How a dog triggered Aussie nurse's mission to save thousands of lives

·6-min read

On a freezing cold day in 2008, Adelaide nurse Mia Aukland decided she was ready to adopt a dog.

She jumped in her car and drove almost 40 minutes to the closest animal shelter.

“I was ready to welcome the love of another dog in my home after the death of my dog Sarah,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

After arriving, Ms Aukland asked the staff if she could meet a malnourished “heeler-looking puppy” she saw sitting in a “concrete cage”.

Adelaide nurse Mia Aukland with her adopted dog Lucy.
Adelaide nurse Mia Aukland adopted her dog Lucy from a shelter in 2008. Source: Supplied

“She reminded me a bit of Sarah. It was a cold winter and she had a torn wool jumper on. I asked to meet her and the staff allowed me to touch her,” she recalled.

“I asked to adopt her, but I was told to come back the next day if I really wanted her.

“I was confused, and I felt that I prove that I would be a good pet parent by simply returning the next day.”

Although she was ecstatic to finally adopt Lucy, the entire experience didn’t sit well with the intensive care nurse of 20 years.

“I researched a lot and found [shelters] were killing animals,” she said.

Adoption inspires nurse's new mission

Frustrated with what she saw, Ms Aukland travelled to the US for the next three years to attend an annual animal welfare conference.

“These people had implemented programs, optimised the welfare of animals in their care and had save rates greater than 90 per cent,” she said.

But it was when she saw a presentation by Ryan Clinton — a lawyer and activist who spearheaded a campaign to make Austin, Texas, the largest US city to save 90 per cent of all shelter animals — that Ms Aukland knew she had to make a change back home.

Lucy and Ms Aukland.
Lucy's adoption prompted Ms Aukland to did deeper into how animal shelters are run in SA. Source: Supplied

Taking his advice, Ms Aukland contacted and began working with Tammy Franks, a SA Greens Upper House Member, to draft a bill improving how animals shelters in the state function.

“Many drafts later it became Statutes Amendment (Animal Welfare Reforms) Bill 2020 or Lucy's Law,” she said.

20 animals killed every day in SA

In an attempt to find out exactly how many animals are killed annually, the nurse filed paperwork requesting statistics from the two main shelters in South Australia — RSPCA SA and Animal Welfare League SA.

“Over a six-year period, the two main shelters admitted 108,881 dogs and cats and killed 43,943,” she wrote in her submission to Parliament, meaning 20 animals are killed per day, including holidays and weekends.

“Forty per cent of these animals did not make it out alive.

“The annual reports from the RSPCA SA and AWL SA between 2013 and 2019 indicate on average, a kill rate of 7,323 per year.”

A cat that was left abandoned at a property in Adelaide. Source: AAP/RSPCA SA
Data shows that roughly 20 shelter animals are killed in SA per day, including holidays and weekends. Source: AAP/RSPCA SA

However, South Australians are buying more than 16,000 dogs and cats every year from channels other than animal shelters, according to additional data in the submission.

During a 2020 joint committee on the proposed bill, Chief Executive Officer of RSPCA SA Paul Stevenson told members of Parliament that it costs $2 million a year to remove stray animals from various council areas.

According to minutes of the meeting seen by Yahoo News Australia, when asked if councils have offered alternative solutions to help deal with stray cats and dogs, Mr Stevenson said he is “overwhelmingly” met with the response: “Just euthanise them. We don’t want to pay for rehoming.”

How would Lucy's Law help?

Ms Aukland says Lucy’s Law — which is expected to be introduced for voting later this year — will save the lives of thousands of dogs and cats by improving the adoption process and rate.

“Adopting a dog from a shelter saves two lives. The life of the animal you adopt and the cage space you create assists another animal to receive care and find a home,” she said.

“If shelters are at capacity, why is adoption so hard?

“I am not talking about releasing animals inappropriately, but if someone walks into a shelter wanting to adopt — they should be leaving with an animal.”

Ms Aukland holds the bill while standing with Tammy Franks and Dr Susan Close, the deputy premier and minister of environment,
Ms Aukland stands with Tammy Franks and Dr Susan Close, the deputy premier and minister of environment, the day the Select Committee final report was read in Parliament. Source: Supplied

Ms Aukland said common restrictive adoption practises are: mandatory background checks, mandatory home inspections, veterinary reference check, income information and not approving people with children or who work full time.

“Shelters can be safe, humane and effective without all the barriers to adoption,” she added.

“Shelters use the term ‘impulse buy’ to create the misnomer that the potential adopter doesn't really want the pet and will no doubt surrender it later.

“Firstly, there is no such thing as an impulse buy because you have to drive at least 30 minutes to a shelter and secondly they are still taking appointments.

“You don't go out for a litre of milk and come back with a puppy.”

The bill also highlights:

  • Creating a code of practise for animal shelters and rescue organisations

  • Mandating all animal statistics and data to be included in annual reports

  • Increased prosecution powers for cases of animal cruelty

  • Introducing reporting requirements and provisions for the Greyhound industry

Sadly, Lucy died in 2018 from liver failure, but Ms Aukland hopes her profound impact will live on through the long lives of her fellow four-legged friends.

RSPCA SA responds to bill

A spokesperson for RSPCA SA told Yahoo News Australia it supports the principles underpinning the bill — more regulation and quality control for organisations taking in animal rescues and greater transparency for those undertaking the euthanasia of dogs and cats.

“RSPCA SA has publicly reported our annual statistics for over 20 years and is now achieving 9 in 10 animals being found homes,” she said.

“Euthanasia is only ever carried out when it is in the animal’s best interests due to its medical issues and prognosis, or where the animal’s behaviour cannot be modified sufficiently to the point where the animal is safe to put out into the community.

“We’re a responsible rehoming organisation and public safety is a priority.”

As a stand-alone document, the RSPCA SA spokesperson said the bill has “considerable merit”.

“However, as the new government has committed to a comprehensive review of the Animal Welfare Act we would suggest that it is preferable to now wait and incorporate these changes into a more wide ranging improvement to South Australian animal welfare legislation.”

Yahoo News Australia has contacted AWL SA for comment.

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