Auckland has a dog problem, and my staff are left cleaning up the mess

Publish Date : 23 Feb 2024
Craig Hobbs
Director of Regulatory Services Craig Hobbs

The following opinion piece was originally published in New Zealand Herald on 20 February 2024. 

The issue of euthanasia at Auckland Council’s animal shelters has cropped up in the media again this week, and with it has come the usual vitriol directed at our Animal Management staff.

“What's it like to be thought of by hundreds of thousands of Kiwis as an incompetent manager of callous, murderous staff?”, read one email sent to the manager of our Animal Management unit following an article published in New Zealand Herald on Monday. 

“You, and all the nasty, lying people working for you should be utterly ashamed of yourselves.” 

Emails like this, and worse, are not unusual in this line of business. As Director of Regulatory Services at Auckland Council, I hear daily stories of abuse levelled at our people, including nasty comments on social media, death threats and, alarmingly, physical assaults out in the field. Our Animal Management staff bear the brunt of this abuse, as they spend day after day dealing with situations where emotions and aggression run high. 

Frankly, I’m sick of it. Our Animal Management Officers (AMOs) and shelter staff are hardworking and passionate people, carrying out some of the toughest mahi in the community to keep Aucklanders safe. They deserve our thanks and gratitude for the work they do, not to be painted as villains. 

Auckland’s worsening dog problem

The primary role of Auckland Council’s Animal Management unit is to enhance the safety of Aucklanders by ensuring dogs and other animals are sufficiently controlled to prevent harm and nuisance. Our people take very seriously the responsibility of keeping people safe.

Lately, that job has been getting harder. The legacy of Covid lockdowns, with the lack of desexing during this period, has led to an explosion of poorly socialised dogs in Tāmaki Makaurau, and an increase in roaming and aggressive dogs on our streets. This puts huge pressure on our staff and our shelters. 

In 2023, around 70 AMOs responded to 33,000 requests for service - an increase of 33 per cent on the previous year. In that same period, 6,600 dogs were impounded across our three shelters; only 53 per cent were claimed by their owners. This means our shelters are always operating at near-capacity, and finding space for the many aggressive dogs roaming our streets is becoming a challenge.  

More dogs, more euthanisations

Along with a frightening 28 per cent increase in dog attacks last year, a sad consequence of Auckland’s worsening dog problem has been an uptick in the number of euthanisations at our shelters. 

If, after seven days, an owner has not come forward and we have been unable to reach them due to a lack of registration or microchipping, we need to consider options to determine the most appropriate outcome for the dog and the community. An estimated 70,000 dogs in Auckland are unregistered.

Where possible, we always try to rehome a dog if it is safe to do so, and our staff hold regular adoption drives like this week’s ‘Love in the Bark’. Unfortunately, many dogs that come through our shelters have behavioural issues that make them unsuitable for rehoming, and even those that are suitable can sit there for months on end waiting for a new home.

We must ensure there is enough room in our shelters to house those animals that pose a danger to people and other animals, meaning sometimes difficult decisions need to be made. We also work with rescue organisations to try and avoid putting down any dog that may be able to be rehomed, but lately these organisations have been operating at capacity too.

Believe me when I say that supporting vets to carry out euthanisations in our shelters is the last thing our staff want to be doing. You couldn’t spend all day handling, feeding, caring for and cleaning up after these animals unless you were a dog lover, and seeing healthy animals put down through no fault of their own is the hardest part of the job. 

Irresponsible dog owners must step up

What I would like to see is less blame, abuse and villainising of our Animal Management kaimahi and more onus on dog owners to do the right thing. 

It is not our AMOs or shelter staff who are leaving dogs to roam the streets to attack other animals and people, including children.

It is not our people getting puppies and then leaving them tied up all day, failing to stimulate and train them so that they grow up poorly-adjusted and aggressive.

It is not our people who do not de-sex their dogs, then dump litters of unwanted puppies on shelter doorsteps and in parks and reserves. 

And yet, it is often our people who are left picking up the pieces. 

We are doing our best to cope with the increasing demands on the council’s Animal Management unit, investing $5.9 million over the next two years in additional staff and kennel space. 

Until we see a shift in the community towards more responsible dog ownership, however, these problems are not going to go away. Our shelters will remain full, euthanisation numbers will continue to climb and words like “murderous” will still be hurled at our staff. 

Most dog owners in Auckland are doing the right thing and I thank them for that. To those who aren’t: step up and give your dogs the care they deserve, because we don’t want to see them in our shelters any more than you do.

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