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SPCA staff facing 'brutal' online criticism, abuse from the public

SPCA staff are struggling to cope with a wave of online criticism and abuse they are receiving from the New Zealand public.

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Sunday spoke to staff at the animal welfare charity about the mental toll of the public’s criticism. Source: Sunday

“People think we euthanase everything, that we're only in it for the money, and that we don't care about the animals,” Rebecca Dobson, an area manager in the South Island told TVNZ1's Sunday.

“I've lost a lot of sleep over it. I'm exhausted and tired,” she says.

Staff at the animal welfare charity have opened up about the mental toll the public’s criticism is having on their teams.

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Sunday speaks to SPCA inspectors who say they're facing a wave of abuse and harassment from the public. Source: Sunday

“After a while, you're like, ‘Am I good enough?’” Dobson says.

“‘Am I doing my job properly? Am I a good person?’”

Public backlash

In recent months, public criticism of the new SPCA model has intensified – especially on social media.

Facebook comments SPCA staff receive from the public. Source: Sunday

Some posts have been abusive and explicit, and have targeted individual staff members.

The charity has repeatedly been criticised for not acting quickly enough, and for leaving animals in dangerous situations.

Those on the frontline, like Auckland inspector Lori Davis, are feeling the heat.

“People take any opportunity to rubbish SPCA,” she says.

“They post [on Facebook] that we’re useless, we’re all about the money, we leave animals to suffer. It’s horrific, and it’s simply not true.”

Davis says the staff are doing their best with limited resources. She notes that SPCA inspectors must work within the Animal Welfare Act, and cannot remove an animal from a property without evidence of abuse or neglect.

Davis drives a marked SPCA vehicle, and says she has been “cut off” while driving, and people have flipped their middle finger at her.

She has also been abused at the supermarket. 

“[SPCA staff] don’t earn a lot of money. We’re not here for that. We are here for the animals and for the people in our community. To be criticised so brutally really upsets us.”

She is speaking out because she wants Kiwis to understand the challenges that the SPCA is facing, and the need for more resources to protect animals from cruelty and neglect.

“We all need to work together to address this problem. It’s not just the SPCA’s responsibility.”

A new model

Not only is the SCPA battling criticism for doing their job, the charity has also battled at times just to keep its doors open.

Three years ago, the SPCA was a community of 46 independent local charities, each with its own board, assets and finances.

CEO Andrea Midgen says many of those branches were close to going broke, and did not always meet animal welfare standards.

“There were a few that were doing really well, but the majority were really, really struggling.”

In 2017, SPCA members voted to become a single, nationwide charity. The aim was to spread funds more efficiently and evenly across the country.

But since the so-called 'One SPCA' merger, shelters have closed, services cut, and staff have quit.

The SPCA no longer provides emergency services after-hours in Southland. Its inspectors are now based in Dunedin, three hours away.

“The SPCA was one of the most trusted organisations in New Zealand,” says former Invercargill SPCA staff member and volunteer Rachel Hucklebridge.

“That trust is gone.”

Fight for survival

SPCA boss Andrea Midgen says the charity had to be restructured in order to be financially sustainable.

The SPCA enforces the Animal Welfare Act – investigating and prosecuting animal abusers – on behalf of the Government. They say this costs around $10 million a year, but the Government only provides about a quarter of that funding.

The charity has to raise the rest of the money through donations, bequests and op shops.

Midgen says the SPCA now uses regional “hubs” to deliver services to a wide geographical area, rather than trying to provide a full suite of services in every town.

“I know change is tough,” she says. “But if we don't change, we won't survive.”