Supermarkets' fake Covid-19 messages cause tragic flood of abandoned pets
Animal welfare groups suffer as supermarket groups' wrong advice sees people dumping their pets during lockdown, when none can be adopted
Two major grocery retail groups have been making grovelling apologies and donating large sums to the SPCA and other animal welfare organisations after some of their stores’ misleading warnings about animal transmissions of Covid-19 led to people dumping their pets.
First it was a Spar “Coronavirus Disease” poster, which went up in Spar stores across the country, with this advice: “Avoid contact with stray animals - cats, dogs, rodents, birds and bats”.
Then last week a franchised Food Lover's Market store in Scottsville Mall, Pietermaritzburg, put up a poster which included under “Prevention” the advice: “Avoid contact with animals”, along with a cute image of a dog’s face.
The next day 30 people arrived at the Pietermaritzburg SPCA, to hand over their dogs.
“At first I couldn’t understand why so many people wanted to get rid of their dogs at the same time, until someone told me about the poster at Food Lover's,” said senior inspector and acting manager Roland Fivas.
One man handed over a seven-month old pitbull, saying he lived with his sickly mother and couldn’t take a chance. “This after I told him that the World Health Organisation has put out a statement categorically stating that animals can’t transmit the virus,” Fivas said. “Others dumped their dogs at our kennels that night, but we’d still rather people bring their pets to us than dump them somewhere else.”
Fuelling the misinformation is the fact that dogs’ vaccination books feature the word “coronavirus”, Fivas said.
“But it’s a totally different coronavirus to this novel coronavirus which has infected humans,” he said. “In dogs it causes diarrhoea.”
Last Tuesday a man drove up to the SPCA, opened his car door and threw out two adult cats before driving off, Fivas said. “We chased him, caught up with him and then gave him hell.
“Unfortunately the cats disappeared; we have put food out in an attempt to catch them.”
The panic dumping has come at the worst possible time, as no animals can be fostered during lockdown.
“But no healthy animal will be euthanased during this period under my watch,” Fivas said.
The Spar Group has publicly apologised profusely for “that poster”.
“In an effort to protect our customers, we acted too hastily by adopting and translating communication from other countries dealing with the pandemic. It was factually incorrect. Animals have no connection with the spreading of the Covid-19 virus.”
The posters were hastily removed and the group promised to “make amends in whatever way we can to mitigate the damage we have caused”.
Those amends included donating R4,000 each to 79 SPCAs across the country, R30,000 to the National Council of SPCAs, R20,000 to Randfontein-based animal welfare organisation Claw, R10,000 to the Have a Heart Equine Sanctuary in Bonnievale and R30,000 to Wollies Animal Project in Pretoria - a total of R406,000.
Have a Heart owner Vicky Ward told TimesLIVE that when the Spar poster went up, urging people not to visit farms, four people who had made appointments to visit the horse sanctuary with a view to adopting cancelled out of fear.
“So did another two who had already decided to adopt horses,” Ward said. “And we’ve had to take in four horses from people who don’t want them on their land anymore for fear of getting the virus from them, plus a few dogs have been dumped on my property. The impact of that false information has been absolutely horrendous.”
Donations to NGOs had slowed or completely stopped, Ward said, “so it’s especially tough for us because we can’t claim relief from anywhere.”
Food Lover's Market has also had a lot of apologising to do after its Scottsville Mall store’s poster gaffe.
Last Thursday Renate Haussmann posted on Facebook: “Seriously FLM [Food Lover's Market], where do you get your information from? How dare you publish false information regarding animals putting one in danger of Covid-19? All you have accomplished is to encourage people to fear contact with domestic pets and in so doing more animals will be abandoned or dumped. Shame on you!”
Responding to TimesLIVE, FLM’s group legal adviser, Mirella Gastaldi, said: “As Food Lover’s Market, we would like to express our strong disapproval of the advertisement created by Food Lover’s Market, Scottsville Mall – a franchised store.
“The contents expressly go against the views of the brand. In this instance the franchisee took out his own advertisement, bypassing our advertising agency and consequently not aligning with our national advertising or messaging.
“This matter has been escalated to our senior management team and the franchisee will be taken to task for his actions.
“In the meantime, we can confirm that the franchisee will be donating R10,000 to the Pietermaritzburg SPCA and place an apology in the local newspaper."
Stephne Jackson of Stellenbosch-based animal rescue and rehabilitation fund Watershed - which facilitates the adoption of rescue animals countrywide - urged people not to give up or surrender their pets out of unjustified fear.
“They are of no threat to you with regard to Covid-19,” she said.
“What we are trying to do now is help overcrowded shelters which are going through extreme stress and anxiety with lockdown,” she said.
“No one can adopt a dog or cat now, because we can’t do home checks, but animal lovers could consider making a small donation to a shelter during this time, or do a virtual adoption,” she said.
Those interested in a virtual adoption can contact Jackson via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.