One Question Quiz
Some of the dogs waiting for adoption (Images: Rachel Judkins)
Some of the dogs waiting for adoption (Images: Rachel Judkins)

SocietyOctober 10, 2023

The harsh reality of all those lockdown dog adoptions

Some of the dogs waiting for adoption (Images: Rachel Judkins)
Some of the dogs waiting for adoption (Images: Rachel Judkins)

Pet adoption rose during Covid lockdowns, but a lack of vet services at the time coupled with unsocialised animals has had devastating consequences.

It’s the school holidays and a tan pitbull is strutting around a cul de sac in Māngere like she owns the place, while a few doors down small children play outside on their front lawn. With no containment, the dog is left free to roam and defend her widening territory. Every day she tries to attack her neighbour on the shared driveway and she has been spotted chasing screaming kids on bikes at the nearby school. 

Responding to the callout from a concerned passerby is animal management officer Zara*, who has a background in canine handling and animal behaviour. She explains that while it is fortunate that the dog at large hasn’t bitten anyone, all canines are unpredictable, habitual and territorial, and pitbulls are classified as a menacing breed. “A roaming dog can quickly turn into a dog attack so we try to get to the roamings and the aggressive behaviours as a preventative measure.”

There has been an explosion in roaming dogs in Auckland recently, and a subsequent increase in the number of attacks, with 250 more attacks on people reported in the last year. The shelters are overflowing with dogs that are unregistered, unclaimed and unfixed, living breathing evidence of the 33,000+ Animal Control callouts last year, and the ongoing challenges of keeping our streets, parks and beaches safe to enjoy. 

Back in Māngere, the dog disappears into a nearby house and Zara goes to investigate, turning on the body camera attached to her slash-proof vest and extending her “bite stick” as she exits the vehicle. Because the house is down a long driveway and there have been reports of an unfriendly owner, she calls for back-up on her RT. Sadly, it’s not only the dogs that are potentially aggressive and threats to officers from humans are also on the rise.

The owner of Penny* the pitbull isn’t happy to see Animal Control at his door but is cooperative and agrees to pay for on-the-spot microchipping and registration, which means she can now be tracked during future callouts. In this instance, Zara allows Penny to remain with her owner, but if there had been an attack, or the owner couldn’t be located or there were no signs of compliance, Zara would have used her catch-pole to safely seize and impound the roaming hound.

At the Manukau Animal Shelter the barking and yelping can be heard from the carpark. Electric fences and overnight security guards act as a deterrent for anyone thinking about breaking their dog out. Inside, the staff are a bunch of dog-loving and no-nonsense women, who have the difficult job of managing a facility that is nearly always at (or over) capacity, as well as being short staffed. Senior shelter officer Izy, who has two adopted shelter dogs at home (an occupational hazard of the job), has seen the number of strays coming in really ramp up over the four years she has worked there. “There’s a lot of dogs. The work has tripled. We love what we do, but it’s hard.”

This is Outlander (Photo: Rachel Judkins)

Over 6,500 dogs were impounded in the last year – an increase of 31% on the previous year – and it seems that Covid is one of the culprits. Many people saw lockdown as the perfect time to adopt a furry friend, but were unable to spay or neuter them as only emergency vet care was deemed essential. Those “entire” (not desexed) puppies have since grown enough to have babies of their own, and the current vet shortage has added to the squeeze. With people back at work, many unsocialised dogs are also left to their own devices during the day.

When roaming dogs arrive at the shelter, they are quarantined, given medical checks and vaccinated before a seven-day “stray period” during which they can be claimed. For those that are microchipped it’s an easy call to the owner, usually followed by a happy reunion after the impound fees have been paid. Unregistered dogs are listed on the shelter’s Facebook Page  – a rogues gallery of shining eyes, wet noses and furry muzzles – in the hopes of finding their humans. Just over half the dogs are claimed, which leaves the remainder to one of two possible fates: either adopted out or euthanised.

All dogs that pass the temperament test are neutered, microchipped and registered, ready for adoption. They are given names according to the theme of the month (makes of car, Friends characters etc) and their foxy faces are advertised online. Staff play matchmaker, ensuring each pooch and potential new family are compatible in both demeanour and lifestyle.  Purebreeds like Labs get snapped up quickly, but mixed breeds often take longer. Pride, a beautiful brindle staffy X, has been at the Manukau shelter since he was handed over as a puppy in March and is still patiently waiting for his fairytale ending. 

This is Pride (Photo: Rachel Judkins)

Many dogs don’t pass the temperament test that scores for aggression and extreme fear. Izy points out “any aggression with food, people or dogs has to fail because we’ve got a responsibility to adopt this dog out and know that it is safe to do so. We don’t want any accidents”. Unfortunately, those deemed unfit for rehoming are euthanised at the vet’s next visit and live out their final days on doggy death row. It is an overwhelmingly loud and smelly place, with kennel after kennel of distressed dogs barking and snarling at the gates. Some may have once been beloved pets while others have always been strays, but every one was born a tiny docile bundle of fur. Mistreatment during their life is one reason for their hostility, and as Izy explains, they are a product of their environment. “When you’ve got 100-ish dogs all together, everything is stepped up a notch. It’s louder, the dogs are more hyper. I do believe that most of our aggressive dogs are just scared and that unfortunately translates into being aggressive.”

No matter the reason, none of the condemned dogs are making it out of there alive. It’s not a very palatable scenario, but with more dogs being picked up every day and nowhere for them to go, there doesn’t seem to be an immediate alternative. An increase in unwanted and unsocialised dogs means an increase in the number of dogs being put down – sadly the number of dogs euthanised in Auckland’s shelters doubled, with over 2,500 euthanised in the past year. 

At another address in Mangere, Zara is investigating a dog reported to be roaming the streets daily. She speaks to the owner, whose brown and white pitbull Billy* was microchipped and registered after her adoption two years ago because he wanted to do the right thing but he has since let it slide: “I just haven’t kept up with it eh. I did get a letter but I didn’t have the money for it.”

An unnamed dog awaits adoption (Photo: Rachel Judkins)

Billy’s owner says he also can’t afford to spay her. She has already had one accidental litter of 12 puppies and will almost certainly have more since the clever escape artist has found a weak spot in the fencing and will be easily tracked down by the neighbourhood males when on heat. Zara tells the man that raging hormones can increase aggression: “If you haven’t desexed your dog and it’s out roaming, it can increase the chance of dog attacks. If you have a female dog on the street all the male dogs will come and it’ll be a dog fight and that energy can be redirected.”

The cost of living can’t be ignored as a catalyst for the roaming dog explosion. Dogs are expensive – not just the basics of food and vet bills but all the things that go along with responsible ownership like registration, neutering and adequate fencing. Many would-be dog owners understand this so adoptions are currently down (putting further strain on shelters) but others don’t realise until it’s too late. For those struggling financially, the needs of a dog might feel like a luxury, but failing to comply can see costs pile up as owners are on the hook for impound fees if the dog is picked up, and fines if formal warnings are ignored.

For those needing help there are community desexing, registration and microchipping drives and rescue centres offering neutering vouchers, but you have to be proactive and hunt around to access this support. Owners can also reduce their annual registration fees by neutering their dogs and obtaining a responsible dog owner licence through the council. 

It can be easy to make careless dog owners out to be villains but Zara thinks otherwise. “We really try to avoid saying there are bad dog owners because sometimes stuff just happens.” She says that it often comes down to ignorance so she feels that her job is as much about education as it is about enforcement and spends a lot of time explaining dog owners’ obligations under the Animal Control Act. Even making simple suggestions like using chicken wire to plug gaps in fences could potentially help alleviate Auckland’s roaming dog problem.

Concerned citizens who come across stray dogs should help keep their neighbourhood safe by reporting them. But remember that even the seemingly innocuous little bundles of fluff can be unpredictable, habitual and territorial, so it pays to keep your distance and leave the handling to the professionals.

There is no such thing as a typical day on patrol, but Zara attends 12 or more jobs per day shift, and with more roamings being radioed in from dispatch all the time, her work is never done. She is also on call tonight and fully expects to be called out, but luckily she seems to thrive on action. “I love what I do. And if I can educate some dog owners and prevent some attacks then at least I’m doing something right.”

* Izy is her real name but doesn’t want to give her last name, Zara is an alias. Dogs’ names also changed.

Keep going!