's model to reduce euthanasia
by Jim Baker
Australia can be a tough place for a cat advocate like Roz Robinson.
As CEO of Cat Haven, the only open-admission animal shelter and the largest cat welfare organization in Western Australia, a state that covers a third of the country, Robinson says the prevailing attitude toward cats is typical of much of the nation.
“Cats get a really bad rap in Australia. I can’t believe that people despise them. They blame all the environmental issues we’ve got on cats; it polarizes society here,” she says. “We’ve got people threaten all sorts of harm to cats, and I just think they’re a misunderstood animal, and it’s quite sad.”
Cat Haven—located in a suburb of Perth—has long faced an uphill battle, but in recent years, it’s started to see encouraging results. Robinson gives much of the credit to Getting 2 Zero (G2Z), a collaborative model designed by the Animal Welfare League of Queensland (AWLQ) to reduce pet overpopulation and euthanasia of dogs and cats nationwide.
She learned about the model when she attended a national G2Z summit of animal welfare professionals about six years ago. Robinson was seeking a new approach and some mentoring for her shelter, which takes in about 8,000 cats annually and has a veterinary clinic that spays and neuters its own felines and provides low-cost spay/neuter services to the public.
Robinson says she was “blown away” by the progress AWLQ has made. She has been replicating some of the group’s strategies, and “some of the stuff we’ve done has made an enormous difference to our euthanasia rates.”
It’s the kind of collaboration and information-sharing that helps animal welfare advocates gain traction wherever they are. In Australia, according to Nell Thompson, G2Z coordinator, over the last 5-10 years, people have gained a better understanding of the country’s companion animal issues, and, dissatisfied with high euthanasia rates, have been demanding change.
“So a groundswell of awareness has occurred, and not-for-profits and local councils and small rescue and foster groups are really starting to work together much more cohesively,” she says, “and, of course, having amazing outcomes.”
Showing It Works
AWLQ didn’t start at the top. When its leaders started working together on the new programs in 2001-’02, the shelter’s euthanasia rates were about 32 percent for dogs and 57 percent for cats.
But using the G2Z strategies it developed over time, in 2009-’10, AWLQ rehomed or helped owners reclaim 85 percent of the 7,000 stray and surrendered cats and dogs in the Gold Coast (a city in southeast Queensland on Australia’s East Coast). That included 91 percent of all incoming dogs, and 76 percent of all incoming cats. Only 9 percent of dogs and 24.9 percent of cats were euthanized that year.
What You Can Do
Along the way, AWLQ successfully lobbied the Queensland government for compulsory microchipping and registration of all cats and dogs statewide in 2008; a pilot program of the Queensland government, in one city, for the spay/neuter of cats prior to sale or transfer; and another pilot program in one city for a breeder permit system, with a compulsory breeder code of practice. “Some of the staff who’s been there a long, long time know the huge difference that has been created, and they’re very proud of what we’ve achieved, because, you know, you wouldn’t have imagined it,” says Joy Verrinder, the shelter’s strategic development officer.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t a few bumps along the way. The worldwide recession, in combination with catastrophic wildfires that burned across parts of Australia in 2010-’11, hit AWLQ in the pocketbook, and the shelter had to trim its programs and reduce staff. There was a resulting dip in its rehoming rates. Then, in October 2011, AWLQ entered into a contract with Ipswich City—a community of about 180,000 people in southeast Queensland—to care for its approximately 5,000 stray and surrendered animals and run education programs there. Absorbing these animals also impacted AWLQ’s statistics. The shelter’s 2011-’12 euthanasia rates for all the areas it serves were 36.9 percent for dogs, and 37 percent for cats.
But, notes Verrinder, those rates are still much better than the national average. According to the G2Z website, euthanasia rates at most other Australian animal management facilities and shelters average 25-40 percent for dogs and 60-80 percent for cats. Where lower rates exist, they typically don’t include all the stray and surrendered animals for a whole city. As a result of the model used in the Gold Coast, that city has among the lowest euthanasia rates of any city of 500,000 people or more in Australia.
Working Together Works
The heart of the model and its philosophy is collaboration. Back in the early 2000s, AWLQ leadership started to assess the issues it was facing in the Gold Coast—namely, a deluge of homeless pets—and began to examine how other animal welfare organizations around the world were addressing their challenges.
CEO Denise Bradley, board chair Sylvana Wenderhold, and Verrinder realized that AWLQ was in a unique position to try new approaches to reduce the euthanasia of healthy, treatable animals. There didn’t seem to be any existing coordinator or programs working to solve the problem, and AWLQ had long been the lone shelter with a contract with the Gold Coast City Council to handle all the city’s stray and surrendered animals. Plus, Bradley had already decided to establish a veterinary clinic on the side, primarily focusing on spay/neuter.
Verrinder’s task was to support the spread of spay/neuter for pets through new, cooperative programs, and building a stakeholder coalition. The women also began to lobby city and state officials to pass legislation to address the root causes of pet overpopulation and euthanasia.
In 2004, Wenderhold established the National Desexing Network (NDN)—with AWLQ as its parent organization—to make low-cost spay/neuter services more accessible. It’s now a nationwide referral system for discounted spay/neuter services offered to low-income pet owners, with a network of more than 160 participating veterinary clinics. NDN has helped to spay/neuter about 70,000 cats and dogs across Australia.
As AWLQ worked closely with the city council and other stakeholders to find ways to reduce euthanasia and to track shelter outcomes, AWLQ and NDN established a National Summit to End Pet Overpopulation, a conference for animal welfare professionals to discuss the latest strategies and models. The first summit convened in June 2006; it later evolved into the National G2Z Summit. The latest took place in September and featured three days of presentations from industry leaders, focused on practical management, shelter medicine, animal management, and animal training and rehabilitation.
Taking it Wider
The summits were a hit, and that spurred AWLQ to consider spreading its efforts further. AWLQ established a G2Z steering committee, made up of representatives from organizations with demonstrated involvement in G2Z principles and strategies from each state, except Northern Territory, the least populous of Australia’s eight major states and territories.
AWLQ designed G2Z for a broad coalition of stakeholders, so that responsibility for the welfare of pets extends throughout a community. Everyone’s encouraged to participate: state governments, local government councils and animal management departments, shelters, rescue groups, breed organizations, breeders, pet shops and pet supply stores, wildlife organizations, veterinarians, and interested individuals.
The G2Z model lays out a path to achieve zero euthanasia of healthy and treatable dogs and cats—in practice, 90 percent or more of all incoming stray or surrendered animals in a community. Its desired results include a reduction in abandoned and euthanized animals; a reduction in the oversupply of kittens; a higher percentage of spayed/neutered and microchipped pets; and more community awareness of overpopulation and efforts to address it.
The model has four elements: a community vet clinic to support and promote spay/neuter services for owned pets; community education, legislation, and support; proactive rehoming strategies at shelters; and a shelter vet clinic to provide spay/neuter, microchip, and medical treatment to pets there. The model also details approximately 40 strategies that AWLQ has used to reduce euthanasia rates in the Gold Coast. Now other Australian organizations are trying out aspects of G2Z, proving this strategic model can be duplicated elsewhere.
Cat Haven, for example, used G2Z strategies to form partnerships with pet supply stores and carefully screened pet shops to create external adoption centers. Cat Haven sends some of its older cats (already sterilized, microchipped, and vaccinated) to a large pet-supply chain store, which houses and feeds them until they’re adopted. The adoption fees are returned to Cat Haven in full. “One store’s done the equivalent of what we probably would do all winter with our older cats,” Robinson says.
Pet shops that have agreed to work with Cat Haven often serve as a drop-off point for people who bring in their own litters of kittens. The shops capture the owners’ information, and provide it to Cat Haven, along with the surrendered kittens. “Then we tackle the owner and say, ‘Look, we can desex your mum [mother cat]. And we’ll do it for free,’” Robinson says.
Meanwhile, Robinson and other stakeholders have lobbied for cat laws in Western Australia, and their efforts have paid off. On Nov. 1, it will become mandatory across the state that every cat 6 months or older must be spayed or neutered, microchipped, and registered with the owner’s local government council, which is already the case for dogs.
“I think once our laws come in, other states may follow. But they’re the most stringent cat laws in the country, where it’s mandatory desexing—no ifs, ands, or buts,” Robinson says.
When she started as CEO six years ago, Cat Haven’s euthanasia rate was 78 percent. Today it’s closer to 45 percent. “I just feel that with the G2Z, we’ve got a national organization here, all states are represented, and by going forward with this united front, we can maybe make some impacts in our states,” Robinson says.
Tim Vasudeva got to know Verrinder around the time he was invited to speak at the G2Z summit in 2009 about his volunteer work for a rescue group in South Korea and for PetRescue, an Australian website that functions much like Petfinder. In 2011, he became the CEO of Animal Welfare League of New South Wales, which was seeking a leader to help it adopt the G2Z model. The organization has three shelters in Sydney, as well as 12 branches located around the state that are managed and operated by volunteers. (Vasudeva was hired in May as CEO of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—South Australia in Adelaide. He is also now a G2Z steering committee member.)
Animal Welfare League NSW’s latest statistics (as of the end of February 2013) show that its euthanasia rates have declined from 30 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in the current financial year (as of August 2013). Vasudeva credits a number of G2Z strategies for the positive trends, such as implementing a foster care program; collaborating with community vet clinics; communicating the new approaches to everyone internally; and sharing shelter statistics with the public.
“I think for groups wanting to be progressive about their sheltering and their animal outcomes, it’s great to be able to go to a variety of other organizations who collaboratively are willing to assist them in a very hands-on way, because they’re just interested in animal outcomes,” he says. The G2Z affiliates are “not possessive about their own turf, or ‘That’s not my shelter, so I’m not going to worry about animals that are there.’ There’s nobody involved in that group that takes that approach, so it’s a really nice thing to have that support for people who are wanting to do more.”
Read the rest of this issue from Animal Sheltering magazine