Life & Style Weekend - - BIG READ - WORDS: AM­BER MACPHERSON

The un­con­di­tional love of a pet is enough to rouse de­men­tia pa­tients from ap­a­thy, man­age symp­toms of PTSD in veter­ans and re­turn qual­ity of life to the men­tally and phys­i­cally im­paired.

Most would agree a hu­man ex­is­tence isn’t com­plete un­til you’ve known ab­so­lute ado­ra­tion from a pet, whether that’s a cat, dog or even a guinea pig.

And yet, ev­ery year, more than 175,000 cats and dogs that are ready to give their hearts to a fam­ily are un­nec­es­sar­ily eu­thanised in Aus­tralia.

Joy Ver­rinder is de­ter­mined to see those num­bers drop and is calling on the com­mu­nity to do more this July for Na­tional De­sex­ing Month.

For the bet­ter part of two decades Joy has helped to re­duce the num­ber of un­wanted pets be­ing put down through the Na­tional De­sex­ing Net­work, her ini­tia­tive launched with the help of the An­i­mal Wel­fare League Queens­land.

Her work with the league has re­sulted in the num­ber of Gold Coast an­i­mals eu­thanised from thou­sands to only those that are beyond re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, and it all started with an ad in the news­pa­per in 2002.

“We put a big advertisem­ent in the pa­per about how many an­i­mals were be­ing killed (ev­ery year) on the Gold Coast at that stage, which was 4000, ask­ing was that ac­cept­able?” Joy says.

“When I first started in 2002, we’d have up to 50 mother cats and kit­tens on the floor ev­ery day by 10am be­ing handed in.

“It was just over­whelm­ing, they called it a tsunami of cats and kit­tens and that’s what it was. It was un­man­age­able.

“We got a huge re­sponse from the pub­lic want­ing to help.”

Joy says she’d al­ways had em­pa­thy for an­i­mals that be­gan in her ado­les­cence.

“I have early memories read­ing Peter Singer’s An­i­mal Lib­er­a­tion in the 1980s. It gave graphic de­tails about what was hap­pen­ing to an­i­mals in our food pro­duc­tion in­dus­tries, in our lab­o­ra­to­ries and so on,” Joy says.

“So I got in­volved in an­i­mal lib­er­a­tion and An­i­mals Aus­tralia, just grad­u­ally be­com­ing con­scious of how we treat an­i­mals across the board.”

While her cor­rect ti­tle is Dr Joy Ver­rinder, it’s not be­cause she’s a vet — she stud­ied a PHD in an­i­mal ethics af­ter be­gin­ning her work for the league.

“I started as an English teacher and deputy prin­ci­pal,” she says.

“I started bring­ing stu­dents over to here and we were do­ing an adopt a pen pro­ject, we were look­ing af­ter dogs, hy­dro-bathing them, walk­ing them, help­ing them get a home.

“One catalyst was a healthy vi­brant cat­tle dog named Dalai who the stu­dents and I had been walk­ing on our vis­its ev­ery week, who was no longer alive when we re­turned af­ter

two weeks of school hol­i­days, as he had be­come de­pressed and dif­fi­cult to han­dle.

“With such crowded pens and so many an­i­mals need­ing space, (Dalai) had not made it through.

“I be­came very aware of the over­sup­ply of an­i­mals. I de­cided I would of­fer my ser­vices to end­ing the killing of treat­able cats and dogs in pounds and shel­ters.

“I put a pro­posal to An­i­mal Wel­fare League, luck­ily the AWLQ was very in­ter­ested in work­ing on that con­cept and wanted to do some­thing rather than re­peat the same thing over and over.

“I dropped down to a very low salary, work­ing three days a week. Every­body thought I was crazy. It was some­thing I was pas­sion­ate about.”

In the be­gin­ning of her re­search and cam­paign­ing, she found an­i­mal work­ers were re­luc­tant to discuss the num­bers of pets they were hav­ing to eu­thanase.

Joy says her re­search re­vealed cats were mak­ing up the lion’s share of sur­ren­ders. In warm cli­mates, cats are able to breed con­tin­u­ously through­out the year. Own­ers also won’t show con­cern for a cat that’s been miss­ing for a few days like they would a dog, and cats rarely sport col­lars.

“We’re not as good as con­fin­ing our cats as dogs, and we’re not as good as de­sex­ing them ei­ther,” Joy says. “My big­gest mem­ory was in the early days when were get­ting so many cats and kit­tens in, I would go in and film some of the cats that had to be eu­thanased that were per­fectly healthy to send a mes­sage to the pri­mary in­dus­tries.

“That would stay with me and haunt me. “The re­claim rates for (sur­ren­dered) cats on the Gold Coast is higher, it’s about 11 or 12 per cent, the re­claim is about 70 per cent for dogs.

“In many places in Aus­tralia it’s down around five per cent (for cats).”

At many coun­cil-run pounds, un­reg­is­tered cats and dogs are held for three days be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to shel­ters for adop­tion.

Fees to re­lease your pet within those first three days can cost up to $100 or more de­pend­ing on the lo­cal gov­ern­ment’s leg­is­la­tion. If you miss the win­dow, you’ll have to re-adopt your own pet. The RSPCA in Vic­to­ria sets adop­tion fees at $400 for dogs and $110 for cats.

Then there’s the cost of de­sex­ing a pet that’s come into your care — and if it’s a preg­nant cat or comes with a lit­ter of kit­tens, that price tag can eas­ily mul­ti­ply.

“How can you af­ford to pay $300 a head for five cats? That’s al­most im­pos­si­ble,” Joy says.

With the sup­port of Aus­tralian vets, city coun­cils, Cat and Dog Breed­ers of Queens­land and an­i­mal wel­fare or­gan­i­sa­tions, Joy formed the NDN. She also set up a pub­lic vet clinic at the league, where no pet goes un­treated if the owner can’t af­ford to help them.

“The Na­tional De­sex­ing Net­work now has three prongs. We ask vets to reg­is­ter with us to of­fer low-cost de­sex­ing for pen­sion and con­ces­sion card holders.

“Dur­ing Na­tional De­sex­ing month we pro­mote de­sex­ing in July, that’s the best time for pets to be de­sexed be­fore the breed­ing sea­son starts.

“The third strat­egy is co­op­er­a­tive de­sex­ing pro­grams with coun­cils. One of those as­pects is all kit­tens now must be de­sexed prior to sale or trans­fer. That’s hap­pened on the Gold Coast.

“It’s (the NDN’S) gone from two coun­cils to 12 coun­cils in three years, and we’ve got about 16 on the wait­ing list to speak to me.

“Coun­cils are start­ing to re­alise it’s good to in­vest in pre­vent­ing un­wanted lit­ters.

“Most coun­cils now are get­ting their euthanasia rates be­tween 10 and 20 per cent for dogs, but re­cent sur­veys show it’s still 50 per cent of cats be­ing killed.

“In 2016 and 2017 we achieved zero euthanasia rates of healthy cats and dogs (on the Gold Coast). Our euthanasia rates went down from 50 per cent of cats to 7 per cent, and over 30 per cent of dogs down to 5 per cent.”

De­spite plenty of rea­sons to be cyn­i­cal, Joy has a lot of com­pas­sion for fam­i­lies who sur­ren­der their pets.

“Peo­ple are al­ways stressed about hav­ing to sur­ren­der their an­i­mals, of­ten in tears,”

Joy says.

“Peo­ple’s cir­cum­stances are dif­fer­ent and it’s a mat­ter of un­der­stand­ing that.

“Even the poor­est per­son will take on a stray cat or dog from their friend. They can af­ford to feed it, but they can’t af­ford to de­sex it, then they end up with four cats. They usu­ally have the best of in­ten­tions.

“I’m hope­fully we’ll achieve zero euthanasia of healthy cats and dogs in Aus­tralia (in my life­time).

“The strate­gies are there now. It’s com­pletely pos­si­ble, it’s just a mat­ter of help­ing peo­ple get their an­i­mals de­sexed and help them care for them ap­pro­pri­ately.

“The most im­por­tant thing is pro­vid­ing that sup­port. Ed­u­ca­tion isn’t enough — you’ve got to give them those sup­port pro­grams as well.”

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