Katoomba RSPCA animal shelter 'belongs to the community'

RSPCA stalwart Silvia Ford with Anabel, inherited when an elderly friend moved into a nursing home, and Claude, rescued from the Katoomba shelter.

RSPCA stalwart Silvia Ford with Anabel, inherited when an elderly friend moved into a nursing home, and Claude, rescued from the Katoomba shelter.

Chief executive officer of RSPCA NSW, Steve Coleman

Chief executive officer of RSPCA NSW, Steve Coleman

"It's not morally right. It belongs to the Blue Mountains, it belongs to us," said Silvia Ford, one of the early members of the local RSPCA branch who built the now doomed animal shelter in Katoomba.

Ms Ford joined the branch in 1979 and still has a copy of the advertisement in the Gazette the following year offering an 11-acre "hobby farm" in Mort Street for $35,000.

The ad answered the prayers of the small group which had been desperately looking for somewhere to build a shelter and stop animals being dumped in the bush.

Ms Ford said she was able to put a deposit on the land, thanks to the late Mary Thompson of Blackheath, who had died and left her house to the Blue Mountains RSPCA.

From that day on, Ms Ford said, the branch members worked tirelessly to create the shelter. They held open days, street fairs, bought and operated op shops in Springwood and Katoomba, begged, pleaded and scrounged where they could.

Local individuals and companies donated materials, people donated both money and time. They converted an old shed into a cattery, then progressively built more and more kennels down the back.

"We built the place bit by bit as we got the money," Ms Ford said.

Staff and volunteers operated for the first 12 years in a tiny shed on site - freezing in winter, boiling in summer - and with so little room they could see only one visitor at a time.

"Anyone else in the queue had to go back and sit in their car until we could fit them into the office," Ms Ford said.

They didn't even have a phone in the early days.

"I let them use my home number," Ms Ford said. "That was a big mistake - it never stopped ringing, night and day."

When she heard a fortnight ago that the shelter would be closed in six months, Ms Ford said it felt like an "insult" to the local community.

"I was devastated. I couldn't believe it. I just don't think they have the right to do that."

Ms Ford has started a petition on change.org, calling on Steve Coleman, CEO of RSPCA NSW, to reverse the decision. The petition has already attracted more than 1200 signatures.

There is also a growing groundswell of opposition within the community, including from volunteers who raise funds for the RSPCA, local vets and the many residents whose pets came from the shelter (see letters, page 17).

Even the local chamber of commerce, Biznet, said it was "very concerned" and would be " doing its utmost to see it retained", the president, Vent Thomas, and vice-president, Dianne Davis, said.

"As a business organisation strongly connected to the local Blue Mountains community, we are concerned about the welfare and protection of animals, but also about the loss of jobs for the RSPCA's eight employees."

Staff have been gagged by the RSPCA but sources said they were "heartbroken" at the news which was completely unexpected.

The closure also affects council, as the shelter has doubled as the pound for stray animals. A spokeswoman said council had been informed of the intended closure and "will be investigating options for alternative pound arrangements".

Mr Coleman (pictured) told the Gazette the shelter cost $800,000 a year to operate. He hoped the branch members would consider trialling a "foster care" system, where people could contact them with an animal to be surrendered and they would attempt to find either a temporary foster home or a permanent home.

He also clarified a comment made last week when he said Katoomba shelter's "proximity" to Orange and Yagoona shelters played a part in the decision to close it down.

He meant that Orange and Yagoona were close enough to allow the RSPCA vans on the road to transport animals between sites. He was not suggesting people had to drive to those locations to hand in animals themselves.

"The fact is we can successfully manage animals without shelters and we have a great partnership between the volunteer community, council and the general community," Mr Coleman said.

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