Like all animal shelters, the MSPCA is often the first port of call when something goes wrong in a household with animals. With a phone line and a front door open 5 days a week in a central location, we are used to being expected to work miracles at the drop of a hat.
We often do, but guess what - we can’t always.
Sometimes people who contact us for help are expecting a particular outcome which they have decided will be what we are going to do, but with the best will in the world the expectation doesn’t match the reality.
I’d like to share three recent examples, and in fact all of these on the same day, yesterday, the 16th March 2018. They are all very typical of what we put up with regularly.
“The aggressive dog”
Earlier this week we accepted three dogs into our care.
Two of these dogs, being well socialised to people and not too bothered about being in a kennel environment with other dog kennels near them, settled in relatively quickly. Thanks to having a very well organised animal care team, one dog had even been vaccinated, neutered and reserved to a new home within a 4 days. I saw the other one happily trotting along up the road to Floriana being walked by one of our team.
We took in a third dog on Monday, who was clearly not comfortable with the kennel environment and, once his owners had gone, reacted very negatively to our staff and the vet. That’s not unusual – around 40-50% of the dogs and cats we take in can’t be easily handled during their first week or two and may hide, growl, bite, scratch or snap.
Usually this subsides, often visibly each day. We are used to this, and we cope. We now specialise in taking the more difficult and challenging older animals rather than kittens and puppies, so this is just part of the job.
What was distinctive about this guy was, that as the days continued, his aggression escalated each day to the point where by day 5 he was lunging and launching at anyone who entered his kennel. He was clearly immensely disturbed by being close by to other dogs.
This kind of aggression – we used to call it “forward aggression” in years gone by (to distinguish it from a dog who cowers or only acts aggressively when cornered or confronted), poses a significant set of problems for us. This kind of dog comes in 2 or 3 times a year.
Our kennels are single units. That means, to get into the kennel and clean it, we have to be able to handle to the dog. That won’t be the case in any future centre, where we'll have attached runs and a pop-hatch so the dog can be locked in either side while cleaning happens. But right now, at Floriana, in a building that isn't ours, that’s what we work with. If we can’t handle the dog, we can’t keep the kennel clean and this is not an acceptable situation for us to keep an animal in. It is also not legal.
We are an employer with a legal duty to our staff. As a manager, if I foresee that a serious injury or bite is likely, I have to take whatever steps are needed to prevent it.If someone gets hurt, and the staff are injured and signed off work, there are less people to care for and rehome the remaining animals to the standards we expect. The other thing is, the staff and volunteers are my friends. I don’t want to see my friends hurt.
If a dog’s fear, aggression, and inability to cope are increasing at such a rate daily because of the situation he is in, the best thing (in fact the only thing) to do for the dog’s welfare is remove him from that situation. To keep him further is grossly unfair and is causing considerable mental suffering. To have a dog in our care that can only be handled on a dog grasper (pole) is unfair to the dog.
We could foresee this set of circumstances even when this dog first came in to us and discussed with the owner the possibility of him needing to be taken back if things didn’t work out, at the point of intake. We try all dogs with issues like this, in our care, for at least 5 days before asking owners to collect them if we have no other option. We don't put the dog to sleep and we dont recommend it to owners if there is a solution at home. However on day 5 (Friday), we had no alternative but to call the owner and ask them to remove the dog back home. As we've said, he was getting worse, not better.
We were quite surprised then, when the owner repeatedly asked us to put the dog to sleep.
During the conversation that followed, I made a number of suggestions. This included keeping the dog at home in the empty apartment where he had been living, and visiting him several times a day, while we continued to try and find him a home. I also suggested their moving the dog into the family home where they were now living, but the owner told us that they now felt he would be unsafe with the family there. Throughout the conversation, the owner insisted they wanted the dog put to sleep, and asked us to do it, in total four times to myself, and four times to the staff member they had spoken to before.
I refused, as I felt that the dog’s issues were kennel-related and the solution would be for the dog to be away from the kennels. I also told the owner that if that was what they decided to do, they would need to arrange this with a vet clinic. The owner also suggested the animal ambulance could come and collect the dog from us and take him straight to a vet to be euthanased; but again, I asked the owner to come and collect the dog, and that any course of action was up to them to decide and carry out.
So the owner collected their dog later that day. The staff waited behind after the end of their duty to hand him over and completed the paperwork needed including a form to transfer the microchip back to the owner. The owner was taken up to the kennel and remarked how shocked he was to see the dog as aggressive as this.
Later that day, comments were placed onto social media. I’m writing this having not had a chance to see these comments, so I can’t be sure what we are alleged to have done or who is alleging it (we don’t know if it is the owners or not).
All I can do is write what actually happened, referring to the notes scribbled on my jotter pad during the call. In the hope that those who dived in with their opinions, comments and judgements, (including another NGO who sought to make capital from the case without asking us for the facts) can see what actually took place.
And if they think they can do better, to tell us exactly how.
“I want my dog back”
So here's another example from the same day.
Five months ago we took in a pair of very scared dogs who had never been properly socialised, who were terrified, and whose owner told us he couldn’t cope with them. As well as the behavioural problems, we had to sort out a number of long standing, obvious and untreated medical issues on the dogs. Again, in the face of a challenge, our staff worked a miracle and within two months had found a home for these two older dogs, together, on Malta.
Yesterday, out of the blue, the original owners, who had neglected and given up these two amazing animals, turned up and demanded one of the dogs back. They seemed surprised that they were not still here. When it was explained to them that the dogs had been rehomed, they demanded we give them another dog. A young one.
Patiently, our staff member explained that, since they had given away the dogs because they couldn’t cope with them, we would be unable to home them a new dog. Their response “well we will just go and get a puppy and we will tell everyone that you refuse to give people dogs”.
So… what would you do if you saw that claim on Facebook ?!
“You didn’t help us”.
My day had actually started with an email from someone who was complaining that we hadn’t helped them with a dog issue. The content of the email didn’t ring true so I emailed back asking for a phone number and a quick phone call was made.
During the course of the phone call it became clear that this individual had never phoned us in the first place but had in fact spoken to another NGO. It sounded like the other NGO, quite rightly, had told them that they couldn’t help then and there, but would be able to in a few days (this was not an urgent issue and the dog was not at immediate risk).
The trouble was, when I tried to explain this to the individual concerned, their response was “well you’re all part of the same thing so you should be helping me".
And then the phone went dead.
So what’s my point ?
The point is, we’re not magicians.
We do know how to manage our limited shelter space in the best way we can. In 2017 at Floriana, we increased our rehoming by 35% against the year before and by 80% against the year before that.
We doubled our cat rehoming rate in one year and found homes for cats that had been with us for 6 years.
We pretty much eliminated infectious diseases from the MSPCA centre. Along with diarrhoea and boredom-related behaviours.
We euthanased only on veterinary advice and behaviourist advice.
Our dogs got walked every day, and three sessions of one-to-one play with a member of staff each day as well as a walk.
We not only complied fully with the Maltese law on animal sanctuaries by holding a licence and meeting every licence condition, but we exceeded it. That not being enough, we then took our animal care standards way above the target criteria that most major UK shelters try to meet (http://www.ADCH.org.uk) and we keep reassessing every three months to see if we can improve further.
We’re quite proud of that but we are not miracle workers.
All we can do is try our best and ask for the humans we deal with, to be honest fair, and open minded.