Bourke Shire Council's decision to kill a group of impounded dogs due to COVID-19 concerns grabbed global headlines.
According to the Office of Local Government (OLG), the council situated in remote north-western NSW had taken the decision to put the dogs to sleep as there were concerns that permitting staff from a Cobar animal shelter to pick them up would pose a COVID risk.
In response to the initial report, Bourke Shire Council issued a statement, claiming the local pound was at capacity, a number of the dogs were aggressive, the regular animal welfare group was unavailable, and it was also attempting to protect vulnerable people within its community.
State local government regulator the OLG and animal protection authority the RSPCA NSW are both investigating the internationally condemned episode to see if state cruelty to animal protections or companion animal laws have been breached.
Following the incident, NSW Animal Justice Party MLC Emma Hurst announced that on receiving an email from a concerned resident, her office had contacted Bourke council to halt the killings, but it was too late.
Council staff informed the politician that “the dogs were killed because they could no longer care for them during the COVID-19 outbreak”.
No public health direction
“While I have a lot of sympathy for the stress of the climbing number of COVID-19 cases in western NSW, killing animals is never the solution,” Hurst told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
“It is unclear to me why the decision was made to kill the dogs, which reportedly included a mother dog and her puppies,” the animal rights advocate continued. “There is no health order for pounds to kill animals in their care, and these lives could have been saved.”
Staff from the Cobar-based animal rescue shelter were reported to have been preparing to make the 160 kilometre journey to Bourke to pick up the impounded canines, with COVID safety measures in place. But questions were raised about whether this would breach public health orders.
However, the strictest such orders that currently apply in the state, permit authorised workers to leave their local government areas for work, and animal welfare, care and accommodation service workers are included in this group.
Animal welfare is also a “reasonable excuse” for anyone to leave their place of residence during the lockdown.
“It seems that no genuine attempt was made to get the dogs into foster care or to rescue groups,” Hurst stressed. “I've heard there were at least two groups who were open to taking the animals in.”
Alternatives must be exhausted
“I believe the council may have breached the Companion Animals Act,” Hurst advised, as she pointed to a section of the legislation, which stipulates that “before destroying a seized or surrendered animal” a council has a duty to consider “alternative action” to that of euthanising them.
Section 64 of the Companion Animals Act 1998 (NSW) states that a seized or surrendered animal may be sold or destroyed by a council pound within seven days of it having been taken in, unless an owner has been notified of the animal's situation, in which case a two week interim period applies.
Feral and infant companion animals, however, can be put down prior to those interim periods.
And as Hurst notes, seized and surrendered animals cannot be euthanised unless all other alternatives have been exhausted.
COVID advice for pounds
The Office of Local Government has issued advice to councils on companion animals and impounding during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This outlines that council pounds should continue to operate during the public health crisis, including in terms of the fostering and adopting out of cats and dogs.
The OLG stresses that there's absolutely no evidence that any animals in Australia – livestock, pets or wildlife – could be infected with the COVID-19 virus and therefore there are no concerns with transmission to people.
Indeed, despite questions as to the initial source of the virus, in its current form it only spreads from person-to-person.
If a person is infected by COVID, the OLG advises that they should keep contact with their pets to a minimum. And if an animal belonging to someone who is currently isolating needs veterinary attention, they should contact their local vet to see what arrangements can be made.
As for pound staff, the OLG states that there is a “responsibility to protect the welfare of animals” in their “care at all times”. And as for the rescuing and rehoming of pets, staff are advised to continue with their work as usual, including to promote the fostering and adoption of cats and dogs.
Reforms needed to reduce deaths
Hurst said it's the first time her office has heard of animals in this country being harmed over COVID fears.
“At the beginning of the pandemic there were international reports that some people were abandoning and killing animals due to fears they could spread the virus,” she outlined, “however it is fortunate that it appears nothing similar happened in Australia.”
In terms of pounds of euthanising stray or rescued animals, Hurst said the recent NSW Parliamentary working group on pound reform brought together concerned parties to discuss a range of issues, including that of the number of animals being put down.
The AJP MLC made clear that a large number of dogs and cats continue to be killed by pounds and shelters, which is an issue neglected by the NSW government. And she explained that measures such as subsidised desexing and ending puppy farms would reduce the number of animals killed annually.
“Animal protection authorities are also investigating for possible breaches of the Protection of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW),” Hurst added in relation to the recent dog deaths at the Bourke pound.
“We have written to the minister, and are submitting questions about the investigation, and will continue to reach out to other councils to ensure the same action does not happen elsewhere,” she concluded.
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