Opinion: We must care for animals despite covid-19 pressures

6:28 pm on 17 March 2020

By Cat MacLennan *

Opinion - Covid-19 is starting to affect almost every aspect of human life, but it also threatens to lead to a global animal welfare crisis.

File photo.

File photo. Photo: 123rf

Fear has emptied restaurants in Aotearoa and overseas, led to the cancellation of large-scale events, and decimated the international tourism industry.

Large-scale job losses now loom in New Zealand and slashed family incomes mean people will spend money only on necessities. In some cases, paying for food and vet bills for companion animals will no longer be regarded as essential or affordable spending.

There is likely to be a spike in the number of animals abandoned or surrendered to rescue organisations. Animal rescue groups operate with very limited funding at the best of times, and an influx of dumped animals will speedily overwhelm them.

So now is a good time to remember how much animals add to our lives, and to reflect on the fact they are part of our families. Our planning to survive the pandemic should include measures to ensure our animals also make it through.

SPCA Auckland Canine attendant, Margaret Stanaway, holds a puppy

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Human life will be vastly more restricted for the foreseeable future, and we will need to find ways to cope, not only in terms of physical safety, but also psychologically. The animal members of our family offer companionship and love and can help us survive.

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This is a very uncertain time for children. Animals provide them with entertainment, familiar and reassuring companionship, and exercise through dog walking and other activities.

At the other end of the age scale, elderly people are likely to be the most confined members of society for the duration of the crisis. Animal companionship will accordingly be essential to ensure they are not alone and have emotional support.

And it is not only New Zealand's companion animals who face welfare risks from Covid-19. Farmers were already reeling from the impact of the devastating drought through much of the country.

Water and food supplies have been scarce and farmers have been faced with spending up large on feed. In Northland, many farms were expected to run out of animal feed in March.

Dairy cows, in a paddock.

Photo: 123rf

Palm kernel, grain from the South Island and barley straw, hay and maize from the lower North Island are available, but some farmers cannot afford to pay for them. By early March, some farmers were already saying they were not providing cows with full feed because of the cost.

Farmers who decide to destock because of the drought are currently faced with long delays for space at meatworks, which are operating at reduced capacity because meat sales are down as a result of the coronavirus.

Not all farmers are willing to pay for food for animals for whom they have no future productive use.

Wild animals are also suffering because the drought has made water and food scarce. Many have died already, and the ongoing dry will mean little vegetation growth to provide food in the coming months.

There are many things we can do to lessen the double whammy welfare impacts of Covid-19 and the drought on animals. Here are some suggestions:

  • Include your companion animals in your Covid-19 family plan.
  • Donate to the SPCA and other animal rescue organisations.
  • Check with extended family, neighbours and colleagues and offer food and payment for vet treatment to people facing job losses and who cannot financially support their animals at this time.
  • Offer to foster animals for families who are in real crisis. This could be elderly people hospitalised with coronavirus. Knowing that their animals are safe will reduce their stress and help them to cope psychologically.
  • Children can do dog walking or help with cleaning and grooming of animals for people who are unable to care properly for their animals at present, perhaps because they are trapped away from home by border closures.
  • The Ministry for Primary Industries needs to step up its monitoring of farms so that poor animal welfare can be detected speedily.
  • People in rural communities can offer support to each other and can donate spare water and animal feed to farmers who have run out. People can also monitor the wellbeing of animals in their areas and report neglected animals so that authorities can act before animals endure prolonged suffering.
  • Put out small containers of water and provide food for wild birds and other animals.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and surrounding areas with devastating force in 2005, authorities focused on rescuing people. But one of the key lessons from the hurricane was that disaster planning needed to include provision for pets, as some people refused to leave or enter emergency shelters because their pets were not allowed to accompany them.

Our companion animals will provide valuable support to us as the Covid-19 crisis continues and we owe it to them to ensure we reciprocate by planning to meet their needs.

* Cat MacLennan is a barrister and former political reporter.

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