We've posted quite a few articles about the RSPCA over the years, and it's been very noticeable that they always attract emails – more than any other topic, probably. What's also noticeable is that with one single exception these emails are all highly critical of the RSPCA. Clearly the organisation has developed quite a knack for pissing people off.
The one single exception arrived quite recently, from a lady in Wales called Judi Hewitt. She seemed to be objecting to an article we don't remember publishing – we have not visited this topic at all for the last six months or so – and accused us of being “cowards and spiteful childish nerds” which seemed a little harsh under the circumstances.
So, just for you, Judi, here are a few stories we have collected over the last few weeks ...
It was revealed recently that the RSPCA destroyed 53,000 animals last year – 44 per cent of those it took in. This has led critics to claim that the organisation spends too much time prosecuting cases of neglect and cruelty and not enough on finding new homes for animals.
The charity insists the vast majority of the animals were put down to end their suffering, but it does admit that last year alone 3,400 animals were destroyed for ‘non-medical’ reasons, such as the lack of space in kennels and catteries.
The RSPCA receives £120million a year in donations, yet in 2009 it stopped accepting stray animals and unwanted pets.
The number of animals re-homed has dropped from 70,000 in 2009 to 60,000 last year, while the number of convictions secured has leapt by 20 per cent. Figures obtained for the past five years show that 46 per cent of animals rescued by the charity were put down. The figures have also revealed the charity is rehoming fewer pets, with 10,000 fewer finding new owners in 2011.
Former RSPCA inspector Dawn Aubrey-Ward, who worked for the organisation from 2008 to 2010, said she came across numerous examples of animals destroyed because there was no room for them in shelters. ‘If there wasn’t any room in the nearby RSPCA home or one of a number of approved charities, we were supposed to euthanise them,’ she said.
The RSPCA insists that euthanising animals is always a ‘last resort’, but many observers don't agree. David Smith, a vet who worked for the RSPCA for 12 years, said ‘It seems to be all about prosecuting people now. The RSPCA seems to have lost sight of its role as a charity that was set up to help people and animals.’
In the past two years, convictions secured by the charity have increased from 2,579 to 3,114. Last year, spinster Georgina Langley, 67, of West Hougham, Kent, was raided at her home by the RSPCA and had five of her 13 cats put down. The charity prosecuted her for neglect, but Mr Smith, 62, came to her aid. After sending two of the cats’ bodies to the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) for an independent post-mortem, he said: ‘There appears to be no good reason why the RSPCA allowed these animals to be put to sleep. The RVC post-mortems concluded the cats were healthy, with no signs of incorrect feeding or major problems with fleas or other illnesses. They were very heavy-handed with an elderly lady and kept her standing out in her garden in the rain for hours while they searched her house. All the cats required was some flea spray. When I started doing work for them, the inspectors rarely prosecuted people – it was mostly about helping people to care for the animals. They would go and check on OAPs and make sure they have flea treatment etc, and that just never happens these days. They always seem to want to go for prosecution, no matter what, and I hear the same story from other vets.’
Following a three-day trial in May 2012, the RSPCA dropped 11 of the 13 charges against Miss Langley. She pleaded guilty to failing to get veterinary care quickly enough for two of her animals. An RSPCA spokesperson said: ‘Five of the cats were put to sleep on veterinary advice. The reason we had to get these cats out of the property is that the conditions they were in were appalling.’
Another former RSPCA employee, Angela Egan-Ravenscroft, was branch co-ordinator for the RSPCA London region between 1990 and 2000. Disillusioned with the way the charity was being run, she left and went to work for the Countryside Alliance. She said ‘Healthy, well-adjusted, rehomeable animals were being destroyed, and I didn’t want to be part of an organisation that did that. The RSPCA has badly lost its way and all of its reasons for being set up in the first place have been subverted. The grass-roots animal welfare no longer exists.’
Not all organisations feel that it necessary to destroy healthy animals, however. Dogs Trust, for example, still takes in strays, but refuses to euthanise healthy animals.
The RSPCA has become a ‘politically motivated animal rights organisation’ and should be stripped of its Royal name, according to Sir Barney White-Spunner, head of the Countryside Alliance. He spoke out after the Heythrop, David Cameron’s local hunt in Oxfordshire, was convicted of illegally killing foxes after a private prosecution brought by the RSPCA. The case cost the RSPCA almost £327,000 which the judge said was ‘staggering’ and suggested ‘members of the public may feel RSPCA funds can be more usefully employed’. Sir Barney said ‘Why is this Society still Royal? I don’t want to involve the Royal Family, but I will raise it with the relevant committee in Whitehall. It was once a great institution. But the direction it’s going is very sad. The RSPCA is becoming a politically motivated animal rights organisation and I don’t think that’s why people give it money. We will look to the Charity Commission to investigate if the RSPCA is in breach of its charitable objectives.’
Dawn Aubrey-Ward has been dismissed by the RSPCA as “a disgruntled ex-employee” but the stories she tells are compelling. She was reprimanded for giving help and advice instead of issuing cautions, including the case of an ill, elderly man whose cat lay dying on his lap. She took the cat away and put it down and was then upbraided for not cautioning the cat’s devastated owner for neglect. Her career with the RSPCA ended when her bosses accused her of ‘stealing’ a rescued tortoise which she’d taken home ready to take to an animal centre.
The GOS says: As an ex-county council employee I am very familiar with the train of thought that's at work here. It is common to many large organisations in the public sector (by “public sector” I mean those that are non-profit-making, so include QUANGOs, charities, local government, regulatory bodies etc.). It is far more interesting for managers to engage in high-profile campaigns and court cases than it is for them to concentrate of doing their normal, day-to-day humdrum tasks, and they love the sense of importance and power it gives them.
The RSPCA is mounting a vigorous campaign for a government ban on live exports of animals such as sheep. In public statements, Gavin Grant, the charity's chief executive, said 'there is no place in a civilised and compassionate society' for live animal exports, describing it as a 'this vile trade that causes so much suffering to animals'. He has used a photograph of a pile of dead sheep at Rasmgate docks as evidence, but it has been revealed that almost every one of them was actually shot dead by an employee of the RSPCA.
Their deaths remain subject to a fierce dispute which has sparked multiple legal threats and seen vituperative criticism of Grant's high-profile organisation. An official report on the matter was completed in October, but mysteriously it is still being blocked from public release. The matter has become the latest flashpoint in the increasingly bitter row between the RSPCA and the rural lobby amid concerns that the charity has lurched towards an extreme political agenda under Grant — a vegetarian and former PR man.
Grant, who twice stood for Parliament as a Lib Dem (without success), and ran Nick Clegg's leadership campaign, was last in the news before Christmas when it emerged that he had spent £326,000 of the charity's money prosecuting four members of the Heythrop Hunt — which just happens to be David Cameron's local hunt in Oxfordshire — for illegally killing foxes.
Two of the men were acquitted, but two pleaded guilty to four minor breaches of the hunting ban. They, and the hunt, were fined less than £7,000. In court, the RSPCA attempted to keep the costs of its legal action secret. But its six-figure bill was revealed by district judge Tim Pattinson, who announced he found it 'quite staggering'.
The episode will certainly have given RSPCA donors food for thought. After all, the charity recently decided to shed 90 of its 1,100 employees, allegedly to save money. While the it spends around £8.7million a year prosecuting headline-making court cases, many of its day-to-day operations are woefully underfunded. Its Preston branch, which costs £600 a day to run, claims to be weeks from bankruptcy.
These grim statistics coincide with falling membership figures. A decade ago, the RSPCA had about 35,000 members, whereas today the charity has just 25,000. The RSPB, by contrast, boasts one million. Meanwhile, the Charities Commission has declared it the third most complained-about charity in Britain, behind the Jehovah's Witnesses and a non-profit organisation called The HFSH Charitable Trust, devoted to faith healers.
Against this backdrop, the events of September 12 offer an interesting snapshot of Gavin Grant's modern RSPCA. The tragedy is detailed in an official report which currently sits on the desk of Farming Minister David Heath. Though completed in October, it remains secret owing to what DEFRA calls 'legal reasons'.
Trouble at Ramsgate began when RSPCA inspectors, who were observing shipments with vets from the government's Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), noticed that one of the 500 sheep aboard a lorry chartered by Kettering-based exporter Intra Agra had suffered a broken leg.
Normally, the exporter's agent, Peter Ziolkowski, would have been required to board the four-tier French-registered lorry and put down the injured animal. But according to Frank Langrish, a local spokesman for the National Farmers Union (NFU) who has investigated the incident, the RSPCA inspectors agreed with government vets that all of the sheep had to be unloaded.
'This caused considerable argument,' Langrish said this week. 'There were no reasonable facilities for unloading animals at the port, so they decided to build a temporary pen between two buildings. It was a big mistake, because at the back of the pen there was a large storm drain, and when the sheep entered the pen, its cover became loose.' Six sheep fell into that drain. Four were saved by RSPCA inspectors, but two died.
David McDowell, a former RSPCA acting chief veterinary advisor, was astonished by the charity's behaviour when I talked to him this week. Even if the RSPCA was acting in conjunction with government vets, he said, unloading sheep at the dockside contradicts accepted opinion on animal welfare. 'Unless you have a proper pen to put them in, unloading a large number of sheep somewhere like that is a terrible thing to do,' he said. 'In fact, dropping them off a lorry at those docks is — and you can quote me on this — f****** stupid.'
No sooner had the storm-drain calamity struck than a second problem emerged: 43 of the sheep, all of which had been pronounced fit and healthy by a vet prior to boarding the vehicle in Northamptonshire, were considered to be showing signs of lameness. The government vets and RSPCA inspectors announced that all 43 of these lame sheep should be killed because they considered them unfit to travel. This decision, too, has baffled animal welfare experts. 'I've been in the business for 39 years and there is no legitimate reason to put down 43 sheep because they are lame,' says Kent vet David Smith, a former RSPCA advisor (we've heard from him before). 'Lameness and foot infections are very common in sheep and easy to treat. It's a minor condition.'
Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, which represents sheep farmers, is adamant: 'There is no way those 43 sheep needed to be put down,' he said. A local farmer, Trevor Head, soon arrived at the port with a trailer to take the animals to an abattoir. But he was sent away: the officials claimed the sheep were too lame to be transported, and insisted they should be killed on site.
Over the next hour, in scenes an onlooker has compared to a 'massacre', the charity's inspectors used a bolt gun to despatch the terrified animals, one by one. The following morning, the RSPCA released the graphic picture of the slaughtered sheep via its website, claiming it laid bare the casual cruelty of an animal export industry which ought to be banned. The pictures generated news stories around the world. Within days, they had become a symbol of the campaign against live animal exports. But the picture raised as many questions as it answered.
'Anyone who knows anything about humane killing devices knows that if you use them properly, then you don't get any blood,' says the NFU's Langrish. 'They make a single piercing straight through into the brain and the animal dies.'
John Onderwater, the Dutch exporter whose firm, Barco de Vapor, was due to carry the sheep across the Channel, also has profound concerns. 'How on earth was it possible that the pile of sheep, which the RSPCA displayed so proudly on its website, was covered with blood? And how did they get blood to spray a metre and a half up a wall?' he asks.
Did the RSPCA botch the job of killing the sheep? Were the bolt guns working properly? It is not clear. In a statement, the RSPCA said that ultimate responsibility for the day's events lies with the AHVLA, whose officials were nominally in a senior role to the RSPCA inspectors at the port. Yet the job of the actual killing fell to the RSPCA inspectors. The charity's staff officer Dermot Murphy confirmed the animals were shot by RSPCA officers 'trained in the humane euthanasia of animals'.
Whatever lies behind the tragic photograph, Grant is well aware of the power of a shocking PR image. During a previous stint at the RSPCA, as head of communications from the late 1980s, he was behind high-profile fundraising adverts featuring piles of dead dogs and horses dangling from hooks. The images, produced by modish ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers, certainly created a stir. But they also signalled a move by the RSPCA away from its traditional remit of caring for animals towards a more controversial role of running high-profile campaigns and prosecutions.
Grant left the charity in 1991, amid a minor office scandal involving his relationship with married colleague Liz Cook (who is now his partner), and set about making his fortune in the PR and lobbying business. For most of the past decade, he was UK chairman of Burson Marsteller, a vast consultancy which has a mixed reputation in animal rights circles on account of its lucrative work for such corporations as Unilever, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, which test products on animals.
That chapter of Grant's CV has been brushed under the table since he rejoined the RSPCA a year ago. In recent interviews, he has styled himself as a right-thinking man of principle, who 'took a serious pay cut and had to sell his big house to take the job'. Chief executives of the RSPCA are, nonetheless, paid around £120,000 a year according to its most recent financial report. And former colleagues say that, besides money, the public platform the job affords him is ample compensation to a man of Grant's wealth and searing political ambition.
'Today's RSPCA is dominated by Labour and the Lib Dems, so Gavin fits right in,' says Ian Johnson, a former RSPCA press officer who once worked under Grant. 'In many ways, he's a failed politician: he would have loved to be a member of Parliament. But, much like Alastair Campbell, he could never quite manage it, so is now doing the next best thing if the incident of the Heythrop Hunt is anything to go by — playing politics with people's donations.'
A combative 57-year-old, who was raised on a London council estate and educated at grammar school, Grant has certainly been quick to employ the language of class warfare in his recent crusade against foxhunting, describing practitioners as 'no different from badger baiters — apart from their accents'.
He also made waves in September with vigorous opposition to the Government's proposed badger cull, telling dairy farmers who co-operate with the scheme that they face being named and shamed, and are 'soaked in badgers' blood'.
In recent months, Grant has set about trying to ban some of the 'disgraceful' slaughtering practices around halal meat. The RSPCA has never previously dipped its toes in a religious dispute.
There are signs that this increasingly controversial tone may be alienating members of the public. The charity's income from bequests fell £5million in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, and it now devotes more than 20 per cent of its roughly £100m annual expenditure towards fundraising. Senior members of RSPCA staff have meanwhile been jumping ship. At Christmas, Leigh Grant who had run the RSPCA's popular 'Freedom Food' labelling campaign for nearly 11 years, announced his departure 'by mutual agreement'. Over the summer, Henry Macaulay, RSPCA's head of media relations for seven years, also left. And in October, the charity's head of prosecutions, Sally Case, handed in her notice.
The questions about the death of 46 sheep at Ramsgate on September 12 will not be cleared up until DEFRA's report is finally released. Sources at the ministry expect that to happen in a matter of weeks.
What will it say? One person who almost certainly knows is Farming Minister David Heath. By co-incidence, he recently declared that Grant's RSPCA 'needs to make a choice over whether they are a fringe campaign group or a responsible organisation working with us in partnership on animal welfare. As things stand, they cannot be both'.
The GOS says: It's inevitable that this article must come round to the subject of hunting eventually, I suppose. I don't have an axe to grind on this subject, frankly. Foxes are nasty, vicious creatures and I suspect that most of the people who want to hunt them are nasty and vicious as well.
My attitude softened a bit when I discovered that two of my favourite authors, John Masefield and Patrick O'Brian, were fascinated by fox-hunting and able to write vividly about it, but despite having lived in the country most of my adult life I have had almost no contact with hunting and can't get worked up about it.
What I can get worked up about is the fact that townies and left-wing activists have taken it on themselves to dictate to country people how they should live their lives. If there's a common theme on this website, it's the resentment most of us feel at being bullied by people who think they know best.
Here's Irish historian, crime novelist, journalist and broadcaster Ruth Dudley Edwards, who seems to share my views pretty closely ...
“Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, regrets that there’s no chance of repealing the hunting ban in this parliament. So do I, although nothing would persuade me to hunt, and, like him, I’m an animal-lover.
As I child, I hated hunting and hunters. As a young woman, I agreed with my fiancé that we would become rich in order to buy up key pieces of land to wreck hunts (we became neither rich nor stayed married). Yet as an adult, I set one of my crime novels in the hunting world (“Ten Lords A-Leaping”) and had my protagonists passionately opposing a ban.
What happened? I grew up, I read the arguments, I became better informed about rural life and I realised that most of those excited about banning fox-hunting were bigots, class warriors or too sentimental to look properly at the evidence. And the evidence was that the fox population has to be controlled, that on balance, shooting them is less humane than hunting, and that those involved in hunting tend to be keen conservationists.
In “A Journey”, Tony Blair recalls that having committed himself to banning hunting he began, too late, to educate himself about it. “The more I learned, the more uneasy I became. I started to realise this wasn’t a small clique of weirdo inbreeds delighting in cruelty, but a tradition, embedded by history and profound community and social liens, that was integral to a way of life.” Unfortunately, by then it was too late and all he could hope was that the flawed legislation would not be enthusiastically policed.
In fact on the whole the cops have been reasonably sensible, but the zealots are again massing and they don’t seem much interested in the issue of cruelty. For the RSPCA to waste £326,000 on bringing a private prosecution against members of the Heythrop Hunt in Oxfordshire is an obscenity and I hope the Charity Commission penalises them for breaching their ‘duty of prudence’.
Gavin Grant, the RSPCA Chief Executive, seems to have it in for country people. He’s now threatening to name and shame those involved in legal badger-culling. And the League Against Cruel Sports has spent £1,000,000 spying on Boxing Day hunts.
Over the past decade, under an ex-MP, the Lib Dem Jackie Ballard, and now Grant, the RSPCA seems to have forgotten that its job is to work in the interests of the greatest happiness of the greatest number of animals. I’d recommend anyone anxious to help animals to donate to Compassion in World Farming or Blue Cross or other charities focused on combating cruelty rather than to those obsessed with the fate of a few furry vermin.”
The GOS says: Well said, that lady. I rather like animals myself, but when you hear some of the dreadful things animal rights activists have done or said or threatened over the years, you begin to realise that anyone who really believes that wild animals are their furry little friends probably has difficulty forming normal relationships with other humans or making balanced judgements about human society.
I don't include the RSPCA in this, though. Their case is far more simple – they're just on a gigantic ego-trip, and both animals and humans are suffering.
Someone recently sent us an excellent summary of the law as it applies to animals, so if you want to know just where you stand on microwaving the cat, click here.
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
Copyright © 2012 The GOS