At the end of a potholed driveway in Otaki, an ageing stable block sits against the backdrop of the Tararua Ranges. As our eyes accustom to the scene, a few furry heads pop out from under doorways and over fences. Excited wriggly bodies squirm against wire fences as we approach, urgent for human touch. The manager of the dog shelter, Claire Thornton, comes out to greet us. I smile and hope she hasn’t asked me a question because I can’t actually hear her over the barking dogs. But there’s no yelling or hissing at them to be quiet; they’re allowed to be dogs here.
HUHA (Helping You Help Animals) Charitable Trust was born out of a desire to do better for New Zealand’s creatures. A 13 hectare sanctuary up north soon catalysed into a nationwide mission to stamp out an epidemic of animal abuse. They put a particular emphasis on the ‘You’ in their name in order to erase the mentality that shelters are just a dumping ground for unwanted animals. They’ve instead rewired it through education and giving communities the tools - and the responsibility - to look after their animals in the first place.
While HUHA does their best to look after anything with a pulse, today we’re focussing on dogs at their Otaki base. The first dog Claire introduces us to is a Lab X named Bella. She’s sporting the salt and pepper coat like any middle aged woman, but unfortunately this means she fits the bill for every dog that has ever been overlooked in a shelter. She’s a little plain and grey around the muzzle; she might not fit into a perfectly curated Instagram feed. So Bella has been waiting for over five months. But what you can’t see in her 200 word profile on the HUHA website is the way she looks at Claire, or the reckless excitement she approaches her deflated soccer ball with. Or how she melts into you for affection, tail wagging. I could have spent all day with her. But instead we move onto the next dog, just like every person before us has. Bella sits patiently behind the wire fence again, waiting for the next person to come and throw her ball for her.
But while she’s in their care, the team at the shelter make sure she’s happy. The first thing I notice in our conversation is that Claire calls the kennels ‘bedrooms.’
And she’s right - there aren’t any uniform rows of concrete runs in sight. Instead, each dog has their own sprawling fenced play area, along with portacoms or sheds packed with blankets and kennels so they can burrow away from the elements. It’s clear they’ve made sure that each dog gets their own microcosm of a cozy, loving home.
It is this profoundly human element of HUHA’s work that drew us out to Otaki on a Friday morning in the first place. They are the foot soldiers of the animal welfare world, doing the grunt work that we often don’t even know is there to be done. They walk the walk as well as talk the talk. There are no big city headquarters or boardrooms; Claire’s office is a small portacom and she is always covered in mud.
“And we wouldn’t have it any other way,” she laughs as we get talking in her office.
But her mouth sets as we get onto the topic of backyard breeding, which seems to be the dark underbelly of animal cruelty in this country.
“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice,” she quotes from author Donny Miller.
But unfortunately, we also live in the age of convenience.
Today you can shop online for groceries, clothes, cosmetics and puppies. And although one of these is not like the other, unfortunately all of them are treated as disposable.
There is also a lot of emotional disengagement behind trawling the internet for a new dog. You can’t smell their coat or throw a ball for them online. You can’t create an emotional connection during a thirty second scroll of their profile. If I hadn’t met Bella the Lab X in person, I might have never considered her. Instead, I might have opted for a more conventionally attractive purebred advertised online. Adopting a dog needs to be a visceral process, but instead it’s often treated like a Countdown Click & Collect. And because of this, there are stories like Sammi and Ava’s.
The two wide-eyed dogs are brought into the office. There’s no barking or jumping or lolling tongues this time. Whilst outside there are still disjointed choruses of dogs yapping, inside the office it is eerily quiet. Sammi, the 9-year-old Maltese X and Ava, the 9-year-old Shih Tzu stay frozen to the carpet.
These tiny girls have just been rescued from a puppy mill, where they spent their lives birthing litter after litter in tiny, cramped cages. They’d never known a kind hand, a warm spot by the fire or a walk in the fresh air. They flinched every time I tucked my hair behind my ear.
Sammi and Ava’s stories are hundreds of other dogs’ realities because of the weak animal welfare law in New Zealand. Food, shelter and water is all a dog needs, according to the law. Claire tells us that it’s legal for a dog to be chained to a tree or kept in a tiny cage its entire life. This means backyard breeding, or puppy milling, is a booming business in New Zealand.
For Ava and Sammi, learning how to be a dog will be a slow process. They need to learn what noise a vacuum cleaner makes; what a TV is and how to go to the toilet outside.
For HUHA, their current mission is to strengthen animal welfare law so that there isn’t enough wriggle room for neglect to be so rife.
“I mean, what about their basic need to exhibit normal behaviours?” says Claire.
Outside of running petitions and speaking with members of parliament, the biggest difference HUHA believes the public can make is just being educated.
“People go into pet shops and they see this little foofie puppy and they think, ‘ooh!’ and they just want that instant gratification.”
She also urges people to avoid buying puppies unseen from social media buy and sell pages. The online regulations are flimsy enough for backyard breeders to make a profit from the sale of underage puppies and continue the exploitation of their caged parents.
“We’re seeing puppies as young as three or four weeks old being sold on Facebook. And the [breeders] don’t care, because it’s a money maker.”
At one point in the conversation, Ava’s watery eyes pool and a tear slides down her cheek. It’s easy to personify this as a tear shed for a horror past life, but the reality is this is probably just another health defect that plagues Ava.
“We love wonky animals,” laughs Claire as she cradles her.
It’s just as well they do, because animals with health issues pour into HUHA on the regular.
Only recently they rescued over a hundred dogs from a single property, most of which came in with genetic defects and diseases.
For many pet owners, the vet bills and lists of medication would be too much to bear. But HUHA never shies away from the challenge.
“These are sentient beings and they should be treated with respect,” Claire shrugs simply.
On our way out, we’re distracted by two large white dogs housed next to our car. Claire introduces the siblings as China and Casper, the Dogo Argentinos. Whilst they dissolve into our fingertips against the mesh fence and beat their tails in excitement, they’re recognised in New Zealand as a ‘menacing’ breed. They’re muzzled in public and always kept on a leash - but not because they’re aggressive or mean spirited. China and Casper are both deaf. Claire tells me that they sleep nuzzled against each other every night; she’s also teaching them sign language so they have a chance at finding a new home.
“We just want each day to be incredible for them,” she says.
As we drive away, China and Casper’s cries echo in my brain.
“I think every rescue in this country is exhausted and overwhelmed. We see stuff that nobody should ever see; we deal with stuff that nobody should ever deal with,” I remember Claire saying.
“When do we draw the line and say, enough?”
I cry in the Otaki Subway bathroom on the way back to the office.