LONDON––The Royal SPCA of England & Wales, amid campaigns seeking to strip it of the prosecution authority it has exercised since 1824 and the royal charter it has held since 1840, has found itself caught in a politically damaging crossfire from hunters and farmers on one side, and “no kill” sheltering militants on the other.
The oldest and by some measurements the wealthiest secular animal charity in the world, the RSPCA operates 17 nationally chartered animal shelters and four animal hospitals. Another 170 separately incorporated branch shelters that are authorized to use the RSPCA name and insignia. Among them, the RSPCA string includes almost all of the open-admission shelters in England and Wales, and fields almost all of the anti-cruelty inspectors.
The RSPCA shelters rehome about 70,000 animals per year, and euthanize about 50,000, chiefly for reasons of health or dangerous behavior. Dogs Trust, the largest no-kill organization serving the same regions, rehomes about 10,000 animals per year from 18 shelters.
British attorney general Dominic Grieve in January 2013 urged the RSPCA to review its prosecution policy. The RSPCA trustees in December 2013 allocated £50,000 to hire former Crown Prosecution Service chief inspector Stephen Wooler to conduct the review.
Prosecution policy review
“We are not commenting on the review as it is an independent review and we wait to see its findings,” RSPCA spokesperson David Bowles told ANIMALS 24-7. “It is the right of any member of the public to undertake a prosecution,” Bowles offered, “and it is this right that the RSPCA operates under. You cannot strip us of our powers, as we don’t have any, unless you change the legal structure. We have no special rights or privileges in this respect, although as we were set up before the police, we have been undertaking enforcement work on animal welfare for nearly 190 years, and do around 83% of the enforcement work on animals in England and Wales.”
Wooler, “in his first interview since [being appointed], stressed that he had not yet reached any conclusions, but he conceded that one option was to strip the charity of its right to prosecute cases,” reported Telegraph senior political correspondent Christopher Hope.on February 1, 2014. But Wooler apparently said nothing about how that might be done without altering the entire structure of British law.
Said Wooler, “There would have to be some very careful discussions if one got to that position. One of the things I want to find out is what would happen if the RSPCA did not do those functions.”
Wooler said he would look at the costs of RSPCA prosecutions “to see if they are reasonable and proportionate.”
Summarized Hope, “Campaigners have long complained that the RSPCA can both investigate and prosecute cases, while also raising money.” This allegedly creates a conflict of interest by giving the RSPCA an incentive to publicize and prosecute popular cases, regardless of the evidence. RSPCA critics have also suggested, Hope wrote, “that because the charity often levies large costs in the cases it wins, some people plead guilty because they fear contesting a charge and losing.”
Hunters attack enforcement of Hunting Act
Criticism of RSPCA prosecution policies has come from hunters since 2004, when the passage of the Hunting Act forbade most traditional forms of hunting with dogs. Most controversially, the RSPCA in 2012-2013 spent £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.
“The RSPCA also brought unsuccessful prosecutions against the Cheshire Hunt, the Cheshire Forest Hunt, and the Ledbury Hunt in the Midlands,” recounted Hope. “Only two of nine summonses brought against the Avon Vale Hunt in Wiltshire resulted in convictions, although a member of the Seavington Hunt in Somerset was successfully fined £500.”
Hope acknowledged that the case information was provided by the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, which has several times called for stripping the RSPCA of its royal charter. Hope did not mention, however, that prosecutors often charge the same offense in more than one way, to give judges and juries a choice between convicting the offense as a felony or a misdemeanor. A conviction for one level of offense means other charges brought for the same action are dropped.
Farmers also furious
Farmers joined the pack of RSPCA critics with increasing fury after current RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant took office in January 2012 and immediately escalated opposition to live exports of livestock. The RSPCA came under especially intense criticism after RSPCA inspectors in September 2012 impounded and killed 47 sheep, due to injuries suffered while being trucked to the port of Ramsgate. The Thanet District Council, with jurisdiction over Ramsgate, for six weeks suspended livestock exports. This interrupted the entire live export industry, just as demand for live sheep and cattle reached the annual peak coinciding with the Islamic Feast of Atonement. Ramsgate had been the only port that had allowed live exports while much larger facilities at Dover were undergoing two years of renovation. Pleading guilty to cruelty charges on February 13, 2014, the livestock hauling company that brought the sheep to Ramsgate was fined more than £14,000. Company director Thomas Lomas was fined £5,000. But a High Court judge on March 3, 2014 ruled that the Thanet District Council could potentially be held liable for £1.5 million in damages claimed by the livestock ferry company Barco de Vapor.
Farmers were further incensed by RSPCA opposition to culling badgers in thus far futile attempts to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis. 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 the badger culls, which were suspended as unsuccessful on November 30, 2013.
The hunters and farmers’ complaints against the RSPCA were augmented in November 2013 by denunciations from operators of “no-kill” shelters who have been prosecuted for alleged violations of animal care standards.
British Association of No Kill Sanctuaries cofounder Gareth Edwards in November 2013 alleged to Patrick Sawer and Lynne Wallis of the Telegraph that the RSPCA had raided no-kill facilities more than 100 times in two years. Edwards estimated that there are about 1,000 no-kill shelters and sanctuaries in Britain.
Edwards’ own Farplace sanctuary in Durham “was raided in July over claims he was keeping dogs and rabbits in cages that were too small. Inspectors also claimed that fresh water and clean bedding was not supplied regularly for animals,” Sawer and Wallis wrote. “Edwards maintains that the cages were temporary and have been replaced and the animals were given fresh water and bedding every day. He accused the RSPCA of ‘bullying.’”
Said Edwards, “A no-kill policy means a higher standard is being met, and that is very threatening to the RSPCA, who cannot and will not guarantee that no healthy animal will ever be put down.”
Similar complaints were voiced by Sarah Mellanby, who worked for six years for the RSPCA before founding her own sanctuary in Stockton-on-Tees, from which RSPCA inspectors and police reportedly seized 62 cats and three dogs in early 2013.
British Association of No Kill Sanctuaries “also highlighted the closure of the Rosedene Animal Rescue Centre, near Walsall in the West Midlands, in 2010, and of the Wiccaweys Rescue Centre in Northumberland in May 2013,” Sawer and Wallis said.
“In 2011, Dawn Critchlow shut the Animal Haven sanctuary she had run in Sheffield for 22 years after RSPCA inspectors told her she needed new kennels costing £12,000.”
Bobi from Bulgaria
Criticism from no-kill advocates escalated after the British-affiliated charity K9 Rescue Bulgaria on December 21, 2013 sent a severely disabled and incontinent dog named Bobi to Action Aid for Animals, in Staffordshire. An Action Aid for Animals online petition stated that the Department of Food & Rural Affairs had certified Bobi as “fit to enter the U.K.,” and that he had been placed in a foster home, but the caregiver complained within 24 hours that he had “ruined her and her families [sic] Christmas because he was incontinent and smelt so bad.” Bobi was transferred to a second foster home, whose caregiver called the RSPCA because he “had a hole in his leg,” according to the petition.
“Bobi was immediately taken to see a vet,” RSPCA spokesperson Bowles told ANIMALS 24-7. “The vet saw that the open sore on Bobi’s leg was down to the bone and assessed that his incontinence was incurable. They concluded that Bobi would never enjoy a good quality of life. The vet therefore recommended that the kindest thing to do was to put Bobi to sleep.
“At the owner’s request and with the support of the RSPCA,” Bowles continued, “Bobi was taken to further independent specialist vets of the owner’s choosing.
This report confirmed the first vet’s opinion.
“Bobi was seen by a total of five independent vets,” Bowles recounted, “all of whom believe the kindest option is for him to be put to sleep. However, expert veterinary advice from Langford Veterinary Services at Bristol University did say that whilst they would not recommend them, there are potential intensive long-term treatment options available, as long as Bobi can be kept comfortable, even though they may do no more than temporarily delay a decision that could be taken more quickly to put Bobi to sleep.”
K9 Rescue Bulgaria and Action Aid for Animals took the latter option, backed by more than 10,000 petition signatures and donations totaling £1,500 through January 31, 2014––about 63% of his estimated cost of £2,370 for veterinary care.
“If we had the £132 million budget of the RSPCA then this would not be a problem,” alleged K9 Rescue Bulgaria in an online appeal, but if the RSPCA spent even 10% as much on each animal it handles, it would have no money left for any other program service.
After euthanizing a dog named Blackie for health reasons, the RSPCA in March 2010 lost a portion of a £400,000 legacy that it was to have shared with several human service charities. Claude Atack, 80, of Caernarfon, Gwynedd, had reportedly stipulated that a bequest to the RSPCA would be contingent upon Blackie being rehomed.