VIC Election - What Needs To Happen In Companion Animal Welfare

Many animal welfare issues are being raised in the context of the forthcoming Victorian election. This paper will focus on those issues affecting companion animals that are within the power of the State Government to address.

There are seven categories which we will summarise and on which we will provide our recommended position.

  1. We seek significant changes to the way pounds and shelters operate. The Domestic Animals Act and the Code for the Management of Shelters and Pounds need to be amended to reflect the community’s expectations.
  2. The continued legislative acceptance of puppy farms is unacceptable. We advocate that puppy farms should be abolished, as do also the RSPCA, Animals Australia and Oscar’s Law. We note the Labor Party has brought in a 2020 policy, but the Liberal Party has declared no intention to ban puppy farms. The Labor Party’s 2020 policy is too far away and beyond their next term in office if they are successful in the coming election. It can be regarded as a ‘say now, deny later’ policy. 
  3. We seek more formal recognition of the significant role community fostercare networks (CFCNs) play in decreasing kill rates, community welfare programs, and advocating for responsible pet ownership; and an end to the discrimination they currently experience.
  4. We ask that the Code of Practice for the Tethering of Animals be made a mandatory Code.
  5. We seek a commitment from both parties to review the breed specific legislation. The Labor Party has already promised that they will do this.
  6. We seek an immediate review of the microchipping registries, and a rewriting of the Domestic Animals Act to clearly set out the registries’ obligations to ensure the safety of the animals that are microchipped. Currently animals can, and do, die because of flaws in the microchip system.
  7. We need a government that provides funding, focus and an advisory body for companion animal welfare issues.

To look in more detail:

Pounds and Shelters

It is some years now since the significant, albeit unsatisfactory, changes to the Code for the Management of Shelters and Pounds were implemented. We have substantial recommendations for the next review of the Code, which were also our recommendations prior to the last review. These include:

  • A change to the lack of focus by Councils/pounds on rehoming: that is, it should be obligatory under the Code to rehome as the first choice.
    • Restricted opening hours expanded
    • Mandatory website with photographs of each impounded/surrendered animal
    • Trained assessors, albeit volunteers
  • Killing methods, that is intravenous injection only, preceded by sedation
  • Recognition of CFCNs and rescue groups such that a pound or shelter cannot choose to kill an animal rather than release to a reputable group
  • No releasing of animals for blood supply and subsequent killing
  • Mandatory treatment by veterinarians for ill or injured dogs, rather than ignore or kill
  • Mandatory parvovirus vaccination for dogs
  • Accurate, comprehensive and public record-keeping – particularly a breakdown of dogs and cats rehomed that does not put those saved by CFCNs and rescue groups under ‘adopted’ to raise their own public image while doing little; with a clear reason given for any dog killed.

Puppy Farms

We note the major parties are recognising this as an issue that the general population finds unacceptable. However, lessening the number of dogs, or lessening the number of litters still confines the unfortunate ones left to a life of misery and therefore state-sanctioned cruelty. Puppy farms are unacceptable in an enlightened society and should be abolished. In addition to legislation which would make them illegal, sufficient funding and resources must be allocated to take action to locate and close them, followed by responsible placement and care of the resident animals.

Any exempt organisation found to be not acting against illegal breeders in their midst should have its exemption withdrawn.

Stricter controls over both puppy farms and backyard breeders will also lessen the problem of sheer numbers of unwanted animals and the subsequent mass killing that occurs

Community fostercare networks (CFCNs)

CFCNs are increasing in number at a great rate. More pounds and shelters, as well as some puppy farmers disposing of unwanted stock, are making use of these groups; and therefore many more dogs and cats are being rehomed. This reflects well on all involved. However, whilst CFCNs are now recognised in the Domestic Animals Act (DAA), much more is required to enable smooth, efficient and responsible operations. The DAA currently has a number of requirements which do not recognise the unique position of CFCNs . The current DAA is outdated and does not reflect the needs of this new type of animal welfare group. This has led to the current unviable situation where CFCNs are being required to place themselves at risk of harassment by having their individual personal addresses revealed to the public.

This lack of recognition can also be costly both in monetary terms but also in time and in increased risk to the pets CFCNs save. In particular we draw attention to the following issues:

  • CFCNs using a property for quarantine, treatment, rehabilitation and possibly for temporary holding - but not for rehoming. These should not have to bear the burden of being considered a Domestic Animal Business or a Shelter under the Act, and if necessary should have a different classification such as Sanctuary.
  • Registration of dogs and cats whilst in foster care is challenging. Different Councils have different policies with regard to whom can be named as owner. The CFCN is the owner having acquired that ownership from the pound or surrendering person, but under the DAA ownership can be claimed by the person holding the dog, the person to whom the dog is chipped, or the person to whom the dog is registered. In some cases this can be three different people. This obviously needs clarification and has led already to the death of more than one dog. (See the case of Brindle at the Lost Dogs Home).
  • There is resistance from some Councils to allowing CFCNs to register a dog in their name because the dog is held at another address, and their legal advisers have difficulty understanding the distinction between ‘may’ and ‘shall’ in the DAA, using this as a reason to not permit CFCNs to adequately register and safeguard their dogs. For example two adjoining councils sought legal advice on this issue of registration to a CFCN. One was told it was not permissible; the other it was. Clearly the DAA is flawed.
  • Similarly, payment of registration is an additional burden on already stretched coffers and we would query why exempt organisations such as Dogs Victoria, usually running for-profit businesses, can claim exemption from fees whereas not-for-profit groups performing a community service cannot. This is a ridiculous anomaly.

Code of Practice for the Tethering of Animals

This Code requires that animals be released from their tether for two out of 12 hours, a small enough requirement. This is a voluntary Code hence it is ignored, and every week CFCNs are asked can they assist dogs who are permanently tethered. Councils and RSPCA can do nothing because this is a voluntary Code. This then is cruelty that is being ignored. If it were a mandatory Code the RSPCA or Council would have the power to intervene.

Breed specific legislation

No dog should be killed because of their appearance. Nor do Councils and their officers have the skills to judge appropriately the breed background of a specific dog. The government putting the onus on the owner to prove otherwise is the last gasp of a failed initiative that unfortunately will lead to more deaths. The Labor Party has already indicated that they will review this legislation.

Microchipping

Microchipping in Victoria is a disaster. A complete overhaul of the requirements and the current practices is needed. Issues of which especial note should be made follow:

  • At present, ownership of pound-relinquished or seized animals can take up to six weeks to be processed, with major registries often taking more than four weeks. This means a dog that has been seized by a pound, or passed on to a CFCN by a pound, can be in Melbourne, in a new environment, and still microchipped to a person in a rural town at a time it is most at risk.
  • The registries do not communicate with each other which leads to the ridiculous and costly current situation where if a dog is microchipped to one register, the CFCN cannot just send it to their preferred registry to be changed to their name and processed, but must firstly contact and pay the first register to change the name and only then are they permitted to put on the register they use. This process means it can take more than 8 weeks for a microchip to be satisfactorily transferred, not to mention doubling costs. It also means that to escape this onerous and costly process, shelters and CFCNs are often bypassing the change of ownership to themselves, and passing on ownership direct to the new adopter, which is clearly not a desirable practice.
  • A dog microchipped to NSW CAR registry is treated as a new microchip registration in Victoria without the original registry being contacted. Thus if the person who is on the microchip in Victoria were to travel to NSW their dog is most likely in a previous owner’s name. This is ridiculous.
  • For some years registries would change ownership without referring back to the original registry. Again this has led to the ludicrous situation where a dog or cat in Victoria can be chipped to two different people on two different registries. There should be a date applied to the register change so that only the last change is taken into account.
  • The use of letters sent to the person listed on the register advising them that if they do not contact the registry within fourteen days the ownership of the dog can be changed must be immediately stopped. The concept of an ‘if you do not reply in time you may lose your dog’ notice is ludicrous. If it must continue, it should only be done by registered post.
  • All vets should be required to scan the microchip of any animal brought into their practice as a client. CFCNs often take on surrender dogs where a vet has been seeing a dog for some years yet has no record of the microchip.
  • Any animal passed on, whether for a fee or not, should also be microchipped as this is an area of evasion at the moment.

These are only a few examples of an area that needs immediate investigation, but an immediate issue for CFCNs is the inappropriate and new demand by the DEPI that the private, usually home address, of the CFCN be given as an address on the microchip.

Dogs at immediate risk

The auditor at the DEPI, Mr Steven Moore, has to date instructed two registries not to process change of ownership paperwork without the CFCN providing their residential address. For some years CFCNs have operated on a postal address, and then arbitrarily two months ago this was changed. Many CFCNs have been subject to harassment in the past and do not wish to place themselves or their pets at risk, nor is this a requirement under the DAA. There is no legal precedent for this. Hence CFCNs have animals now regarded as their property where they are unable to transfer them to their name without placing their safety at risk.

CFCNs should not be disadvantaged by not having a physical Shelter to give as an address, nor forced to reveal personal details to anyone who accesses the registers. Again this is an example of an outdated Domestic Animals Act, poorly drawn up, that can be used to discriminate against CFCNs.

A letter emailed a week ago to the Minister and to the Opposition Leader on our current untenable situation where we are unable to have pound animals transferred to our ownership, at the directive of the DEPI, has not had a response. Dogs are at high risk because of this. Why must we be forced to give our precious time to these sorts of issues when the government should be supporting us, not seeking ways to make life more difficult?

Department of Animal Welfare

We continue to struggle with the fact that the welfare of animals is managed by the Department of Environment and Agriculture. Even worse, the recent restructure in that department has disbanded the Bureau of Animal Welfare. We seek a commitment that the welfare of all animals will be managed by and within a government structure that does not have obvious conflicts amongst stakeholders and where the contribution of community fostercare networks, the third arm of rescue, used by all but recognised by few, is taken into account.

Within that department there should be a specific body or committee, with members chosen by those that have the welfare of animals at heart, not their monetary value.