The Carrier Pigeon
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The Carrier Pigeon

An Open Letter to RSPCA Victoria

Following the euthanisation of my foster dog, here are some concrete things I would like you to change about your processes.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post about a heart-breaking experience I had with the RSPCA — Australia’s largest animal welfare organisation. Our beautiful foster greyhound, Dash, was euthanised despite being physically healthy. He was never put up for adoption. When I asked the RSPCA if this was a possibility, I was assured that it wouldn’t happen.

My partner and I only discovered the truth when we went to a greyhound organisation who then tried to take him into their care. The RSPCA themselves kept this from us: their last email stated that Dash was working with a behaviourist and “doing well”. The organisation has now confirmed that this email was sent when the dog was already dead. The reason stated for the euthanisation was anxiety, which is not a life-threatening condition. By their own admission, it could have been overcome with the right medication and training in a loving home.

Since writing about my experiences, the blog post has been read tens of thousands of times, and received almost 2,000 comments on social media. I have been inundated with messages — not only of support and love for Dash and me — but also story after story of people losing their own beloved animals.

The RSPCA has contacted me to apologise for their “communication failures” and I truly do appreciate the apology. However, it is meaningless unless it provokes change. As far as I’m concerned, this goes beyond being lied to by an individual at that organisation and points to deep flaws within their systems and processes. They have not apologised for euthanising Dash.

I had a constructive conversation with a senior representative from the RSPCA. I felt that he listened to me — he made notes about my recommendations and read them back to me, saying he would take them to an internal review. For the record, I am opposed to euthanising healthy animals at all but I realise that would require a massive policy change. Here are some things that the RSPCA could implement more easily.

1. Greater transparency around euthanisation

As first-time foster carers, we received no training other than a one-hour information session. At no time was the subject of euthanasia raised. We signed a foster care agreement, which contains a single sentence stating that the animal may be euthanised if not “rehousable”. I assumed that animals were put up for adoption for a set period and if they didn’t find a home by the end of this, they may be euthanised as a last resort. I would like foster carers — and the public — to be given figures not just around how many of these animals are being put to sleep, but what percentage never even begin the adoption process at all. I would like to see the specific criteria for how this assessment is made. If the possible outcomes for foster animals were clear to foster carers, it would likely impact our written evaluations — knowing these are used to determine whether an animal will live or die upon its return to the RSPCA.

2. Support and training for foster carers

If the objective of the foster care program is to improve an animal’s behaviour, then carers need to be given the resources and support to do that. As first time carers, we were given no training for a dog that exhibited behaviours related to severe anxiety. We were told that we could ask for help at any time — but when we did, the behaviourist failed to contact us for weeks. My conversation with the behaviourist was extremely brief and she told me it was best just to return the dog rather than try to improve its behaviours, presumably knowing that the likely outcome for the animal in this case would be euthanasia. I have since been informed that my repeated requests for help were “missed”. Without receiving support from the RSCPA, the foster care program can not achieve its function of helping animals overcome trauma-related issues, and serves only to provide written evaluations from foster carers that are used as a basis for euthanisation.

3. Longer foster placement periods

Our greyhound had spent the entire five years of its life on the race tracks and cooped up in kennels. The RSPCA in Victoria does not allow indefinite foster so that the animal can go from a foster home to its forever home. Instead, there are specified foster periods, after which time it must be returned to the kennels to be assessed. In our case this period was six weeks — which is longer than many other animals that are placed in foster care for two to four weeks. By no means is six weeks a long enough period for an animal with a history of abuse to demonstrate sufficient signs of improvement that will pass the RSPCA’s assessment. It took our boy four weeks just to settle in to our home and our routine, and his behaviours were only beginning to change in the last two weeks of his placement. If we had been allowed another month or two with that dog, I’m confident that my written evaluation would have looked very different. These one-off short-term foster periods do not give severely traumatised animals a chance.

4. Assessments in a home environment

As I noted in my evaluation, Dash only exhibited challenging behaviours when he was left alone for periods of time or was scared. When we were with him at home, he was relaxed and comfortable most of the time. The behaviourist who determined whether Dash should live or die never saw this. She never saw how Dash interacted with us, or how he behaved in our apartment. Instead he was returned to the kennels where he would have been alone and frightened— and therefore most likely to show these anxiety-related behaviours. A process which dictates that an animal must be returned to a stressful environment, instead of where it has spent the foster period, automatically sets that animal up to fail. The foster program only serves a purpose if these animals are assessed fairly and openly within the home environment and in the presence of the carers — instead of with strangers and behind closed doors at the kennels.

5. Foster carers given the option to adopt

In fairness to the RSPCA, my partner and I did not talk to them about adopting Dash — mostly because we were assured he would go to a good home. We checked the adoption website daily after we returned him to see when he was listed, and we were discussing this option among ourselves. If the RSPCA had contacted us to let us know they were euthanising Dash and given us the option to adopt instead, we would absolutely have done that. I have since been informed by the RSPCA itself that once an animal has been deemed “not adoptable”, it must be euthanised — even if there is a loving home that is asking to take in that animal. I cannot fathom how it is in the best interests of an animal to be denied the opportunity to live with someone who is willing to invest time and money into helping it overcome treatable issues, and is instead put to sleep on the basis of those issues. Surely the emphasis should be on alleviating suffering, instead of destroying an animal because it is currently suffering in the RSPCA’s care.

6. Collaboration with other rescue groups

The RSPCA told me they often move greyhounds, in particular, to greyhound-specific organisations. When I approached another organisation, they tried to get Dash into their care and found out that he’d already been euthanised — the RSPCA never reached out to them. They have now explained that there was a “discussion” around whether to give Dash to a greyhound rescue group, but it was assessed that it was cruel to keep him alive with severe anxiety, regardless of where he was placed, so he had to be euthanised instead. Greyhounds have very specific anxiety-related behaviours from the racetracks and, given that the RSPCA told me they rarely deal with greyhounds, it seems doubtful that their behaviourist has the specialised knowledge of these behaviours that other organisations would have.

I have no words to describe how I felt when I learned the RSPCA was aware that another organisation was willing to give Dash the care he needed to heal from his trauma — and they decided that ending his life was better for his wellbeing, despite the fact that he was not in any physical pain or suffering a terminal illness. I didn’t know it was possible for my heart to break even more than it already had.

I welcome RSPCA’s offer to review my recommendations, and I look forward to the results of this review being made public. It is my belief that foster carers have a right to know before they enter the program. Volunteers and staff have a right to know. People leaving or reporting animals to the RSPCA have a right to know. And most certainly, the Australians who are donating money to this organisation have a right to know.

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Claire J. Harris

Claire J. Harris

Global wanderer. Expert thumb-twiddler. Screenwriter, travel writer, and copy writer. Find me at www.clairejharris.com.