It was Aristotle who postulated that nature abhors a vacuum. If he was still around today he might well apply the same principle to social media. He might also agree with the more modern maxim that for many people the facts should not spoil a good story. Hopefully the RNZSPCA understands that now.

The SPCA came in for a hammering last week, over its handling of allegedly maltreated horses north of Kaitaia. Centre stage was a foal, that was apparently too far gone to save.

There might actually have been two foals, in separate incidents, with different outcomes. And there might have been 18 thoroughbred horses, not nine, that had to be moved off the property. The facts are not especially clear. And the extraordinary exchanges that took place on Facebook last week didn't help much.

"The real issue here is the SPCA's apparent reluctance to communicate. It stands accused of not keeping those who report animal abuse in the loop, and this newspaper, not for the first time, found it impossible to extract information."


But if Facebook abhors a vacuum, it doesn't care too much about accuracy either. For all the vitriol, the threats, and probably libel, no one seems to be much the wiser.


Read more: Sick foal put down, nine horses to be rehomed - says Northland owner

At the end of the day, the problem for the SPCA is that its reputation has been severely sullied, damage that could have been avoided if it had attended to its primary function of communicating.

The Northland Age began asking the SPCA's head office in Auckland about the thoroughbreds about a month ago. At that stage the foal had not made a public appearance. The first couple of queries were ignored; the third finally elicited a response, to the effect that a number of horses had been seized, and that an investigation was under way. No further information could be provided at that stage.

Enter Facebook stage left.

Some of those who took part in the 'discussion' that really hit its straps last week defended the owner of the foal that had become the cause celebre, while others attacked her. As is the way of Facebook, the debate generated a great deal more heat than light.

The problem, for the SPCA and those who care about animal welfare, is the damage done to the society's reputation.

Claims were made that those who reported the horses' plight had not been responded to. That the SPCA was more interested in "the money" than in going to the rescue of animals in peril or prosecuting those responsible.

That the people who run the society, and respond to complaints, are uncaring and/or incompetent. The Northland Age believes none of that.

The writer has no doubt that the complaint about the horses was responded to properly. It seems clear that they were moved some weeks ago. Whether or not anyone is prosecuted is of secondary importance at this stage. The animals were the first priority, and this newspaper has no reason to believe that that primary obligation was not fulfilled quickly and professionally.

The foal might be a different story. There was certainly a degree of confusion at SPCA's head office last week, and, without professing any expertise in the field of veterinary medicine, there might well be grounds for arguing that euthanasia was or was not the only proper response.

Some who do claim expertise in horse care say the animal did not need to die, but again the facts are murky.

The real issue here is the SPCA's apparent reluctance to communicate. It stands accused of not keeping those who report animal abuse in the loop, and this newspaper, not for the first time, found it impossible to extract information.

These are potentially calamitous failings for an organisation that depends entirely upon public goodwill, not only for financial security but for the ability to do its job.

The SPCA has long enjoyed huge public empathy in this country, but that goodwill is threatened by its failure to communicate. Of course those who report abuse should be advised of the response, as it unfolds, not months or years down the track when someone is prosecuted, if anyone is.

People who report animal abuse need to know that they have been heard and are being taken seriously. If that doesn't happen they will stop reporting. And if last week's contretemps is a sign of a systemic problem, they will probably stop supporting the society financially.

The society also needs to recognise that the media can be a valuable ally. Publicity is perhaps the most valuable tool it has in terms of changing people's attitudes towards animal welfare. And while it can't speak for anyone else, this newspaper has made it very clear that it is anxious to provide that publicity at every opportunity.

To reject those offers out of hand suggests that the SPCA does not understand its obligation to communicate, and the potential benefits of doing so.

It goes without saying that there will be times when publicity could be counter-productive. The Northland Age understands this. The same applies to police investigations, where publicity could jeopardise the potential for a successful prosecution. That's the last thing this newspaper wants to do. But in most cases publicity will be of real value. It might even garner further evidence for a prosecution.

To be clear, the Northland Age has long been a strong supporter of the SPCA, and still is. It has the greatest respect for the people who represent it in the Far North.

Those people, paid or voluntary, do an often exceptionally difficult, emotionally distressing job very well. There is absolutely no criticism of them. The problem is at head office, whose actions, or lack of actions, not only cast the society as a whole in a bad light but make the local people's job more difficult.

The fundamental problem is one of perception. However good a job is being done, if people perceive the society to be incompetent or uncaring, then it is in trouble, not only in terms of enabling local people to do their job well, and being seen to do it well, but potentially in terms of attracting and retaining the people they need, paid and voluntary, to do that job.

There were signs late last week that that message might have filtered through. Press releases were finally issued, almost a month after the Northland Age had begun making inquiries, and was told that nothing could be said, but by that time the horse had bolted (no pun intended).

Those releases were unlikely to have mollified the people who took to Facebook to rip into the society, and in some cases express a total lack of faith in it.

One has to feel for the people who are out there day after day, defending the rights of animals to live free of abuse, restoring them to health, finding new homes for them, where possible, and putting others out of their misery. They deserve our respect and gratitude. They do not deserve to be maligned because of a failure of management to support them.

Some government departments have a similar attitude towards communicating with the people they serve, but they are not in the perilous position of a society that depends upon the public for its very existence. The SPCA needs all the friends it can get, and rebuffing friends and allies makes no sense whatsoever. Hopefully head office understands that now.

The SPCA says it speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. 'Speak' is the operative word there, and it needs to talk to those who can help it achieve that. The world has changed with the advent of social media, and this organisation needs to change too.