RSPCA ACT staff crouch around a dog sitting on the floor in the veterinary clinic, and to the right hand side of the photo an open door shows a vet performing surgery
RSPCA veterinary staff prepare a dog for surgery in the entryway to the operating theatre, where one of over 240 kittens in care is desexed. Images: Kerrie Brewer

RSPCA ACT CEO Michelle Robertson is eagerly awaiting progress on ACT Labor’s election promise to help fund upgrades to the animal shelter, which has been operating in Weston since 1955 and where most buildings are over 45 years old.

She said staff at the animal shelter do outstanding work in their mission to end animal cruelty in the ACT, using “love and passion, spit and Blu Tack” to hold things together in ageing facilities that were not purpose built.

RSPCA ACT CEO Michelle Robertson says the short-term improvements she has made to facilities is like “putting a Bandaid on a war wound”.

The most urgent priority is a new veterinary clinic, according to the animal shelter’s CEO, because the current cramped facility diminishes its potential service to the community.

“If we have nothing else, we need that,” Ms Robertson said.

Veterinary staff work on top of one another while running the clinic, which performed 2,187 surgeries in the last financial year, 236 more than the year before.  

If the veterinary hospital were larger and better equipped, Ms Robertson said it could also offer its space and services to other rescue organisations when demand surged, for example, during bushfires.  

“But if we truly want to be everything we should be, all of our spaces – animal care, veterinary services, inspectorate and administration – need to have functional relationships that enable us to deliver our services and work in a better way.”

RSPCA ACT is comprised of individual sheds, shipping containers and small buildings dotted over a plot of land tucked between the Tuggeranong Parkway and Coombs, and Ms Robertson said the amount of time staff and volunteers spent walking back and forth between different buildings was inefficient at best, unsafe at worst.   

“We want to have a safe and functional workspace for our staff and volunteers where I don’t have to worry that they’re going to trip over something, or slip.”

The roof of the cattery. Image: Kerrie Brewer

She identified the cattery as another area that required urgent upgrades. 

During heavy rain this year, the roof of the cattery was “like Niagara Falls”, according to Ms Robertson, and staff were drenched in foul brown water at their desks.

Keeping equipment and spaces hygienic is of the utmost importance, and without a dedicated area to dry sanitised cat carriers and beds, they line footpaths during the day.

Being short on space means large community donations to the cattery, which are gratefully received, pile up and obstruct the entryway until staff can sort them. 

Ms Robertson said a purpose-built facility would allow RSPCA ACT to welcome visitors, provide accessible entry for people with disabilities, and run more education and engagement programs, which would ultimately further the mission to prevent animal cruelty.

An overhaul has been on the cards for over a decade, according to the RSPCA ACT CEO, whose organisation relies on community donations for 65% of its cashflow.

Staff sit shoulder-to-shoulder at the computer desk tucked in a corner of the veterinary clinic. Image: Kerrie Brewer

“Fourteen odd years ago there was engagement with the ACT Government to do something with the facilities, a lot of talk about us moving,” Ms Robertson said.

But no progress was made, and it wasn’t until 2019 that Chief Minister Andrew Barr visited RSPCA ACT in Weston to announce a $300,000 funding package for ‘Project Home’, to address facility issues in the short term, and provide support for a purpose-built facility in the “medium-term”.

Ms Robertson used part of the funding to develop a master plan of what “a good, properly designed shelter could look like”.

Remaining funds were spent on short-term solutions Ms Roberston described as “putting a Band-Aid on a war wound”, including spaces for isolating infectious cats, emergency boarding to care for the pets of people in crisis, canine quarantine, and the purchase of a dental X-ray machine.

The ACT Government remained committed to supporting the construction of a new and fit for purpose RSPCA ACT facility “within this term of government”, Minister for Transport and City Services, Chris Steel, told Canberra Weekly.

Sanitised cat carriers lin the RSPCA ACT walkways. Image: Kerrie Brewer

“The ACT Government is currently examining land and construction requirements for a new facility ahead of the design stage of the project, to ensure that it will meet the needs of promoting animal welfare, supporting pet owners, RSPCA volunteers and RSPCA staff,” he said.

Ms Robertson said Mr Steel’s office had been “very supportive” since the election, and she hoped to see plans become action this year.

“We really do need to act now,” she said.

“We’ve been working with them, and there will be a business case that will go up to cabinet.”

Ms Robertson hoped that effort would result in “some actual funding and a timeline”.

“To say ‘Right, here’s your money, here’s your timeline, and we’re going to do this thing.’”

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