The Carrier Pigeon
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The Carrier Pigeon

Our Animal Shelters Have a Transparency Problem

A lack of data is allowing killing to happen behind closed doors — unreported, unaccounted for, and largely unknown by the public.

Earlier this year, before our lives were upended by a global pandemic, our little household suffered its own personal tragedy. Our foster greyhound Dash was killed by a so-called animal welfare organisation after completing his foster placement with us — becoming another statistic in the broken animal shelter system.

Reports of the numbers of cats and dogs killed in Australian shelters each year vary widely — from 100,000 up to more than 250,000. Without a standardised system for monitoring dogs entering council pounds and shelters, it is impossible to find an accurate figure.

In fact, a study completed over several years and published in 2017, showed “a lack of comprehensive and reliable data at the federal, state and local government levels across public and private agencies”. In lieu of government-collected statistics, the researchers had to develop their own methodology to estimate the annual numbers of dog admissions and their outcomes.

They arrived at an estimate of 211,655 dogs entering the pound and shelter system in 2012–2013, with almost 21% of these being euthanised — around 43,900 dogs. This data has not been updated in the past seven years.

Where is the data?

In Australia, there is no national or state-based database to keep track of surrendered and stray dogs — and, in many states, no legal requirement for transparent reporting by pounds and shelters. Compounding this issue is the wide range of organisations who manage “unwanted” dogs, including municipal councils, animal shelters, and rescue groups. Of these, only councils are government-run organisations.

To obtain this data, the researchers turned to council and shelter websites — only some of which make this information publicly available. In other cases, they had to contact the organisations, who supplied data on the proviso that it would be used anonymously without identifying them.

The study highlights the inherent challenges in collecting data, as some councils provided no or incomplete figures. There were major inconsistencies between state approaches to data collection: only South Australia collates both animal shelter and pound data. NSW is the sole state requiring animal rescue groups to report data, and also aggregates council data, but many pounds fail to comply with these reporting obligations. In Victoria, most councils made data available on their websites — but not all. However, in Western Australia, the researchers were able to obtain actual data for just 6% of the council pounds.

What’s more, even where shelters provide euthanasia statistics, these may not include the dogs at the council pounds whose contracts they manage. This enables shelters to lower their overall euthanasia rate by cherry-picking dogs that are more “adoptable” for transfer to their own facilities, while not including those that are killed on-site at the council pound in their reporting.

Overall, the researchers were only able to obtain data from 60% of the possible sources, and had to use algorithms to calculate the remainder.

The case for transparency

Without accurate and up-to-date information, there is no meaningful way to assess the effectiveness of our pound and shelter system. A state-based breakdown from the 2017 study shows a 18% discrepancy between the highest (NSW 29%) and lowest (ACT 11%) euthanasia rates. It also indicates that there is no correlation between intake and kill rates: Victoria and NSW have similar intake numbers, and yet NSW almost doubled Victoria’s kill rate in 2013.

These figures reveal that the issue is not the volume of dogs entering the pound and shelter system, but the approaches of the organisations themselves. This is extremely significant, as pounds and shelters consistently flag the high numbers of surrendered animals and their lack of resources as the basis for high kill rates. When I met with RSPCA Victoria’s senior management, they referred to their intake as a key reason they were unable to invest resources into rehabilitating Dash, the greyhound.

An inability to track euthanasia rates is a major barrier to evaluating the current strategies used by pounds and shelters. It allows organisations to evade accountability, and makes it impossible for governments to regulate their operations or determine how to allocate resources. Fundamentally, this means there is no clear benchmark for what “success” looks like. How can we improve our pounds and shelters when we don’t have a reliable measure for their performance year on year?

Pounds and shelters in Australia do not seem to set a target live release rate, at least not openly. In my meeting with RSPCA Victoria senior management, I asked how they measure the success of their foster program, and they cited the number of animals that enter the foster care program. However, if those animals complete their foster care period and are immediately euthanised, surely that cannot be considered a “success”.

Intake numbers alone are not an indicator of positive animal welfare outcomes. On the contrary, these numbers can be used to justify high kill rates — as in my meeting — by deflecting the issue back to “irresponsible pet owners” and an overpopulation problem.

What does transparency look like?

We know that transparent reporting is achievable because it is already in place in other countries — and should be mandatory across Australian pounds and shelters. Compare the data below from a government-run shelter in the US, and the Lost Dogs’ Home in Australia. The Dallas shelter provides a daily report card, which is updated even during a pandemic. Any member of the public can freely access this information on their website.

On the other hand, the Lost Dogs’ Home is not required to provide statistics — but includes these pie charts once a year in their financial report. No raw figures are given, rendering this information virtually meaningless.

Compare the daily data reporting of Dallas Animal Services in the US (left) with the annual data reporting of the Lost Dogs Home in Melbourne (right).

Furthermore, Dallas Animal Services sets a target live release rate of 90%. They achieved this rate for the first time in December 2018, even with a record intake number. Because this goal is made public on their website, they can be held accountable for maintaining a low kill rate — and in fact, they openly invite the community to support them in this goal. If this rate increases, they will become answerable to the public for their performance.

What is clear from the 2017 study is that Australia would benefit from a centralised monitoring system that collects data from pounds, animal shelters, and rescue groups. This would enable ongoing assessment of the strategies being used by pounds and shelters, and ensure better outcomes for the dogs in the care of the animal welfare system.

Instead, a lack of transparency is allowing killing to happen behind closed doors — unreported, unaccounted for, and largely unknown by the public whose donations and taxes keep these organisations running. We cannot work to drive down kill rates when we don’t even have a record of what those rates are.

Tens of thousands of dogs die within the walls of a pound or shelter every year. Unlike Dash, for most of them, we never learn their names — or even that they ever lived at all.

This article was reprinted with permission from Greyhound Life Matters Issue 10.

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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.