Paul Stevenson: Councils, not charities, should pay for strays

January 20, 2020

This opinion piece was first published in The Advertiser on January 1, 2020.

As recently as the late 1990s, many South Australian councils still regarded euthanasia of unclaimed but healthy animals as an acceptable routine practice.

Even RSPCA SA did not have our current policy of keeping every single rehomeable animal for as long as it takes to find them a new home.

Like all social attitudes, the community’s expectations of how animals are cared for and managed continue to evolve and, pleasingly in Australia, the direction is positive.

There are countless examples of once accepted treatment of animals no longer meeting the standards of care expected by today’s more compassionate society, and our management of homeless dogs and cats is just one of them.

RSPCA SA now does whatever is needed to repair, rehabilitate and rehome every animal that comes to us. Humane euthanasia is always a last resort and only undertaken when in the best interests of the animal.

Improved standards of animal care, however, come at a cost and it is reasonable that those costs are borne primarily by those individuals or entities responsible for the animals’ management. Under South Australia’s Dog and Cat Management Act, councils address their responsibility to manage stray dogs through Animal Management Plans and the appointment of Animal Management Officers, funded wholly or partially by dog registration fees.

Councils are required to detain stray dogs for 72 hours after they have been seized and to provide public notice of the dog being held so that owners have the opportunity to reclaim their pet.

At the end of the 72-hour period, councils are then given title to the dog and the right to “dispose” – a legal term we strongly dislike – of the animal.

There is now a strong and clear community expectation that any unclaimed animals assessed as suitable for rehoming, are in fact found new homes. This rehoming task is mostly borne by charities rather than councils, and the problem is, rehoming dogs and cats has become an increasingly expensive undertaking. On average, it costs RSPCA SA $729 for every cat rehomed and $1663 for every dog.

These costs arise from the basic care provided – food and water – the behaviour training, the veterinary care (our Lonsdale shelter employs eight vets and seven vet nurses), and advertising/promotion to encourage people to adopt our animals.

While some councils now make at least a partial contribution towards the cost of rehoming dogs, the situation with cats – the majority of animals being rehomed – is the bigger issue. The Dog and Cat Management Act imbues councils with responsibility for dog management, but the legislation is largely silent on responsibilities for cat management. In this respect South Australia significantly lags behind other states and addressing this deficiency must be a priority for the Dog and Cat Management Board in the coming year.

In other states where council detention periods are mandated for stray cats as well as dogs, councils are not only building state-of-the-art animal care facilities but developing and running highly innovative and effective rehoming programs, such as those of Camden Council in NSW.

Regardless of the absence of legislated requirements on councils, however, the community clearly identifies councils as having responsibility for cat management. This is why 36 councils have already introduced their own cat by-laws. Ratepayer consultation to determine community reaction to these by-laws consistently indicates overwhelming support for councils being proactive on cat management issues.

With 4500 animals adopted each year, RSPCA SA’s annual animal care operations bill is $5.7 million, and that figure is growing. $2.1 million of that is directly attributable to the cost of managing stray dogs and cats for councils. This function therefore comprises a significant portion of overall dog and cat management costs for RSPCA, with only a small percentage recovered through adoption charges and fees to councils.

This situation is no longer financially sustainable for our organisation. It is also far from equitable, with council services essentially being subsidised by a relatively small number of RSPCA donors across Adelaide.

Our community rightly expects safeguards to be in place for homeless dogs and cats, but their care and management deserves proper recurrent financing by councils rather than reliance on a constant call for donations from a small, generous section of the public.

The time has well and truly arrived for councils to assume proper responsibility for the cost of stray dog and cat management, including “disposal” by the only means deemed acceptable to the community – rehoming.

This additional cost will inevitably have a small impact on council budgets, reducing council surpluses and possibly requiring a small increase to rates.

While we understand that some non-pet owners may object to having a portion of their rates payment directed towards animal management, they could easily be the very same people requesting council deal with stray animals. In any case, virtually all ratepayers contribute towards council services they do not use, such as libraries and sports centres.

All of society is responsible for the care and welfare of animals, not just animal welfare charities, and RSPCA constantly strives to encourage and, if necessary, hold to account those individuals and entities with whom specific responsibilities sit.

There are so many areas of animal welfare in South Australia that desperately need attention, the care of our native animals is among the highest priorities. Too many animals are falling through the gaps in services not provided by governments or private enterprise, and the RSPCA must be able to prioritise our resources to help them.

Councils assuming proper responsibility for dog and cat management will enable community donations and RSPCA resources to be redirected so that more vulnerable animals fall into our state’s animal welfare safety net.

Paul Stevenson is the chief executive officer of RSPCA South Australia. He wrote this opinion piece as part of our Cat Management campaign, in which we’ve joined with AWL to release a comprehensive plan for cat management in SA. Read about the campaign and download the plan here. 

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