LONDON––Clarissa Baldwin, who took charge of the then-faltering National Canine Defence League in 1986 and turned it into the globally influential Dogs Trust, on March 11, 2014 announced her retirement.
“I joined Dogs Trust in 1974 as head of public relations on a six-month contract and ending up staying for forty years,” Baldwin recalled.
Elaborated Diana Appleyard of the Daily Mail in 2010, when Baldwin was named one of the Daily Mail’s Inspirational Women of the Year, “A beautiful and elegant young woman wearing a silk dress stepped hesitantly into a Queen Anne house on Seymour Street in London. Despite the smart surroundings, the reception area smelled very strongly of the stray dogs it housed. The young woman, a former model, had joined the charity at age 24, fed up with modeling and wanting to do something more worthwhile.”
Explained Baldwin to Clare Dwyer Hogg of The Independent in December 2013, “It was the kind of place where the photocopier is in the basement and the kettle is on the top floor. It was so cold we had to wear mittens to type. I arrived in high heels and sat on a sofa that I’m quite sure every stray dog had peed on!”
NCDL eradicated rabies in Britain
The NCDL had fallen on hard times, after a long and distinguished history, beginning on February 12, 1891, when the Lady Gertrude Stock called together a small party of other exhibitors at the Crufts dog show to discuss ways and means of accomplishing humane rabies control. Among the group was also Ernest Bell, a vegetarian since 1874, who later in 1891 founded the London Vegetarian Society, and in 1914 formed the Performing and Captive Animals Defence League with longtime colleague Jessie Wade.
The NCDL founders were as one, according to Peter Ballard in A Dog Is For Life: Celebrating the first 100 years of the National Canine Defence League, in believing that repeated rabies scares in London were amplified by “persons interested in the establishment and maintenance of Pasteur Institutes.” These were laboratories in France and Britain “dedicated to pursuing research into the anti-rabies vaccine discovered by Louis Pasteur in 1885, for which purpose they sought a steady supply of dogs on which to experiment.”
At inception the NCDL was thus not only an anti-vivisection society but an anti-vaccination society. But it was also an anti-rabies society, and immediately undertook three projects of value in curtailing rabies and rabies scares. One was to immediately locate dog bite victims and wash their wounds––a seemingly simple, obvious procedure which until then had never been promoted in a systematic manner.
Another NCDL contribution was to send medical doctors to investigate all reported rabies cases. Many alleged rabies outbreaks proved to be misdiagnosed, involving bites by healthy dogs and/or dogs who were ill from other diseases. Though this did not reduce the actual number of rabies cases, it reduced the numbers that were claimed, and contributed to recognition that rabies was gradually being eradicated, despite noisy claims to the contrary.
The third NCDL anti-rabies activity was to educate and campaign against keeping dogs chained, in the belief that chained dogs are more likely to be bitten by rabid animals because they cannot escape, and are in turn more likely to bite a person who is perceived as a threat, again because they cannot run away. These beliefs were validated by behavioral research more than 90 years later.
The last human death from canine rabies in Great Britain occurred in Wales in 1902, but rabies persisted among British dogs for 20 years longer.
Meanwhile the NCDL skirmished in Parliamentary debate against the British scientific establishment and dogcatching agencies over the legislation which became the Dog Law of 1910, instituting dog licensing and vaccination requirements. When the law came to be strictly enforced during World War I, and afterward during a resurgence of canine rabies in 1918-1922, the NCDL began subsidizing the cost of dog licensing for poor families. NCDL clinics established throughout Britain vaccinated more than 35,000 dogs during the final push against rabies after World War I, a paradox in view of the origins of the society.
For close to 75 years the NCDL chiefly operated a string of 13 charitable veterinary clinics, mostly in and around London. It also campaigned against cruelty to dogs by railway personnel, who sought to keep dogs away from passenger platforms by denying them access to water. As increasing automobile use led to frequent injuries to free-roaming dogs, the NCDL armed dog wardens with pistols––then not routinely carried by British police––to enable the wardens to perform field euthanasia on dogs when appropriate.
In 1939-1940, following the outbreak of World War II, the British government addressed food shortages, including a critical shortage of pet food, by killing as many as 750,000 dogs and cats. The NCDL, the Royal SPCA, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, and the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home all opposed the massacre. The NCDL, in particular, responded by publishing materials emphasizing the psychological value of pets to the traumatized public during the 1940 blitz, when the Nazis bombed civilian targets in London on 57 consecutive nights. One widely distributed NCDL poster showed an adopted dog accompanying a young woman on duty as an aircraft spotter.
At Baldwin’s arrival, the NCDL remained institutionally centered on providing subsidized veterinary care for dogs, even though the need had diminished, and was only secondarily involved in rehoming dogs, though rehoming had officially become a focal mission in 1963. Coining the motto “A dog is for life,” Baldwin as publicity chief led the NCDL transition to emphasize rehoming.
Baldwin closed the last of the increasingly obsolescent NCDL clinics in 1987, a year after becoming chief executive. In place of the clinics, Baldwin expanded to 19 the NCDL network of rehoming centers, emphasizing innovative architecture that did away with the prison-like atmosphere characterizing most older animal shelters. When some of her experiments failed, Baldwin as soon as practicable had the facilities demolished and rebuilt, following more successful models. The result was to encourage the first revolution in dog kennel design in the 3,000 years that dogs are known to have been kept in kennels. Many other animal charities have contributed ideas, notably the Hong Kong SPCA and the San Francisco SPCA, but no others have tested as many different ideas side-by-side and simultaneously.
Baldwin’s boldest and most successful action, however, may have come on October 9, 2003, when she gave the NCDL the new name Dogs Trust. Few executives would even think of retitling an institution that had already enjoyed name recognition throughout Britain for 112 years, but Baldwin had her eye on the world. The NCDL had cofounded the International Companion Animal Welfare Conference series in 1996. Focused on training and empowering animal advocates in the former Communist nations of eastern Europe, the ICAWC conference grew into helping humane organizations in the less affluent parts of southern Europe and the Middle East as well.
The name Dogs Trust conveys a positive message about dogs in any language. The NCDL under Baldwin had already enjoyed unprecedented economic growth, from about £3 million per year to circa £20 million, but revenues have soared to £75 million per year as Dogs Trust.
Baldwin will be succeeded by Adrian Burder, who came into the organization in 1994 the same way she did, as chief of publicity, and has been integrally involved in the ICAWC conferences since inception.