LONDON––Ballots to elect the Royal SPCA of England & Wales ruling council are due on Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Just under 25,000 RSPCA members are eligible to vote, down from a reported peak of about 38,600 in 2004. They will choose among six candidates for five available seats.
Among the six candidates are Peta Watson-Smith of the Vegan Society, who is seeking re-election; former RSPCA council member James Piccioni, and former RSPCA chief veterinarian Christopher Laurence. Which of these three are elected may be pivotal to the future direction of the RSPCA. Five candidates are endorsed by former RSPCA chair Daphne Harris; Laurence is the odd one out.
“The RSPCA is facing a takeover by hardliners who want the charity to promote veganism, crack down on farmers and oppose the shooting of birds,” alleged Dominic Kennedy, investigations editor for The Times of London on May 31, 2014.
But the most visible conflict of perspectives among the ruling council candidates appears to be over dog breeding. Piccioni, in his previous term on the ruling council, “helped to persuade the RSPCA to withdraw from Crufts [the annual Kennel Club national dog show] because of concerns about pedigree dog breeding,” Kennedy wrote. “He opposed game shooting: the charity has adopted a policy against the sport but does not yet actively work on the issue.” Laurence, on the other hand, has negotiated with the Kennel Club as “an adviser on dog-breeding legislation aimed at reducing the number of irresponsibly bred puppies,” Kennedy summarized.
Upon election, the RSPCA ruling council must choose a new chief executive to succeed Gavin Grant. Grant, 59, served barely two years before resigning suddenly for reported health reasons on February 25, 2014. Grant had come under a storm of criticism for spending £326,000 to bring a private prosecution against the Heythrop Hunt in Oxfordshire, the home district of prime minister David Cameron. The RSPCA won convictions on 12 of the 52 counts originally charged. However, the Heythrop Hunt case and failed prosecutions of several other hunting clubs for alleged violations of the 2005 Hunting Act contributed to an operating deficit for 2013 estimated at £3 million.
Grant also caught flak from both the National Farmers Union and no-kill sheltering advocates. The National Farmers Union in mid-2013 lost an appeal to the Charity Commission of England & Wales that Grant had used improper tactics in opposition to badger culls meant to fight the spread of bovine tuberculosis. The culling was suspended as unsuccessful in November 2013. No-kill advocates were inflamed by a single case in which five independent veterinarians hired by the RSPCA recommended that a severely disabled and incontinent dog should be euthanized.
Grant was also blamed when Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in August 2013 declined an invitation to serve as vice-patron of the RSPCA, a position accepted by his four most recent predecessors. Media revealed the following day that Welby, a former oil company executive, had on at least one occasion in the 1980s participated in a pheasant shoot.
“One of the constant criticisms of Grant is that he was taking the RSPCA in a different direction,” said Jay Tiernan, spokesperson for the badger defense group Stop The Cull. “I would argue he was taking it back to back it was set up to do. William Wilberforce set up it to prosecute animal cruelty cases,” Tiernan reminded Adam Vaughn of The Guardian. “Grant was doing exactly what the RSPCA was set up for. The RSPCA is not there just for people who can no longer look after their dogs and cats.”
Grant was succeeded on an interim basis by deputy chief executive John Grounds, who had been promoted from director of marketing and communications in July 2013. But Grounds resigned without explanation during the first week of April 2014.
Wrote attorney Duncan McNair for The Guardian, “Buffeting of the Grant-led RSPCA has been unsparing and frequently contradictory: for having or spending too much money, or too little; for vigorously pursuing prosecution of those violating animals, or for soft-pedalling the issue; for over-asserting animal rights, or for neglecting them. Too often indeed those traducing the society during Grant’s tenure pursue interests inimical to animal welfare, informed by the commercial imperative alone.
“In 2013,” McNair recalled, “I was commissioned to chair what became the McNair inquiry and report into Freedom Food, the leading animal welfare assurance scheme,” founded by the RSPCA in 1996 and directed by the RSPCA ever since. “This followed criticisms I had made of the scheme. I was permitted to act wholly independently of the RSPCA, to build my panel as I wished, and to take evidence and deploy our findings. The report and its recommendations are no devotional exercise,” McNair said, “yet have been endorsed unanimously by the governance of the RSPCA.”
The panel, including ruling council candidate Laurence as an advisor, suggested a variety of improvements to the Freedom Food welfare standards But whether to implement the McNair recommendations or divest of Freedom Food may also be among the critical choices to be made by the new ruling council.
The RSPCA accepted the McNair recommendations in February 2013 with the addition of two others: “the development of a business model that will lead to self-sufficiency for Freedom Food; and recommendations for a governance model of Freedom Food Limited,” according to the Freedom Food web page. Fulfilling the latter two recommendations would permit spinning off Freedom Food as an independent organization, no longer subsidized or overseen by the RSPCA.
The model for several similar certification programs operated by U.S. charities, Freedom Food struggled in the first decade of the 21st century. Freedom Food lost momentum in 2001 when 2.4 million animals were killed to combat foot-and-mouth disease, suffered embarrassment in November 2006 after three employees of a major egg company were arrested for allegedly mislabeling eggs from battery caged hens as “free-range,” and further lost credibility in 2007, after the ITV program Tonight with Trevor McDonald aired videotape of abuse and neglect at Freedom Food-certified turkey and duck farms.
In addition, campaigns consultant John Robins of the Scots organization Animal Concerns has pointed out often since 2008 that Freedom Food continues to endorse salmon from offshore pens whose personnel shoot marauding seals.
But Freedom Food has rapidly grown in recent years from certifying that about 5% of the animals raised for eggs, meat, or milk in the United Kingdom have been raised under humane conditions, to certifying more than 50%.
This has not impressed ruling council members Richard Ryder, Irene Barker, and Peta Watson-Smith. ““The RSPCA has no business sanitising death on an industrial scale,” Barker reportedly said at the June 2013 RSPCA annual meeting. “Let’s not in the name of compassion and logic deodorise the business by claiming that Freedom Food in any way changes that dark truth.”
Seconded Watson-Smith, “Regrettably the RSPCA cannot claim it protects farm animals while it condones slaughter through its ownership of Freedom Food, a company that assures lives that end in slaughter.”
Countered an unnamed RSPCA spokesperson to Alistair Driver of Farmers Guardian, “We are an animal welfare charity and do not make a judgment about whether people eat meat but we have an obligation if animals are reared, transported and slaughtered for meat to ensure that these are carried out as humanely as possible.”
Wrote McNair, “While continuing its work for domestic pets and wildlife, in an age of industrial and sometimes brutal factory farming, and where austerity has depleted regulatory disciplines, the RSPCA must also exert its influence for the wellbeing of those 95% of the nation’s animals [who are] in food production…It should not be chastened by assaults from those far outside the tent of animal welfare.”
(See also “RSPCA of England & Wales caught in a crossfire,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-9J.)