For this month’s Member Spotlight, we’re traveling to Australia for a cross-continental chat with RSPCA Victoria’s CEO, Liz Walker. With devastating bushfires earlier in the year, followed by the pandemic, Walker has expertly navigated her team though these challenging times. Read on for a look at leadership in action.
Name: Liz Walker
Member of The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement since: 2012
Organization: RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) Victoria
Organization’s Mission: “Our purpose,” says Walker, “is, with the community, to achieve outstanding animal welfare through education, advocacy, animal care and protection.”
Q&A with Liz Walker
The Association: Tell us about your organization.
Liz Walker: Established in 1871, RSPCA Victoria is part of a federation of RSPCA societies around the country (nine total – one in each state/territory and a national body, RSPCA Australia). We operate six Animal Care Centres across Victoria, providing care to more than 20,000 animals every year. RSPCA Victoria turns over approximately AU$40m (US$28m) per year, and engages over 480 employees and 2,144 volunteers. For context: Victoria covers an area about the same size as California, and has a population of 6.49 million, which is similar to Indiana.
The Association: What do you think is the most important part of your job?
LW: Making sure we are clear on our priorities, communicating this to our staff and volunteers so that they understand them and their role in helping us to achieve them, and providing a work environment that creates a culture that is safe, supportive, accountable, and compassionate.
The Association: We understand that the experience you’re having with COVID-19 is different from what we’ve been experiencing in the US. Can you share a little about the current situation, what your strategy has been and how staff have been dealing with the challenges?
LW: While the Australian experience of COVID-19 has been less severe, Victoria had a recent series of outbreaks that has led the government to reimpose a direction for all residents in metropolitan Melbourne to stay at home. The government has made concessions for the maintenance of animal welfare that has allowed us to continue our work.
People are allowed to leave their houses for medical purposes and caregiving, which is extended to companion and other animals. This means that veterinary services are essential, and people can take their animals to the vet, or have the vet come to them. We continue to offer vet services, with social distancing measures such as telehealth appointments and owners remaining in the car while their animal receives an assessment and treatment. We have been able to continue working with the community to adopt or foster.
Our Inspectors work throughout the community, investigating any referrals of animals being mistreated or neglected. They have been given enhanced PPE, and they are studiously employing increased hygiene practices to limit the risk to them, and those who they come into contact with.
This is a challenging time for everyone, but a special mention should go to all of our staff, who have continued to strive for the best outcomes. To protect our staff as best we can, we have limited, where possible, members of the public from entering our sites by requiring a booking to attend at adoptions or the vet; we require all staff who can continue to work from home. Staff who come to the office have been provided with official letters noting that they are required to attend work. We set up a sign-in book to ensure contact tracing is facilitated if required, expanded the level of cleaning throughout regular touch points in the buildings, and are doing whatever possible to assist in maintaining social distancing in the office, including sneeze guards and signage.
Thankfully so far, we have not had an outbreak of COVID-19 in our offices. However, should that occur, the measures we’ve put in place will mean as few staff as possible are affected.
The Association: What’s keeping you healthy and resilient these days?
LW: The difference in the lives of animals and people that we make is immensely satisfying. I enjoy talking to our team, supporters, stakeholders, government, and industry. Gaining an informed perspective of the opinions and evidence allows us to tailor our advocacy to make real gains.
On a personal level, I have wonderful friends and family, and a community of animal lovers around me – even during COVID-19, Zoom catch-ups are part of life now. I also have Princess Esther the Great (a golden Labrador and my partner in frequent long walks), and Mummicat and Redicat (forgive the names, yes, Mummicat is Redicat’s mum), both ginger tabbies who make my life better simply by being around. Exercise (a bit of personal training and lots of walking, preferably in the bush), and my new vegetable garden are things that I really enjoy and can escape into.
Finally, I try to help others, and do a little mentoring. I am also Trustee of the Australian Companion Health Foundation, a trust of the Australian Veterinary Association.
The Association: How have you benefitted from your involvement with The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement?
LW: The Association was a great support during the 2020 bushfires. It was great to have contact with our friends in the US at this time, and it helped with channelling donations to us and other RSPCAs who played a vital role in responding to this tragedy. During the pandemic, the coordination of the operational response, as well as the science and evidence which contributed to strong evidence-based policy and advocacy, have been of immense value.
The Association: What advice do you have for someone considering membership in The Association?
LW: Just do it – the expertise and support is world-class. The Association exemplifies the great willingness of the animal welfare sector to share ideas, solutions, gains and losses, in a pragmatic and open manner, so that we can all use the experience and evidence to benefit the greater good—wherever we may be.
The Association: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to who you were ten years ago?
LW: It may sound obvious, but with all the passion in the world, 10 years ago, I think I should have listened better, paused to ensure that I was always present when I was with people, and sought feedback and really understood all the perspectives and evidence of an issue. I am still working on all three, but I think I am improving!