Faithful defender: Dog lover and animal rescuer Trisha Taylor.
Trisha Taylor tells me she often experiences a Sophie’s Choice dream as she’s falling asleep at night: if she were at the beach and a tidal wave was about to hit the shore, would she turf out her beloved dogs from the car to make room for a stranded young family, or would she leave the family behind to save her pets?
“Thankfully,” says Taylor, laughing in relief down the phone, “I wake up at that point and I don’t have to make that decision.” If nothing else, that recurring night-time drama highlights Taylor’s deep conviction that while people matter, dogs do too.
To find out how much, I meet Taylor at the Pound Café in Elsternwick, which she, tongue-in-cheek, chose for the name.
Taylor turns out to be a statuesque, smartly dressed woman with a disarmingly cheery demeanour and an infectious laugh. However, underneath the soft exterior lies a woman who is waging a long and determined battle to improve the lot of companion animals.
“How we treat animals defines how civilised we are as a society,” says Taylor. “If we maltreat or disregard creatures dependent on us, there must be a flow-on effect on how we deal with vulnerability generally.”
Taylor is the mouthpiece of the Victorian Dog Rescue & Resource Group (VicDRG). Since she formed the organisation six years ago, it has saved 2000 dogs (and a smaller number of cats) from death row at country pounds, placing some with other groups and shelters and rehoming most with families all over Melbourne.
Many of the dogs come from the Mildura pound, which VicDRG got involved with to help reduce the high kill rate it used to have, typical of many country pounds with few resources. Until two years ago, Taylor often dedicated a day on her weekends to driving to Charlton, the midway point on the 1100-kilometre round trip from Melbourne to Mildura and back, to meet a delivery of unwanted dogs that she would take to Melbourne to waiting foster carers. Nowadays, Taylor focuses mainly on managing the group.
“VicDRG has really grown recently, and I work anywhere between 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week and Geoff (her patent attorney husband) and I don’t get much ‘dog-free’ time,” Taylor says. “There is so much need out there, I can’t make enough calls: if I ring a pound, say, at 4pm instead of 2pm, I might very well get ‘Sorry, but the dog has been put down’.
“But I do get a lot of satisfaction from what I do. It’s quite emotional to think you’ve done something to prevent an animal being killed then seeing them settle so happily and bringing a lot of joy to so many people. But it’s definitely not something I do on my own. VicDRG has 100 volunteers and carers all doing their part, and we also work with other groups. We only exist because so many people do care.”
VicDRG has a no-kill policy and generally focuses on saving vulnerable dogs who, through timidity, poor health or old age, have been overlooked in favour of healthier, younger dogs by adopters and rescue groups.
“It might seem ridiculous when there are so many dogs in need,” she says. “But as long as the dog has a good temperament, our organisation and adoptees are committed to going that extra mile to help him. Our mantra is that each life is precious.”
So precious that once dogs are rescued, they undergo a veterinary examination to have their health needs addressed, are de-sexed, vaccinated and microchipped and then placed on VicDRG’s and the PetRescue websites for adoption.
Taylor and other volunteers then interview would-be owners to ensure they’re able to provide adequate care for the animal. If successful, owners get a 30-day no-quibble return policy with a full refund if the pet is unsuitable, as well as free access to an animal behaviourist should problems arise. According to Taylor, dogs are rarely returned.
Taylor is understandably coy about the weekly bill to run such a group – for petrol, vets’ fees and medication, boarding kennel fees when carers can’t be found and other costs. But she adds that while at the beginning her family shouldered a lot of the financial toll, these days the group gets great support from the community through donations and the occasional bequest.
And would the money be better spent on hungry people in drought-stricken Africa?
“I often torment myself with these questions,” she says. “There are no easy or right answers. But it’s presumptuous for people to imagine I don’t contribute to these causes. And then, what is the person asking doing for the poor in Africa? Do they think about the starving children when they’re off skiing or having an expensive dinner? It’s a question about our responsibility to others, whether animal or human. I guess you choose your cause, and I’ve chosen mine.”
Taylor says that before VicDRG, she led a normal life – bringing up her children, Cate and Stephen, both now adults, working as an editor in educational publishing, and doing ordinary things.
“There was no epiphany,” she says about why she became an animal welfare advocate. “Just a conjunction of events: having children a certain age, the availability of social media such as Facebook which made interaction between people with the same goals easier, and a visit to a shelter one day.”
That day occurred seven years ago when Taylor took some old blankets to a pound as a favour for someone. “I saw so many desperate dogs, I felt the need to walk about and touch every dog there. Quite honestly, what I saw there still haunts me – it was so sad,” she says.
The experience led her to join like-minded people, who spent many hours trawling through Melbourne pounds adopting and rehoming as many animals as they could to stop them from being euthanased.
“Before new state regulations (Code of Practice for the Management of Dogs and Cats in Shelters and Pounds, 2011), dogs in shelters that were not rehoused within 28 days usually ended up being killed. And a pound or shelter could kill them after eight days – and still can.”
Taylor says the code is a missed opportunity, and that “the regulations don’t deal with rehoming animals, or abolishing puppy farms, brokers and backyard breeders that fuel oversupply and high killing rates. It’s sad that we are using donations to save animals that others have made a profit on at the beginning of the chain”.
“And how can you have a code of practice for the management of shelters and pounds that does not make it mandatory to attempt to rehome unwanted dogs and cats, yet allows killing perfectly good dogs? Pregnant mums, barkers, dogs with minor health problems, older dogs, timid dogs – all because they’re supposedly too hard to find places for. Yet we put them on our site and manage to find them the right home.”
After lunch, Taylor and I walk to the house she shares with her husband and their three dogs: a deaf and nearly blind shihtzu called Sapphire, a silky terrier-cross called Zaccy, both long-term foster dogs, and a malamute-cross called Denzel, who is recovering from a major operation for cancer.
Taylor points out challenges faced by groups such as hers. “We have to weave through regulations and council bylaws around dog ownership, which differ across boundaries,” she says. “For example, my own council insists if I have a dog here for a few weeks, I have to register the dog and get my neighbour’s permission each time, and do the same with the next dog.”
In response, Taylor, together with Tam Burke of Beagle Rescue, founded the Dog Rescue Association of Victoria (DRAV) in 2010 to lobby for the rights of companion animals in community foster-care networks such as hers. And in what Taylor sees as a big win for DRAV, the amended Domestic Animals Act that came out at the end of last year formally recognised these networks for the first time, enabling them to carry on their work with fewer restrictions.