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Preventing cruelty in the community

09/02/18
Over the last five years Dr Shalsee has dedicated her time to creating a better life for animals. Here are just some of the initiatives that have been introduced to SPCA's Auckland Centre. 
Hiding away in the dark under someone’s home, heavily pregnant cat Daisy is about to give birth to a litter of kittens. Daisy is only six months old, thought by some to be too young to be a mother. She herself was born to an undesexed and young cat who had been abandoned and had a litter unexpectedly.

Many cats and kittens like Daisy are left to fend for themselves. Some are found and taken to animal rescues like the SPCA. But all highlight the problem of too many cats being born unloved and without a family around New Zealand. “The sad reality is, that a lot of animals are born unexpectedly and are unwanted. They are the ones brought to the SPCA after being neglected or abandoned,” says Dr Shalsee Vigeant.

The focus of SPCA Auckland over the last five years has been on truly preventing cruelty in the community, and the SPCA being at ‘the top of the cliff’ as opposed to the ‘ambulance at the bottom’. “We want to stop thousands of animals being born without ever knowing the love they deserve.”

The SPCA believes working with communities and educating the public on the importance of responsible pet ownership and desexing animals is key, explains Shalsee. “We know that as the SPCA, we have to do as much as we can to change behaviours and ultimately create a better life for all animals.”

Desexing explained

So what does desexing mean? Desex, spey, neuter, alter, castrate, sterilise or fix – they are all terms used to describe an operation that stops animals reproducing. A spey is an operation to remove the ovaries and uterus in a female. A neuter is an operation to remove the testicles in a male.  This means that he should not want to roam to find a female mate and he should also spray and mark on things less often.

There are common misconceptions around desexing which can stop owners from considering spaying or neutering their cat:

MYTH: It is better for females to have one litter before being spayed.

FACT: Veterinary science tells us that the opposite is actually true.  Female animals that have not been spayed are at high risk of cancers of the uterus, ovaries and mammary glands as well as complications of pregnancy and birth.

MYTH: My male animal will lose his “manhood” when he is neutered.

FACT: Animals don’t experience the concepts of sexual identity or ego. A cat’s basic personality will not change after he is neutered.   Animals do not suffer emotionally or feel self-conscious after being neutered.

MYTH: Desexing is too expensive

FACT: There are actually lots of affordable options on offer in local communities. It is much more expensive to have your cat reproduce and then to take care of a litter of kittens.

Scientific research has proven that a desexed animal lives a happier and healthier life. They are less likely to get into fights, can be more affectionate and friendly and have a reduced risk of health problems such as cancer.

“A desexed pet will live a much healthier and content life,” says Shalsee.

“We want to help pet owners see the importance of desexing their companions. Not only will it make your pets life better, but it ensures they don’t unknowingly or unexpectedly reproduce a litter of animals who are at risk of being abused and neglected.”

A better life for the family companion

SPCA Auckland has worked hard in recent years to address the problem of too many cats being born unwanted and not living a good quality of life.

Previous to Shalsee joining SPCA Auckland, the centre offered some limited free desexing which was open for anyone across Auckland to apply for. However, in order for desexing to be successful in decreasing the number of unwanted cats being born, it needs to be targeted, explains Shalsee.

“It is scientifically proven that for desexing to work in reducing numbers of unwanted animals, it needs to be done strategically and focus on specific areas at a time. Working too broadly and ad hoc won’t address the problem. We introduced much more targeted desexing campaigns and began running these in the areas that needed it the most. Our desexing team analyse incoming cat numbers and locations to assess the areas with the highest need.”

These campaigns usually target 12 of the suburbs responsible for the highest amount of incoming cats to SPCA Auckland. The aim is to reach out to those who cannot afford the desexing operation or may not normally consider having their cat desexed to use this opportunity. It also provides a chance opportunity for cat owners that do not currently have a local vet to get to know one.

The team then advertise around the community by circulating posters, putting adverts on social media, and reaching out to animal lovers to help spread the word. “We’ve had members of the community personally go around houses in their neighbourhood and hand out flyers, and lend carry cages. We are so grateful for this help – this really is a team effort and just highlights how much we need our amazing communities’ help with this work,” says Shalsee. 

Cat owners have responded well to these campaigns and SPCA Auckland has seen close to 7,000 cats and kittens desexed over the last two years. The aim is to continue these campaigns and expand to new suburbs.

As well as running campaigns, SPCA Auckland has also launched additional initiatives to work with other local animal rescues. In July this year, they launched a desexing grant project, aimed at helping other rescue organisations fund their own desexing projects. This provided other rescues the chance to apply for financial support from the SPCA to enable them to run their own desexing campaigns. This was very successful and helped 11 other animal rescues do just this. 

“The reality is that we can only do so much. The best way for the SPCA to make an even bigger difference is by working with other rescue organisations to reach more animals. We have to work together as a team - we only have so much space and limited resource here at the centre. Ultimately, we all have the same goal in mind.”

What about stray cats?

What is the definition of a stray cat? I’ve heard the term ‘wild’ before?

To break it down - an ‘owned’ cat is one that lives in a home environment with a family of their own. A ‘stray’ cat is one that lives in the community, and while they may not be suited to live in a household, some are socialised with humans and are fed and looked after by members of the community. A ‘wild cat’ is one who is not socialised with humans and will live self-sufficient and away from any civilisation, they are not often seen around and will keep well out of sight from anyone.

Scientific research has proven that targeted and controlled desexing of stray cats in the community helps reduce high population numbers. This is often referred to as Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR).

After researching multiple areas around the city, SPCA Auckland piloted a Community Cat Programme and carefully chose a South Auckland suburb, Manurewa, as the targeted area. This suburb was chosen simply because it was responsible for the highest number of incoming cats to SPCA Auckland.

This programme deals only with homeless stray cats where a caregiver is looking after the cats, such as providing them with food and monitoring their health. The purpose is to over time reduce the population of Auckland’s stray cats and better manage their health.

Here’s how it works: SPCA volunteers visit the targeted area to catch stray cats and safely take them to a vet to be desexed, have health checks and then taken back to where they were found, to continue being cared for by the community.

Cats are always returned to the area they call ‘home’ and see as their territory, and are not left out in the ‘wild’ or in parks. “It’s important to remember that forcing a stray cat to live in a home may have a detrimental impact on their welfare and it may be far too stressful for them if they are not used to that”, says Shalsee.

“They live where they are best suited, out in the community with members of the public feeding them and keeping an eye on their health.”

Locals are given packs that explain how and why the programme will work, including collars they can put on their own cats during this time to show they have a home. Residents of the area are encouraged to inform the SPCA on the location of any stray cats in the area and to continue caring for the cats in their neighbourhood and ensuring they are in good health.

“Although this programme has previously raised questions for some New Zealanders, TNR is used by animal welfare organisations and councils around the world and has been proven to be the most effective and humane way of reducing stray cat populations if done appropriately,” says Shalsee.

“It is also important to help our communities see how crucial desexing is. We want them to know there are so many kittens born unwanted and without a home, and that they can help us put a stop to this. We are all working towards the same goal: creating a better future for all animals.”

This Community Cat Programme in Manurewa saw the population of stray cats, for the first time, stabilise. Fewer cats arrived at the SPCA from the suburb and due to the success of the programme, it is now being expanding to other suburbs in Auckland.

A forever home for cats

Smooching up to her new owners in the adoption area, it took Daisy a while to settle when she first arrived at the SPCA. Each day the feline team spent time sitting in her little room and comforting her with pats and toys. Slowly she gained more confidence and learnt how to play and be a happy cat. This enrichment is the final part of the cycle to creating a happy and healthy for the animals who arrive at the SPCA Auckland. As well as this, Daisy and her kittens were all desexed, vaccinated, microchipped and fully vet checked before being rehomed with their own family.

“People come to the SPCA and are shocked that people could abandon or neglect cats, but the sad reality is that we see cats like Daisy every day,” says Shalsee.

This is why the SPCA’s work with the community is so important in creating a better future for animals explains Shalsee. “As hard as we work on rescuing, rehabilitating, treating, and socialising cats who need us, our best way to create a better future for them is by in working with our communities to promote the importance of desexing and responsible pet ownership.”