Coffee with Steve Glassey

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Steve when he was still in his role as CEO of Wellington SPCA (credit: stuff.co.nz)

There are many champions in the animal welfare world but there are a few who stand out above the rest. Meet Steve Glassey: A champion for animals in need.

Previous articles have touched on other leaders of positive change in New Zealand. Caroline Press-Mackenzie (of HUHA) has been a loud and action-focussed voice for choosing to do more for each and every animal and Bob Kerridge dedicated his career to countless positive changes to the system.

Steve Glassey’s contribution, like Bob’s, is largely from within New Zealand’s SPCA. The story starts way back in his high school days when he wasn’t allowed to have a dog. Steve decided to volunteer at the local SPCA (Manawatu SPCA). Thus, the fire was lit.

His interest grew and Steve started working alongside Val Chandler (Animal Welfare Inspector at the time) during school holidays and gradually became more involved. Steve eventually made his own foray into being an SPCA Animal Welfare Inspector out of Wellington. He later climbed he ranks of several voluntary and public safety organisations to find his seat as the CEO of Wellington SPCA.

Steve on the SPCA Inspectorate

When asked about the role of being an SPCA Inspector, Steve says:

“The inspectorate has changed quite a bit in some ways over the years… the laws changed… the role’s definitely different. The one thing that hasn’t changed is it’s still going out there and working with communities and in most cases providing education.

The laws in New Zealand are reasonably good. There are certainly areas that they can improve on and generally where there is an animal welfare issue, it can be corrected. But I suppose, the law doesn’t meet everyone’s expectations. How you and I treat our animals and how other people treat their animals can be quite diverse.”

Steve went on to explain that part of the Inspector’s role is also to recognise the complexity that exists in a given family environment and how that impacts on people’s ability to provide for animals.

“You’d go onto a property and the animal welfare issue wasn’t the only challenge for that family. Often they’d have financial challenges. And there were a number of times you’d have a very strong gut feel about issues around family violence happening in the home… That behaviour of animal abuse is actually part of the wider inter-human or family violence. And this is why it’s important that animal cruelty is seen as just as important. Because chances are that people don’t start on being abusive to others. They start off on something they can control, which often is pets.”

Steve elaborated on what an Inspector can and can’t do. The legal right to enter a property (other than on marae) in order to investigate animal welfare concerns is granted without needing a warrant. To enter a dwelling, a warrant is also required. They must produce ID and if they feel there is an offence or there is danger of imminent harm, they can take an animal into possession and must leave notice if the owner is not there. The animal then remains in custody until the courts decide otherwise or the Inspector negotiates terms with the owner, which can be a very lengthy process at times.

“If you look at the animal welfare aspect, if you seize an animal, if you take it away from its surroundings, it’s actually going to stress out. It’s going to fret. It’s not used to being in certain environments. It’s actually going to be in a considerable amount of stress just as a result of the seizure. So you have to weigh up saying what’s in the animal’s best interest? Can I get the same outcome by leaving it here with the owner?”

I had come across people with varying views of SPCA Inspectors and while some were full of praise, others felt let down by an Inspector’s decision not to uplift an animal from its situation. I asked Steve how he felt about this.

“In most cases animals don’t need to be seized. Because if we take them away and the behaviour’s still there, or the education is not there, they’ll just get another dog and repeat it, which actually doesn’t help the animals in the long-term. We’ve gotta play the long game.”

If being an Animal Welfare Inspector appeals to you, Steve suggests you volunteer at the SPCA and see if you can work towards being able to a ride along. You need to have a good understanding of what the job is: a lot of law, critical thinking and paperwork. Consider being and Animal Ambulance volunteer too, which a volunteer role within the Inspectorate department, building your reputation and giving you valuable contacts.

Getting a formal education like Massey’s Veterinary Technology degree, a degree in Criminal Justice or a Law degree would be a great start. Any Bachelor degree would be of benefit in terms of honing your critical thinking and a shorter course in something related, like Veterinary Nursing would help too.

These steps all carry the added bonus of a fall-back option, should you decide that the Inspectorate is not for you. You’ll also need to do the year-long Inspector course and wait for a position to come up, so you’ll need something to get you by in the meantime.

But before all this, Steve made a notable detour. Before embarking on his Inspectorate career, Steve made a detour via the New Zealand Navy. This change of focus is important because it follows the stream of another strong current in his career: Emergency Management

Steve on Emergency Management

This too all began in his teens, when he volunteered with Civil Defence through his high school’s Civil Defence Rescue programme. This spilled over into involvement with the New Zealand Fire Service, ambulance and eventually graduate study in Emergency Management with Massey University and later a Master’s degree from Charles Sturt in Australia. This in turn led to opportunities working with the United Nations and various aid agencies worldwide.

Steve’s Masters study was involved in researching the interplay between animal welfare and emergency management.

“All the studies show that if you leave animals behind, people will either: A) not evacuate; or B) go back in to get their animals”

This is exactly what I saw in Christchurch as we passed through. I had several conversations with people passing on anecdotes of a friend who was worried about animals that got left behind in fire evacuations. People were threatening officers at emergency cordons and no one, including the SPCA, was being allowed in to tend to animal evacuation while the fires were still active.

Emergency response and management is a highly specialised and potentially dangerous field, requiring specialist training and procedures. Animals also don’t understand the situation in the same way as people and injuries can make them unpredictable or violent. It became clear to Steve that there was a need for a specially trained animal rescue team.

Steve on the National Rescue Unit

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Steve and Ritchie attend one of the original rescues prompting the development of NRU (credit: The Dominion Post)

“We have to deal with patients from 50 grams to 500 kilograms and usually our patients want to kill us”

Steve showed me a photo of him and Ritchie Dawson (currently Chief Inspector at Wellington SPCA) conducting one of the original animal rescue operations that led to them creating a formal unit in 1995. Originally known as the Animal Rescue Unit, it is now the National Rescue Unit (NRU) to reflect the fact that it will be mobilised nationwide in the case of large-scale emergencies.

“The National Rescue Unit, operated by the Wellington SPCA, is essentially trained across a number of disciplines to the same standards as their human rescue counterparts. Which provides anyone who might be co-ordinating response to a disaster the confidence that these aren’t just animal lovers. These are actually people that are trained. They know what they are doing. They can keep themselves safe if they go into an operational area… The NRU is equipped and trained across a lot of disciplines… it would probably be one of the most technically capable rescue teams in the world.”

What are they packing? What do they do? Steve gave me a brief overview, but it’s not a complete list:

  • large animal rescues
  • technical confined space (more confined space equipment than most fire appliances)
  • breathing apparatus
  • gas detection equipment
  • specialist rope rescue
  • swift water rescue (advanced training, dry suits and all those kinds of things)
  • access to motorised rescue boats

Interested in joining? Great! The NRU is staffed by SPCA staff acting in a voluntary capacity and volunteers from the greater community. Commitment, confidence in stress situations (without over-confidence) and the ability to learn are the main aptitude points the NRU looks for in new recruits. Realistically, you need to live in Wellington as it is currently the only base of operations. But even if you check all these boxes, don’t bother unless you truly want it.

It’s really hard to get in and carries with it a huge time commitment. Out of 50-60 applicants for one intake information evening, only four completed the recruit course. You can expect block trainings, plus at least one (sometimes two) full days in the weekend every month, as well as call-outs and meetings. You can expect to commit about 300-400 volunteer hours per year. This reflects the significant investment that SPCA is putting into specialist training (about $10,000 per recruit in their first year).

Having been involved in founding the unit, 20-odd years of sevice and being the operational commander, Steve has now stepped out of the unit to pursue further study. He still maintains a relationship and happily advises on occasion, but he’s now leaving it to his successors.

Steve on the future of Animals in Emergencies

Given that he has now left the SPCA, Steve could not comment on the future of the SPCA’s NRU. His career now focusses on an academic analysis of integrated response. Specifically, including animals in disaster response planning.

Steve said there was a lot of luck contributing to the relative success of the recent Edgecumbe flooding response. If something similar were to happen in Lower Hutt, New Zealand’s largest flood plain, he says it would be equivalent to Hurricane Katrina in its effects. Excluding animals from emergency management opens the door to slow and painful deaths from exposure, shock and starvation for animals on a huge scale. But it also invites a massive increase in human casualties as untrained people return to the disaster zone to attempt their own rescues.

Steve comments on the disparity between Animal Welfare Inspector training in the USA vs. New Zealand. While American inspectors receive a considerable amount of practical training, New Zealanders are mostly schooled on legal issues, with practical training to be learned on the job. He considers it likely that more technical rescue skills will be included in future courses although the development of more units like the NRU in Wellington are unlikely due to the cost and time commitment involved.

Findings from Steve’s PhD research into the Texas response to Hurricane Harvey contrasted with response to Hurricane Katrina are likely to yield conclusions and suggestions for best practice integrated response. These could provide a basis for future development of more animal-friendly Civil Defence procedures in New Zealand and worldwide. In Texas, he found they learned from Katrina and now work on the basis that “Animals come out”. He hopes to see a similar shift in New Zealand’s emergency response psyche.

A Final Word from Steve

If you care about animal welfare, start by volunteering. It doesn’t have to be at the SPCA. It doesn’t have to be in a shelter.

“Reach out to those animal welfare organisations and put your hand up. See what opportunities are presented and take them”

You can follow Steve and his work on his blog  (www.animaldisastermanagement.blog)


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