From health care management to rehabilitating and rehoming

March 8, 2024 BY

Helen Cocks leads the team at Geelong Animal Welfare Society as they support the homeless animals of Geelong and surrounds.

Helen Cocks is a transformative leader in Victoria’s animal welfare sector and has been chief executive officer of Geelong Animal Welfare Society (GAWS) for six years.

GAWS is Victoria’s largest regional animal shelter, operating for more than 65 years as an invaluable not-for-profit organisation supporting the homeless animals of Geelong and surrounds.

A blue-sky thinker with a passionate and analytical mind, Helen moved sideways into the animal welfare sector with leadership expertise in public health, where she was the Director of Sub-acute Services for Monash Health and led their primary health community care program.

Her affection for animals and the belief that ‘every life is precious’ motivated Helen to move from human health care management to leading teams dedicated to rehabilitating and rehoming thousands of abandoned and surrendered companion animals each year.

GAWS’ ‘live release rate’ is now one of the highest in Victoria, with 90 per cent of the nearly 7,000 animals cared for in 2022 and 2023 either reunited, rehabilitated, or rehomed.

Helen served as the executive director of RSPCA Victoria before she became the leader at GAWS, honing her skills in animal welfare management and advocacy.

Convinced her skills and experience in evidence-based practice could improve outcomes for animals in need, the move from human health to animal welfare was more than a career shift, it was a calling to make a difference in the lives of companion animals and the people who care for them.

Under Helen’s leadership, GAWS provides extensive animal welfare services to the community.

A highlight is GAWS’ veterinary clinic serving the shelter while also providing low-cost vet care services for low-income pet owners.

GAWS’ foster carer network has also grown with Helen’s guidance, with capacity now for over 500 animals in care onsite and in foster at any one time.

This achievement has ensured that more animals receive the care and attention they need in a home environment while waiting for permanent adoption.

Navigating GAWS through the economic impacts of the pandemic was a formidable challenge.

Helen’s steadfastness and innovation ensured GAWS flourished by moving into the digital age, bypassing social distancing and reduced community engagement.
“We never compromised, we did not see a single negative outcome from an animal welfare perspective,” Helen said.
Securing crucial donor funding for operational costs is an ongoing challenge for GAWS.

“If everyone just donated $5 each per month, that would make such a difference to us because it’s reliable and we can plan our work around this consistent income,” she said.
Helen’s future vision for GAWS’ is one of growth, resilience, and community investment.

Key goals include expanding the site’s infrastructure and pursuing sustainable income through corporate philanthropy and large-scale campaigns.
“We haven’t been frightened to try new things regardless of how small or how significant those new ideas are- we never lose sight of their purpose and their goal to keep GAWS going,” she said.

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