Warning: Some people may find images in this story upsetting.
A woman convicted of animal abuse in South Australia is now living under a new name in New Zealand and is, once again, under investigation for mistreating animals.
By Sunday’s Mava Moayyed
The SPCA confirmed it’s looking into Lena Duncan for alleged breaches of the Animal Welfare Act.
Around 17 of Duncan’s horses were seized by the SPCA in August.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday, Duncan denies any wrongdoing.
“I’m a person to live with animals. My animals are regarded as a family,” she said.
Duncan is known as Dora Ryan in Australia, where in 2020, she was convicted on 33 charges of animal ill-treatment by the RSPCA.
She accused the Australian authorities of unjustly taking her animals.
“I normally call them killers and animal abusers, which they are, and thieves which they acted like with me,” she said.
Duncan fled the country before she could be sentenced.
A warrant remains active for her arrest in Australia.
She admits changing her name from Dora Ryan to Lena Duncan shortly before arriving in New Zealand but denies it was to avoid detection or suspicion at the border.
Sunday understands Duncan brought around 26 horses from Australia, all of which passed the Ministry for Primary Industry’s veterinary assessments.
MPI would not comment, citing the ongoing investigation by the SPCA.
Duncan also brought over an unknown number of dogs to New Zealand.
She’s been living on a remote farm in Northland since 2020 and has been active on Facebook under the name LH Billy.
In her interview with Sunday’s Mava Moayyed, Duncan admits to breeding and selling animals in New Zealand despite her conviction in Australia.
Guilty on all charges
She’s a woman with multiple aliases, but what’s known for sure is that in Australia, Lena Duncan went by the name Dora Ryan.
She bred animals on a secluded farm in Baroota, three hours north of Adelaide.
South Australia RSPCA chief inspector Andrea Lewis says there have been 18 complaints made against Duncan since 2012.
“She had a lot of animals in her care and initially, we were giving her advice about proper care and veterinary treatment. I think things got out of control,” she said.
In May 2017, the RSPCA raided Duncan’s Baroota property. Inspectors counted 75 dogs, 45 horses, 25 chickens and seven sheep.
“There was a multitude of old rotting bones, the water had algae growing in it. It just looked really revolting.”
Lewis says Duncan had too many animals on the property to adequately care for them. The dog pens were “covered in faeces” and there was insufficient bedding.
The RSPCA seized 23 Pomeranian dogs, four German Shepherds and more than 20 chickens.
One German Shepherd, named Heyley, was found lying in the dirt outside, unable or unwilling to stand. She was euthanised by a vet on humane grounds at the property.
Three remaining German shepherds were euthanised several days later, including a dog named Nick.
“Nick was so weak that if he started to walk, his back end would collapse. He dragged himself around on his front legs,” said Lewis.
Two years later, after another cruelty complaint, the RSPCA went to Duncan’s property again.
“[The inspectors] were pretty quick to get on the phone to me to say ‘these horses are pretty bad. We have to get them out. We have to get them out today,'” said Lewis.
She said there was no hay or hard feed for the horses, and they were forced to “shuffle through their own poo” to find things to eat.
Five horses and one dog were seized from Duncan. They were among 86 dogs and 56 horses found on the property – more than were present during the RSPCA’s first seizure.
“One of them in particular was one of the skinniest horses I think I’ve ever seen. It was literally just bones and sadly that horse was euthanised the following day.”
Under the name Dora Ryan, Duncan was charged with a total of 33 counts of ill-treatment of an animal.
She represented herself in court, with the magistrate noting she has “no credit as a witness and lied to the court” during the trial.
She was found guilty on all charges but failed to appear at the last four court hearings.
“She had left her property, had left the state. We then found out she had actually left the country,” said Lewis.
Sunday’s investigation reveals Duncan was able to legally change her name in South Australia as it’s permissible to do so three times in your lifetime. Additionally, an animal abuse conviction was not serious enough to qualify her as a “restricted person” which would’ve potentially barred her from changing her name.
Duncan sent 26 horses by air freight to Auckland from Sydney. The horses were assessed before departure and upon arrival in New Zealand and passed the necessary checks.
Duncan admits to bringing the horses into the country as “personal effects”, despite planning to sell some of them, meaning she avoided paying any GST or duty on the animals.
Companies Office documents show Duncan registered the Kiwi in Oz and Back Home Foundation as a charitable trust in 2020 and gifted the trust 32 horses and 53 dogs.
Lena Duncan discovered in NZ
Letetia Kelly, a horse transporter based in Hamilton, says Duncan asked her to move several of her 26 horses from Auckland to Kaitaia in late 2020.
“Being a horse person, I was a little bit nosy. Like, what kind of horses has this lady got that she’s bringing this massive number into New Zealand, you know?”
Kelly was not aware of Duncan’s conviction in Australia and agreed to do the job. When she arrived to drop off Duncan’s horses, she was shocked at the state of the property.
“We went past a shipping container, and I noticed a mattress on top of crates. I realised that they were actually airfreight crates full of dogs. She was sleeping on top of the crates.”
Kelly also noted the property had no fencing to separate the horses, and the land and grass weren’t suitable for grazing such a large number of horses.
“I was quite concerned. She’s got all these horses that won’t cope with a New Zealand winter.”
“I talked to her about a friend of mine up there in Kaitaia. I gave them each other’s phone number.”
That friend was Pai Cunningham, a professional horse trainer for about 25 years.
Now retired, Cunningham volunteers as head instructor at the Kaitaia Pony Club.
She went to see Duncan in January of last year and, like Kelly, was concerned by what she saw.
“It was all clay and gorse. There was very little feed for horses, certainly not rolling pastures of grass at all,” she said.
She noticed at least 16 horses on the land as well as “a number of stallions kept in portable round pens”.
Cunningham says Duncan told her she was a Kiwi citizen who had recently returned home.
“She also told me that the horses had been badly affected by the droughts in Australia that she didn’t have any feed for her animals. I didn’t know her, so I thought, ‘Wow that’s a heck of a lot of bad luck,” said Cunningham.
She says Duncan, desperate to sell horses, asked for her help.
“We had the Kaitaia AMP Show coming up and I said to her ‘I don’t mind helping you prepare an animal. You’re going to have the best chance to sell it for a decent price if it’s actually won something.'”
But the horse Duncan gave her to prepare was in a terrible state.
“As soon as you shifted the mane, there was an absolute infestation of ticks and lice and I mean big bugs.”
She also noted it was underweight and had “bone abnormalities” which she believed to be a result of a calcium deficiency.
Cunningham knew she couldn’t salvage the horse so she messaged Duncan the next day.
“Wow! Did the fireworks fly. The next morning she arrived on my property unannounced and accused me of stealing her horse.
“She was screaming and shouting and calling me every name under the sun.”
Duncan left with her horse and Cunningham reported the incident to the police, saying she took out a trespass order against Duncan.
Back in Hamilton, horse transporter Kelly called MPI and made an animal welfare complaint. She says the issue was passed on to the SPCA.
Sunday contacted MPI who wouldn’t confirm any complaints had been actioned, stating all animal welfare complaints are confidential.
Several months later, Cunningham says she came across an article about a woman named Dora Ryan wanted in Australia for animal abuse. She finally made the connection.
“She had been found guilty on 33 counts of animal cruelty and then [I saw the] photo! I rang Letetia and I said, ‘You’re not going to believe who we found!'”
Kelly says she rang the SPCA and alerted them to the fact that Duncan was in fact convicted animal abuser Dora Ryan.
“They got quite a shock. They didn’t know it was the same person.”
In 2021 animal welfare group Help Us Help Animals NZ (HUHA) covertly bought two horses from Duncan.
In a post on Facebook, HUHA said it was a last-ditch effort to save the horses after inaction by the SPCA, police and Interpol.
They said blood samples showed the horses were malnourished, and one horse had an undiagnosed genetic condition.
In her first extended television interview, Duncan discusses her conviction in Australia and life in New Zealand.
She says that she grew up in Bulgaria around animals.
“Lambs, sheep, horses, cows, donkeys, chickens – you name it. They were always there so my love for animals started then.”
She claims to have first moved from Bulgaria to New Zealand in 2002 through “professional sport”, representing New Zealand in handball.
By 2007, she’d moved to South Australia where she lived on a secluded farm in Baroota.
“I did not associate with people much, if at all. But I can say that the people around me… not friendly. Very big chauvinists.”
She was breeding and selling dogs, including Great Danes, Pomeranians, German Shepherds and Pomskies.
She also sold Friesian horses, a large muscular breed with a thick mane and tail.
“For most, if not all, horse people, Friesians are something that everybody dreams of.”
Despite her admitting to the animals being her livelihood, Duncan says she’s not a breeder for profit.
“It’s my affair with animals is a love affair. It’s not a specific ‘I want to breed, and I want to make money’.”
She believes in raising her animals in a natural way, with as little intervention as possible.
However, she is accused of breeding and selling some animals with heredity issues. When asked about its potential to cause the animals pain and suffering, she says: “Probably, but define pain and suffering in an animal?”
Duncan says the 18 complaints made against her to the RSPCA were a result of “nastiness and jealousy from small people”.
She admits the RSPCA visited her property several times before uplifting her animals but says they hadn’t indicated she was doing anything wrong.
“On those visits, the inspector back then was always happy. Was saying animals in good condition. Was saying things like, ‘You are one of the good ones.'”
“Now RSPCA came like an army of 18 people, vans, police, etc. with the clear premeditated plan from about two months before to take animals or kill animals.”
Duncan rejects the RSPCA’s decision to put down four of her German shepherds, saying they were happy and well.
“When they killed my shepherds, I had two veterinarians and they said basically, ‘Yes they are old, yes they have their old dogs’ ailments but under medication, they can continue living a happy life until it’s time,'” she said.
Duncan supplied a report written by Dr Michael Adams, a vet in South Australia who assessed the German Shepherds in 2017. He noted he “would not support a decision to euthanise” the dogs.
When contacted, Dr Adams was not willing to comment.
Duncan admits at times, she had too many horses in Australia.
“At the time I had approximately 65 horses. It’s horrendously many. It’s horrendously many and it’s very hard work.”
But Duncan says there was always enough food for them, despite evidence some of her horses were severely underweight.
“I was buying the hay and the containers were full of pallets and dry food for the horses.”
In 2018, Duncan successfully launched her own legal action against the RSPCA and got several dogs back 14 months after they were seized.
“RSPCA knew that their case against me is very shaky, if not even lost.”
In total, the RSPCA charged Duncan with 33 counts of animal abuse.
Duncan, the magistrate noted, lied under oath and lacked any credibility as a witness.
“The Magistrate calling me a liar was the biggest slap in the face, but what can you say?”
“I don’t lie in my life,” said Duncan.
She failed to appear at the last four hearings, and the magistrate declined to hand down a sentence in her absence, indicating it was likely to involve prison time.
Duncan vehemently denies fleeing Australia to avoid prison.
“I’m not a fugitive – that’s the end of the story.”
Anyone who tries to call me a fugitive, or a puppy farmer, or a hoarder, or anything ugly like that will face the court of law to answer
— Lena Duncan
Duncan refused to answer questions about how many animals are in her care, or their current condition.
She accepts she’s currently under investigation by the SPCA and that a number of her horses have been seized by the organisation.
Earlier this week, Sunday confirmed that Duncan is in dispute with an animal rescue organisation, claiming they deceived her into handing over her remaining horses and dogs by convincing her that the SPCA would otherwise take them. She wants the animals back.
But the Bay of Islands Animal Rescue say the animals were surrendered to them willingly by Duncan after they explained to her that they needed better care that she couldn’t afford.
In a statement sent to Sunday, the organisation said the animals “are subject to SPCA investigation”.
“Bay of Islands Animal Rescue is proactively co-operating with the SPCA in their investigation, to help ensure no more animals can be abused and neglected in the care of Lena Duncan in the future. Since the animals were surrendered to us, they have been receiving the veterinarian care they need and are being given the love and care that they all deserve.”