Normally I write straightforward stories for magazines, often about good people doing interesting things ... inspiring reads that hopefully encourage positive change, but not controversial or emotionally draining.

My story in in Saturday's Chronicle about the Whanganui SPCA and council dog pound and giving unwanted dogs a second chance is different.

I've been working on it since April, and that's not counting the months it took for Whanganui council to give permission for me to meet with their rangers (officially Animal Management Officers or AMOs) and ride with them on the job.

When I finally got the okay, things happened fast.


Meetings with senior managers out of the way, I was introduced to senior AMO Bernie Compton and, just hours later, I was riding in Bernie's ute as he responded to calls both routine and urgent.

Nine-year-old labrador Emma arrived at the Whanganui SPCA from New Plymouth for a chance to find her retirement home. She is available for adoption. Photo / Bevan Conley
Nine-year-old labrador Emma arrived at the Whanganui SPCA from New Plymouth for a chance to find her retirement home. She is available for adoption. Photo / Bevan Conley

I also took Oscar — let's call him Oscar — for his final walk that day, a terribly short couple of minutes of freedom from his concrete run at the pound. It's better that dogs have emptied their bladders before they die. Less mess.

So while Bernie loaded a pit bull to his ute, Oscar got some friendly chatter from me and a few precious moments to sniff and dash about on the weedy grass between the pound's wire fence and the substation. Dead dog walking.

Clearly, council management had discussed at length about whether I got to tag along when dogs were PTS (put to sleep — you catch the jargon pretty quick).

Senior manager Iain Brown addressed it head-on in my first meeting, saying the council had nothing to hide. It's humane, he said. And the AMOs even give the dog a cuddle as the vet administers the lethal injection.

It's true — Bernie had his arms around the pit bull as it died, but he was hanging on with all his strength as he tried to restrain it.

The alarmed dog was muzzled and closely tethered to the back of the ute in an alleyway behind the vet premises. The vet needed its foreleg still in order to get the needle in.

I was totally unprepared for how swift it was, how quickly a living being becomes a carcass. Several panicked breaths, one last huge suck of air, and then the dog melts into Bernie's arms. Gone.


Then it's Oscar's turn.

It's hard on the staff, who see too much killing. Some of the vets in town refuse to do it, which means the ones who are willing have to do more of it.

In the past, when euthanise rates were higher, it wasn't uncommon for five or six dogs to be put down in one session.

These are dogs the rangers have been caring for, feeding and befriending for at least a week, sometimes longer.

I'm haunted by Oscar. He was a border collie X, a loose-unit teenager desperate for attention. He was woefully bedraggled when I first met him that morning.

It was raining and most dogs were sheltering inside their kennels, but Oscar couldn't contain himself. He was barking and leaping and prancing in his run fit to turn himself inside out.

The opportunity to glimpse a human, to beg for some attention and affection, was far more important than staying dry.

He'd been surrendered by his owners a week before.

He's not really our dog, said the couple who brought him in. He's our son's dog. Turns out the son is 8 years old and sitting in the car outside.

It's not an 8-year-old's responsibility to provide adequate care and training to a high-energy dog. Oscar would have been an adorably cute little pup, but this couple's failure started with choosing a live-wire, working breed.

It appears they also failed to provide the training and socialisation every dog requires.

Border collies are famously willing to please, which makes them easy to train; but you need to wear them out with a tonne of exercise and mental stimulation.

Poor Oscar didn't know how to walk on a lead and he had no clue about how to settle himself or contain his energy.

And that sealed his fate.

I understand he wasn't advertised for rehoming, being seen as too much of a handful.
That's despite the formal agreement between ARAN Animal Rescue NZ and the council, and Anna from ARAN standing by for calls about dogs she could rehome. She wasn't handed a single dog that month.

Oscar didn't fit the "nice dog" stereotype that Anna butts her head against. ARAN successfully rehomes every dog that comes to them, not just the easy ones.

And so Oscar died that autumn day, as I silently looked on.

He seemed so dignified and beautiful once he was dead, all that manic energy released. Quiet, as if he were just sleeping.

Are you thinking, 'Why didn't I save Oscar?' ("Hey Bernie, that crazy dog can come home with me.")

I ask myself that every time I think of him, which is often.

It's the journalist's dilemma. I was there to report on a story, not get involved in it or influence outcomes.

I'd waited months to get access. I'd met the AMOs just hours before, only just started my research, just begun to earn their trust.

I remained the neutral observer my role required.

After six months following animal rescue groups on the web, lengthy interviews with people at ARAN, Whanganui's rangers, council management and dog rangers at the Wellington and Hutt City pounds, I now know what I didn't then — exactly how little it would have taken to give Oscar a second chance.

He could have been in a foster home within 24 hours, with experienced dog handlers who would have started the work of training and calming him, preparing him for a forever home with responsible owners.

Oscar. I'm sorry. You deserved better from the humans you met.

And so does every dog, shaped as they are by thousands of years of co-evolution with humans.

Their gift is not that they love us unconditionally, which any dog owner or admirer knows they do.

It's that they show us how to love unconditionally.

The AMOs have a tough job within significant external constraints. I'm not faulting them for following process, but I'm glad their processes are changing.

Oscar's story would likely have ended differently if he'd been handed in last month rather than in April.

The animal rescue volunteers move bloody mountains and save lives every week. But people like Anna are tired and they're worn out by the cruelty and neglect they are too often confronted with.

I'm an old lady, Anna said to me a few days ago, and this is almost a fulltime job. I want to be able to retire.

We can't just leave it up to a few stretched volunteers and sympathetic supporters chipping in a few dollars each.

They are an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

The community, all of us, need to do more if dogs' lives are going to improve.

Mostly we need to do less of what is causing the problems.

Don't buy dogs on a whim. Don't get sucked in by fashion. Don't buy a husky when you've never had a dog before, because you think dire wolves are cool.

Don't buy a dog if you can't be 100 per cent sure it did not come from some loathsome puppy mill, the offspring of a miserable dog kept pregnant or nursing in a wire cage her entire short, wretched life.

Don't encourage or goad your dog to be aggro because you think it makes you look staunch.

Don't look the other way when the dog next door is never released off its chain and has raw open sores where its skin rubs against the concrete.

Don't let your pit bull have litter after litter of pups for whom there are too few decent homes.

Don't leave your dog tied up at the end of the garden, or barking for hours because it's bored or lonely.

You don't have to love dogs, or even like them, to respect that they have basic needs that they rely on humans to meet.

Dog ownership is a huge responsibility, not a right.

If you're not up for the work (and the expense) as well as the rewards, don't have one.

*Rachel Rose is a writer, dog owner, fermenter and fomenter