If animals could talk, the people inside the Hunter RSPCA Shelter, a three-hectare complex in a Rutherford industrial estate, would be called legends.
In the last 12 months, the team of 52 on the shelter side of the facility managed the intake, care and adoption of 1283 animals, including 762 felines, 350 canines and 171 other animals.
Shelter manager Kasey Bridge says the facility can hold 300 cats and 200 dogs, plus horses, fowl, guinea pigs, and birds and just about anything else that comes through the door.
Every animal gets a veterinarian check and a behaviour assessment.
"We have a comprehensive behaviour assessment for all dogs that come through the shelter," Bridge says. "It determines whether the animal is suitable [for adoption], whether we need to do some rehabilitation, if we need to spend more time for them. And we figure out the most suitable home for the dogs, what type of fencing you might require, those sort of things. So we can make sure we fit the animal to the right sort of home.
"We are making sure when someone comes through the door, we give them the pet that suits them the most."
The dogs suitable for adoption are in a run of kennels behind the main building. At the moment, there are 21 on adoption row, all shapes and sizes, all different personalities.
There are several other rows of dogs, some awaiting desexing and surgery, others awaiting a behaviour assessment.
"Some need rehabilitation or socialisation, like time inside," Bridge says. "A lot of dogs haven't been inside a building before."
The cats up for adoption are housed two each to rooms inside the main building, with a "cat lounge" in the wing where prospective new owners can spend time with the cat of their choosing, to help them make a decision.
There are 26 cats and four kittens (it's not kitten season) approved for adoption at this moment.
No matter how it got there, every cat and dog is given a name when it gains an identity (when it is microchipped). Staff pay attention as they heal, mentally or physically, and that observation goes into the adoption story for each animal.
The average stay for an animal at the shelter - not including protective custody or pending court cases - is 37.8 days.
The shelter has an army of volunteers who walk the dogs on the grounds, or give them extra attention. Some volunteers do other essential work, like help with the laundry.
The shelter has 180 foster carers on its books. "They take underweight kittens, kittens, puppies, dogs that have behaviour issues and need rehabilitation. They take them until they are ready to go up for adoption," Bridge says.
THE HOSPITAL CLINIC
While they share an entry foyer, the shelter is separate from the RSPCA's hospital and clinic in the same building. The clinic has a staff of 48, including 13 veterinarians led by senior vet Micaela Elphick, three animal attendants and 32 veterinarian nurses.
On the day of my visit, practice manager Sally Armstead says, "This morning has been crazy. It's always really, really busy. It keeps us on our toes."
I have the feeling every day is like this one.
The clinic has more than 7500 animals on its books - that's private clients. And it took on another 7000 when the RSPCA shut its Tighes Hill clinic at the end of 2020.
Almost 60 per cent of the clinic's clientele are the shelter animals. And it is teeming with cases, big and small.
I meet Master Diablo during my visit, a full grown mastif cross bull arab, who's been there for three months.
"Diablo was a stray and he got by a car. He came in with a fracture of his femoral neck," Dr Elphick says, as we talk to him in a surgical recovery room where has been staying. "He also had some chest trauma as well. He has bleeding and bruising of his lung field. He had a lot of physio, a lot of exercise, a lot of love. There were all sorts of volunteers involved in coming in to take him for walks, because he requires, with his sort of surgery, really intensive physio to get them working again. He was declared adoption-ready yesterday."
The clinic has many essentials, including eight isolation rooms, mostly used for cats with the cat flu.
"One of the biggest things we see is infectious diseases, due to the unknown vaccination history of these animals, coming off the street," Armstead says.
There are cages everywhere, under counters, in recovery rooms, for pre-operative observation, post-operative observation, and general observation for reactions to drugs or to find clues to their problems.
"We deal with snake bites, ticks ... we can monitor them in these under the counter cages. Seizure watch. Those cages are like gold," Armstead says.
There is a an x-ray room with an antiquated machine, a lab room where do their own bacterial analysis, find parasites, do blood counts, but much is still sent to an external lab in Sydney.
There are two full-time surgical vets. One surgical room is dedicated to desexing operations. "We tend to do 30 a day if we have two surgical vets. The sheer number is the shelter animals," Armstead says. "It's trying to get these guys desexed in a timely fashion, so we can get them up for adoption and to their forever homes."
Of course, some days don't go to plan.
"It's never predictable," Elphick says. "You can be on track to do one thing and something else will happen that will completely derail you. It's all about triage."
Something else could be wildlife. A bat. A wombat. A joey.
"We had a joey in here, with an extremely swollen knee joint," Elphick says. "We took some x-rays, we put a needle in and took some fluid out, looked at under the microscope. We could tell it was a bacterial infection in the joint. We then sent that swab off to the lab to tell what that is going to be susceptible to, in terms of antibiotics, and we did surgery on it to open and flush the joint, and cast the lower part of the leg that was damaged.
"Probably once a week, we have an intensive wildlife case. Small birds or animals, we do first-aid on and move to a carer."
Two open dental surgical stations are non-stop busy. Another work station is staffed to clean and sharpen 45 surgical kits used in the two major surgerical rooms.
The clinic has a heartbeat. The clinic has a heart. Staff talk to the animals, they offer up toys (the shelter accepts toys, blankets, towels and food for the animals).
Staff take home animals as foster carers, too. Armstead nursed a russian blue cross stray cat, Hamish, back from near-death for three months. He was adopted this week.
Volunteers in the kitchen pack dry biscuits into toilet roll butts, to encourage the animals to eat some dry food.
The RSPCA facility is set to expand, thanks in good part to a donation by the late Sheila Woodcock, who bequested $1.375 million to the local RSPCA. There are obvious needs, for updates and extensions.
The facility is also receiving $1.17 million from the NSW Government.
The funding will provide essential upgrades to both the shelter and veterinary hospital, including surgery equipment, a service road and carpark upgrades, a purpose-built storage facility for inspectorate emergency equipment, increased animal holding capacity, additional dog exercise yards and greening of the site.
The works start September 2021 and are projected to end in 2022. The works will be done In stages so that the shelter can remain open to service the community
There will always be animals in need.
"Demand is unlimited really," Elphick says. "It's how much we can support that demand."
- Hunter Shelter, 6 Burlington Place, Rutherford. 4939 1555.
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