Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why the McHugh Report is worth a read

Don't be overwhelmed by its size. This report contains important lessons for anyone working with animals.

Earlier this month the Department of Justice released a very hefty report, documenting the findings of the Special Commission of Inquiryinto the Greyhound Racing Industry of New South Wales. This report is worth a read for so many reasons - apart from the fact that it prompted some remarkably decisive action on animal welfare from a State Government - so I’d like to explain why.

First and foremost, many if not most media commentators on this report have clearly not read it. In the age of “evidence-based” practice, medicine, and one would hope reporting, this is somewhat astounding. The investigation, led by the Honourable Michael McHugh AC QC, was wide-ranging, meticulous and detailed. It provides historic background and reviews current practice, including substantial changes to governance and practice by Greyhound Racing New South Wales. It contains answers to many of the questions journalists are asking in the wake of the report- many in the summary!

Secondly, this document tells a tale of marked failure of governance. While much of the focus has been – appropriately – animal welfare issues, the report documents how systemic organisational failures can encourage the cutting of corners when it comes to animal welfare. In this process it also highlights some weaknesses in our current animal welfare legislation and suggests improvements, explaining how and why these would make a difference.

Third, it documents incredible moral courage on the part of individuals in a range of contexts – including participants in greyhound racing, persons working within the regulatory organisation, and veterinarians. For example, one veterinarian who was actively discouraged from recording injuries and deaths of dogs – to the point where his forms were not accepted or discarded – continued to keep his own records in a diary. He set his own standards of what was required in his job and acted when he felt others – in his case a majority of others – were acting improperly. His records provided compelling evidence for systematic cover-up of injuries and fatalities on tracks.

Fourth, the investigation documents the rise of pseudoscience within the industry. While there are veterinarians who work with the greyhound industry, participants in general don’t think highly of veterinarians and rely on pseudoscience, including the services of “muscle men” who charge $10 for a consultation. The report reveals that their use was encouraged by the industry body. Treatments include the injection of unregistered substances, and practices such as blistering, sclerosing, pin-firing and needling of lame dogs, with evidence finding that these practices were not proven to help and much more likely to cause harm.

If you have an interest in animal welfare or work with greyhounds I strongly recommend reading this report. I hope that more politicians and journalists find the time to read it too - if not, at a minimum the summary (approximately 30 pages) is helpful and provides a decent overview, but there is so much to be found in the body of the report.

The report also foreshadows the genuine challenge now faced in rehoming greyhounds. There is no doubt this will be difficult – at very best the industry can rehome but a fraction of greyhounds, in part due to capacity of rehoming services such as the Greyhound Adoption Program but also due to a general lack of socialisation and habitation, combined with predatory aggression. This is not a quick process – greyhounds must be properly assessed and undertake a rehoming program to ensure they can be rehomed.

There are a range of ways that ordinary people can help.
  • Consider adopting a dog from a shelter. Greyhounds are expected to compete with order dogs for room in rehoming kennels. The more dogs – of any kind – rehomed from shelters, the better.
  • Consider fostering a greyhound in a rehoming program. This aids in socialisation and habituation, but also helps rehoming programs increase their capacity.
  • Donate to a greyhound rehoming program or animal shelter.
  • Organisations such as the Greyhound Adoption Program, Friends of the Hound, and Greyhound Rescue New South Wales are all working hard and will need ongoing support.
  • Volunteer with these groups.

The Australian Veterinary Association is supporting veterinarians impacted by the changes. Members can access their counselling service through the AVA web site.