Animal welfare head aims to improve DAFWA-RSPCA relationship

Headshot of John Flint
John FlintThe West Australian
Dr Sarah Kahn.
Camera IconDr Sarah Kahn. Credit: Ross Swanborough

One of the pressing tasks facing WA’s first animal welfare director will be to repair the fractured relationship between the Department of Agriculture and the RSPCA.

Sarah Kahn has just started in the newly created role to oversee animal welfare regulation in the State.

Dr Kahn arrived in WA with an impressive resume, including previous roles as director of the international trade department of the World Organisation for Animal Health and most recently as adviser to the OIE on international animal health and welfare standards.

The vet has been the lead technical official for Australia in a World Trade Organisation dispute.

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But it is diplomatic skills she will have to draw on to resolve a different kind of dispute — between officials in her own agency, the Department of Agriculture and Food WA, and senior figures at RSPCA WA.

Relations have been strained for some time, with mistrust and escalating tensions even resulting in court action.

As regulator of the Animal Welfare Act, the department appoints nominated RSPCA employees, as well as some of its own staff, to be general inspectors to enforce the Act. But there has been disagreement over whether the RSPCA inspectors have to follow the directions of the department. There has also been controversy surrounding the conduct of prosecutions.

Dr Kahn said she was focused on the future, not the past.

“I have had a preliminary chat with the RSPCA,” she said.

“I’ll be in touch with them in a more formal way later this month to make sure they know the avenues of communication are open. I am happy to hear from them and

“I’m happy to hear their concerns or their ideas at any time and hopefully that’s a two-way process and they’re happy to hear our ideas too and have some constructive dialogue about how we improve the situation, because both organisations want to improve animal welfare outcomes, so it must be possible for us to collaborate together because we have the same overall objective.”

She added: “For me, the key thing is to show a willingness to go forward, and (that) we work closely and we're transparent and we absolutely do our best around the communication and the collaboration.”

Another task for Dr Kahn will be implementation of an independent animal welfare review, known as the Easton review, which made 19 recommendations in December 2015, all of which were accepted by the former Barnett Government.

These include reviewing the Animal Welfare Act.

“The recommendation of the Easton review is to consult with stakeholders to develop a strategic plan and a policy framework and then to review the Act,” Dr Kahn said. These will “set out WA’s long-term vision and goals for animal welfare”.

Dr Kahn said the department was developing an online site as a gateway for community and industry consultation.

Working closely with the animal industries and developing standards for animal industries was another priority.

Dr Kahn said standards were essential for their long-term sustainability. “I am interested in animal health and animal welfare. The two things are inter-related.

“And my background is in standards and the long term sustainability of animal industries because applying the standards is essential ... it’s a sine qua non for the industry to be competitive and sustainable,” she said.

“Beyond that, I’m passionate about the issue of animal welfare.

“Many veterinarians are, but in the sense of working in an educational way to encourage people to comply, to help them to comply.

“And those who can’t comply or won’t comply then to take appropriate action.”

The Easton review also recommends consistent policies and procedures for all animal welfare inspectors, regardless of whether they’re employed by the Government or RSPCA.

“What we want is a set of procedures that supports them in delivering their activities in a consistent, fair, transparent and objective way,” Dr Khan said

The Department of Agriculture has been given a funding boost to hire five additional inspectors, which is a 50 per cent increase.

“The aim is create strong, dynamic, forward-looking group that really is going to achieve great things for WA in terms of improving the animal welfare outcomes," Dr Kahn said.

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