RSPCA Tasmania – back on track

Almost a year into the role, and with the organisation’s well-documented internal difficulties resolved, Tasmania’s RSPCA branch president Paul Swiatkowski isconfident public confidence in the organisation has now returned.

Swiatkowski has a long association with the RSPCA, having served both as a board member and state president, as well as being a former employee.

“You could say I’ve got a passion for it. My first job was RSPCA vet in Launceston. It was my first job offer when I left university over 25 years ago so I thought I’d better take it! Strangely enough I received three other job offers in about a week, but I felt honour-bound to take up the first position, which I thought would only be for about a year. It’s ended up being a lot longer than that!”

Even so, he did not anticipate his offer to help the RSPCA through the turbulent months before and after last September’s AGM would involve another term as state president, but if the plans and initiatives currently on the drawing board can all be successfully implemented then he will be ‘more than happy to retire!’

Swiatkowski aims to take the organisation back to its roots. He wants to see a combination of decreased administration, and increased funding to expand the inspectorate, to benefit animal welfare outcomes. His long-term aim is for the RSPCA to significantly reduce the number of animals that are euthanased, and match the result the ACT’s RSPCA branch has already achieved.

“Euthanasia statistics in the ACT, for dogs anyway, are about seven per cent. And the seven per cent relates to animals who are either sick, or have permanent ongoing issues such as aggressiveness, or wanting to kill other animals – behavioural type issues. Or animals that simply can’t be re-homed for various reasons.

“Ideally we’d like to get Tasmania’s euthanasia rates down to seven per cent, and hopefully find homes for a lot more animals than we have been doing.”

Two initiatives that he hopes will help achieve this are creating a foster care network for animals, and employing an animal behaviourist, whose work would particularly involve those dogs that might otherwise be unable to find homes. However serious illness for the organisation’s recently-appointed chief executive officer Karen Vanderpols, has so far delayed the introduction of both these initiatives.

Under Swiatkowski’s stewardship the RSPCA has taken a more proactive approach towards the media, and been more outspoken on the state’s animal welfare issues.

His public comments on issues ranging from Tasmanian devils, legislation surrounding the capture, transport and utilisation of brushtail possums, and alternative measures to control galah populations in Tasmania’s north-west, have all helped re-establish the RSPCA’s reputation as an advocate for animals within the community.

The RSPCA has also been prominent in recent debates about the revision of cat management legislation, and the issue of sow stalls. The latter resulted in an announcement in July that Tasmania would be the first state to phase out their use.

“The RSPCA in Tasmania made submissions about sow stalls before it was the vogue to do so, and it seems to have had a cascade effect. We’re now leading the country in terms of phasing them out but I can honestly say there was a lot of cheering from RSPCA branches around Australia when it happened. It was a very positive animal welfare outcome, and in spite of what industry says there are alternatives to sow stalls that will have the same sort of financial outcomes, without any of the negative animal welfare impacts.”

As a consequence of the previous board’s ‘relative disorganisation’ Swiatkowski was obliged to comment on plans to revise Tasmania’s cat management policy without being fully aware of the RSPCA’s input into the legislation. While he fully supports having the ability to control cats in sensitive areas, and is not opposed to tighter regulations for cat control, he is critical of the proposed legislation that penalises cat owners, when the ability to accurately identify ownership remains inadequate.

“The whole crux of the legislation relies on identifying animals. If an animal doesn’t have a microchip then we don’t have a genuine ability to identify the owner. If you can’t provide proof of ownership you can’t award a penalty. So it’s a catch-22 situation. And as much as the RSPCA cares about the life of cats, it also cares about the life of wildlife, and wildlife have as much right to life as cats, or any other animal.”

Attitudes have changed significantly over the past 20 years and the public now have far greater expectations in relation to the welfare of animals. Unlike animal activist groups, to achieve improved animal welfare outcomes the RSPCA must work within the law, and cooperatively with both state and federal governments of the day. Swiatkowski acknowledged this can be challenging.

“It’s an issue the RSPCA struggles with. More and more with severe cases of cruelty we’re hoping for custodial sentences. For serious cases we can collect evidence, we can bring it before the magistrates, but having done all that – and it’s a fairly costly exercise to do it – sometimes the magistrates don’t come to the party and impose penalties we’d expect.

“But if we can return to our original aims of preventing cruelty to animals, finding more homes for animals, and de-sexing animals so fewer of them end up in shelters, then I’ll be happy.”

Anne Layton-Bennett

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