Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Euthanasia of healthy animals: what can be done?

In 2012 less than 1% of dogs handled by the RSPCA were put to sleep in spite of being healthy and potentially rehomeable. By far the majority of those dogs who were euthanased were either very ill or injured, had behaviour problems which made them dangerous, or belonged to breeds which cannot legally be rehomed in the UK.

Sabre, shown here, illustrates what this means in practical terms. He's fairly elderly for a GSD; when he came in he had skin trouble and problems with his ears because his previous owner hadn't been coping.

If we'd been in the business of fiddling the figures to save money we could easily have justified putting him down on the basis that he wasn't a healthy dog.

We didn't do that and he has a new home, hopefully for whatever time he has left.

The structure of the RSPCA with its high involvement of very committed volunteers probably explains why such low euthanasia figures can be achieved in an organisation that is driven by events—if there is a serious welfare incident animals cannot be left where they are.

The RSPCA is not open-access and it will refuse to take in animals where some other organisation is legally responsible (stray dogs) or where a competent owner should be responsible (where animals are simply unwanted). It can't refuse to take in animals who are in a situation where they are suffering and will continue to suffer if they aren't removed and where no-one else will help.

I believe that any euthanasia of healthy animals is never something we should be complacent about (nationally the RSPCA certainly is not complacent and one of the five pledges is that it should be reduced to zero).

What can be done?
I suspect the decentralised structure that makes low euthanasia levels possible also creates barriers to achieving zero. Individual branches are responsible for animals on their "patch" and work extremely hard to save every animal. Where a branch really can't take an animal from their local inspector, that inspector will pull out all the stops to get the animal in somewhere but there's a limit to the amount of time he or she can spend on this because other urgent calls will be backing up all the while.

There isn't any formal system for transferring animals from branches that are under stress to ones which are in better shape and "networking animals out" is nearly all based on personal contacts between individual homing co-ordinators. 

It would be very difficult to get branches to agree to any kind of compulsory transfer system precisely because there is so much misinformation about RSPCA euthanasia policies. Each branch knows they are not putting down huge numbers of healthy dogs and that the individuals personally known to them aren't either but there's a huge fear factor about transferring animals to people they don't know.

On top of that, it takes a lot of time and effort to arrange transfers and people who are already running near their physical limits may simply not be able to find the extra spurt of energy needed to get it done. 

Frankly, nearly everything that would make things better in the long run (training more foster carers, recruiting more home-visitors) can feel like an intolerable burden to people who are very close to the edge of not being able to cope.

The national RSPCA could increase the size of yearly grants to branches but that would only be putting a patch on the problems.

Another option might be for the national RSPCA to fund more temporary boarding in private kennels to give a breathing-space while local branches and inspectors make arrangements for foster care, transfer to an RSPCA shelter or longer-term private boarding.

And I can just imagine the stream of Mail, Times and Telegraph articles claiming all the animals were put down at the end of the temporary boarding.

In some ways, what we do need is someone external and honest going round all the branches and animal homes and reporting on what's actually going on at grass roots level. At the moment we get plenty of one-off journalist visits to individual sites, but never a really comprehensive survey of what the whole RSPCA does.

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