The Carrier Pigeon
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The Carrier Pigeon

I Fought the Law and I Won (Sort of)

In an absolute s***storm of a year, it’s encouraging to see democracy in action.

The author with her dog.

It’s an understatement to say that 2020 has been a very strange year — for everyone. In my case, it’s not only a pandemic that has turned my life around, but a dog.

A year ago, my partner and I were talking about fostering a dog from the largest animal shelter in our city. A couple of weeks later, we picked up Dash — a greyhound who had suffered abuse at the hands of the racing industry. We were told we would be given support with his behavioural issues. We were promised that the shelter would find Dash a loving forever home after he finished his foster period.

Instead, they killed Dash for treatable anxiety and attempted to cover up his death. After we found out the truth, I wrote a blog post, because I was sad and angry and couldn’t get any satisfactory answers from the shelter itself.

I was not expecting many people to read my blog — but it went viral. For weeks, I was inundated with emails and messages recounting similar stories, with photos of other healthy and treatable animals killed by our pounds and shelters. People often told me they were crying as they wrote them, even months or years after the killing. They had no idea what to do with their experiences and so they poured their hearts out and sent them to me.

The stories came from foster carers, from rescue groups, from pet owners, and from shelter workers who described the killing they had witnessed as a “conveyor belt” and a “production line.” I couldn’t get the images out of my head. Every night, I dreamed of the bodies of cats and dogs piling up. I dreamed I killed Dash. Scrolling through photo after photo, I thought I was having an asthma attack and took myself to hospital. The doctor told me it was panic. I was suffering vicarious trauma.

I decided that, at the very least, I had to meet with the shelter that killed Dash. At first, Senior Management refused — then, after Dash’s story was in the news, they suddenly changed their mind. I came prepared with a list of recommendations for the foster program, things I wanted to see changed so that other dogs like Dash didn’t have to die.

Senior Management promised to review my recommendations and provide a response. When it came, they would not commit to changing a single thing (I bet they’re regretting that now…)

A month had passed and still the stories came. I felt like I had a responsibility as they had been entrusted to me, so I created a Facebook page to share them. But that wasn’t enough — something had to change and it was clear the shelters would not do it on their own.

With the help of a woman who ran a rescue group, I researched legislation in other countries and discovered how they have managed to drive down their kill rates. Why couldn’t we do the same here?

I was aware of the existence of the Animal Justice Party but had never been particularly engaged with them. But I can’t tell you how grateful I was, at that moment, to know exactly who I could approach about this issue. This is what our independents and minority parties are for. I sent them an email, requesting a meeting. They immediately agreed.

The Animal Justice MP was willing to sponsor my petition and I worked with his team to campaign for as many signatures as we could. After two COVID delays, it was tabled in September as the largest ever online petition in our state. Clearly, the issue had struck a chord with thousands of Victorians (over 27,000), quickly gaining traction on social media despite a lack of media attention. Needless to say, the animal shelters refused to support the petition.

In our state parliament, there is no mechanism for debating a petition. But our Animal Justice MP was able to use the momentum gained from the campaign to take pound reform to parliament. A month later, he led a debate for five key changes to animal welfare (including two from the petition). His motion passed through parliament with almost unanimous support — only three MPs voting against it. We won.

Last week, I stood outside Parliament House with my adopted greyhound Boots and delivered a speech to the media. Despite being a first in Australian animal welfare, it went unreported — coinciding unfortunately with the first day of Melbourne’s reopening after months of lockdown. The shelter that killed Dash issued a press release taking credit for the reforms, even though privately they’ve fought tooth and nail to stop them.

But it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that, in the beginning of 2021, legislation is going to change. Just one year after Dash’s death, reforms will be implemented that would have saved his life. It’s too late for Dash, but they will save the lives of countless other cats and dogs killed in our pounds and shelters for convenience.

It’s no exaggeration to say that it has been an absolute s***show of a year. As I write this, we are three days into the chaos of the US election, where armed militia are chanting to stop counting the votes, the President has declared a false victory, and democracy itself hangs in the balance.

In Victoria, this has been a huge win for the cats and dogs that end up in our animal shelter system — one that will give them a chance at a better life. But for me personally, in a small way it has restored my faith in the democratic process. Just ten months ago, I was one person grieving the unnecessary death of a dog I had grown to love. By October, our State Parliament was voting on the issue so it could be passed into law.

Sometimes, it is comforting to know that the system works the way it is supposed to.

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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.