Irish SPCA looks to a new era
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2005:
KEENAGH, County Longford–When man bites dog, that’s news,
so when Irish SPCA chief executive Helen Dolan hit and killed a stray
dog with her sport utility vehicle on October 21, 2005, the
incident swiftly became tabloid and television news all over Ireland.
Dolan did not discourage the publicity. Instead Dolan took
the occasion to warn pet keepers to keep their animals secure during
the Halloween season, when the Irish traditionally detonate
fireworks to scare ghosts, mostly scaring dogs and cats instead.
Dolan also dispensed tips about avoiding roadkills and finding lost
Hired in January 2005, Dolan brought to the Irish SPCA a
global background in hotel management and fundraising for education,
a lifelong love of dogs and horses, and no formal experience in
In less than a year, Dolan’s flair for fundraising and
publicity has rattled quite a few cages. Some elder Irish animal
advocates grumble about Dolan’s rapid rise to national prominence.
Others say she is just what animal welfare in Ireland needed–a
charismatic young leader who isn’t afraid to spend money in order to
attract it, seizing the opportunity for humane work in Ireland to
grow with the fast-rising Irish economy.
Founded in 1949, the Irish SPCA is the national umbrella for
26 animal rescue centers at present, down from more than 30 at
peak. Several former member societies have been disenfranchised or
suspended in recent years for failing to meet Irish SPCA standards,
and/or for violating humane policies, amid a bruising internal
political battle over the longtime Irish SPCA policy of opposition to
The Irish SPCA headquarters, called the National Animal
Centre, is an 80-acre former working farm at Derryglogher, near
Keenagh, in the peat bog country between Ballymahon and Lanesboro.
The location could be described as the middle of nowhere,
except that everywhere in Ireland is accessible within a day’s drive
from anywhere else, and it is only 10 miles from Glasson, the
traditional center of the Irish land mass.
The National Animal Centre includes 20 kennel runs, 20 cat
accommodations, four stables for horses and donkeys, and
considerable wildlife habitat.
As fox and bird hunters make seasonal use of surrounding
properties, Dolan told ANIMAL PEOPLE, the targeted species tend to
find their way to sanctuary at the National Animal Centre. The
center also does wildlife rehabilitation.
Dolan supervises an office staff of seven, plus four
fulltime animal care workers and four regional inspectors, who
chiefly investigate cruelty complaints.
“We purchased the land from a supporter of the society at a
very reasonable price with the help of a grant from the Department of
Agriculture, Food and Forestry,” former Irish SPCA chief executive
Ciaran O’Donovan told Sean MacConnell of The Irish Times in June 2000.
“There has been a growing need over a number of years for a
proper center for the organization,” O’Donovan added. “Our first
need is for an area where we can bring animals when orders are issued
in court for them to be handed over to us, after convictions for
cruelty. This will be more than a national refuge,” O’Donovan
promised. “We want to turn the farm into a major education center.”
The center formally opened in June 2000. The investment of
more than six million euros to date, much of it borrowed, has been
heavily criticized, but acquiring and constructing comparable
premises for less money would be difficult in almost any developed
nation. The new facilities are luxurious only by traditional Irish
shelter standards, not by contemporary European and American
The dog runs, for example, have the barred fronts that have
been standard since the Middle Ages, instead of plate glass, which
encourages dogs to look quietly out instead of reacting to scents and
barking up a constant storm.
The limited volume of dog housing is bitterly denounced by
some animal advocates who believe the Irish SPCA should be caring for
at least 10 times as many dogs, but the location is too
remote–pending major motorway development–to be appropriate for
doing high-volume adoption.
Dolan sees the mission of the Irish SPCA as focused on
setting standards, not on replicating the work of the regional
affiliates, many of which are much better situated for doing
adoptions. In addition, Dolan believes the Irish SPCA should
emphasize sterilization and keeping animals in homes, not
accommodating cast-offs at the expense of becoming unable to do
education and outreach.
The numbers of former pets entering Irish shelters and often
being killed due to lack of adoptive homes have fallen fast in recent
years, coinciding with the introduction of aggressive low-cost
sterilization programs in many communities. Stray dogs and feral
cats, though more abundant than in Britain, are seldom seen
compared to the U.S., where pets are kept at about twice the Irish
Despite a recent Dublin SPCA proclamation that “more than a
million” feral cats live in Dublin, the total Irish cat population
based on human demographics and habitat availability appears to be
not more than one million, of whom about 40% may be outdoors and
free-roaming. The Irish dog population appears to be about 650,000.
Total shelter intake of dogs around Ireland has reportedly
fallen from 32,850 in 1998 to circa 24,000 in fiscal 2005. Shelter
dog killing declined slightly from 27,848 in 1997 to 27,570 one year
later, then began a precipitous drop to as few as 18,000 in 2004,
with a projected total of 16,000 in 2005.
Killing surplus racing greyhounds has markedly increased,
however, with the collapse of the export market. The toll rose from
about 4,000 circa 1998 to 14,000 in 2003, even as killing dogs for
other reasons fell.
Exactly how many greyhounds are killed in shelters as opposed
to other venues is unknown, but among 181 dogs killed in County
Clare during one week of observation by Sandy Barron of the Irish
Times in October 2000, 73 were greyhounds: 40%.
Past Irish SPCA board president Marion FitzGibbon, as the
longtime most prominent critic of greyhound racing in Ireland, led
the society toward direct opposition to the racing industry,
unnerving some shelter operators who feared that opposing racing
would mean a loss of government support.
But FitzGibbon was elected on a platform of maintaining
uncompromising positions, including pushing a position statement
that, “The Irish SPCA is in principle opposed to the taking or
killing of wild animals, or the infliction of any suffering on them.”
Allegedly infiltrated and taken over by fox hunters who
opposed the statement, the North Tipperary SPCA in May 1996 refused
to endorse it. FitzGibbon told the North Tipperary SPCA to sign or
After several years of continuing confrontation with the North
Tipperary SPCA and other recalicitrant members, FitzGibbon was
re-elected at the November 1999 Irish SPCA general meeting in Dublin,
as members of the Irish Trust for the Protection and Care of Animals,
Alliance for Animal Rights, Association of Hunt Saboteurs, and
Campaign for the Abolition of Cruel Sports rallied in the street
FitzGibbon in her acceptance speech opened another rift by
asking the Irish Veterinary Union to back the Irish SPCA position of
favoring lethal injection over the use of captive bolt guns to kill
dogs. Irish SPCA affiliates had entered 1999 managing 16 of the 30
Irish dog pounds, but lost three contracts during the year when
local governments refused to pay the added cost of using lethal
Yet the Irish SPCA position prevailed: as of November 2005,
27 of the 30 pounds had instituted lethal injection, and County
Wexford, one of the last holdouts, was under criticism from the
Alliance for Animal Rights because it had allegedly failed to fulfill
a pledge to go to lethal injection.
The Irish network
Much of Dolan’s work involves reuniting the Irish SPCA
network after the battles of the past decade.
FitzGibbon heads Limerick Animal Welfare, an Irish SPCA
member society that she cofounded in 1983 with Beverly Wolf, no
longer involved in the organization.
Operating for 22 years as a no-kill fostering network, Limerick
Animal Welfare opened a thrift shop in 2001, to help raise funds,
but has never had a shelter.
“At any one time we care for about 50 dogs and 30 cats,”
explains the Limerick Animal Welfare web site. “As we have no
sanctuary, our dogs are boarded in kennels from Oola, in County
Limerick, to Mountshannon in County Clare, and Doneraile in County
Cork. Our cats are housed in Newport, County Tipperary. Our
ultimate goal is to have a sanctuary where all of our animals will be
boarded in the same place. We have purchased 25 acres in Kilfinnane,
in County Limerick, where we plan to build our sanctuary.”
The construction is to be done in phases, FitzGibbon
explained to ANIMAL PEOPLE, over a copy of the layout. As the most
urgent need is for isolation kennels, to handle sick dogs, those
will be built first. The rest of the projected double-winged shelter
will be added as funding permits.
Operating without a shelter is relatively normal for Irish
humane societies. Clare Animal Welfare cofounders Sarah Mortimer and
Kate Browne have just a closet-sized office space in one corner of
the industrial park headquarters of Clare Haven House, a rescue
network that assists battered women. Often Clare Animal Welfare
fosters the pets of women who are aided by Clare Haven House.
Despite the lack of facilities, Clare Animal Welfare rehomes
about 300 dogs per year, many of them through Dogs Trust of Britain.
Clare Animal Welfare also promotes a neuter/return program for feral
cats, rehomes cats through the Cheltenham Animal Shelter and Ash
Animal Rescue in Britain, rehomes rabbits in cooperation with the
Carrigoran Nursing Home in Newmarket, and has other cooperative
arrangements with facilities for horses, goats, and small mammals.
Irish SPCA National Animal Centre c/o Derryglogher Lodge,
Keenagh, County Longford, Ireland; telephone 353-43-25035; fax
353-43-250-24; <email@example.com>; <www.ispca.ie/>.
Limerick Animal Welfare, 12 B Upper Cecil St., Limerick,
Ireland; telephone 353-87-6371044;
Clare Animal Welfare, Cappahard House, Tulla Road, Ennis,
County Clare, Ireland 353-87-7954351;