Dr Daniel Allen questions the direction and the politics of the RSPCA, is their priority animal rights and not animal welfare?
Last year was an eventful one for the RSPCA, starting in January when Gavin Grant became its chief executive. With a background in communications and public affairs (The Body Shop, Burson-Marsteller UK – and he was also the RSPCA’s director of campaigns and communication from 1988 to 1991), Grant quickly got to work on the reputation and finances of the UK’s largest animal charity. “Any serious brand focuses on its reputation,” he told Third Sector in February. “My job is to generate the income that means there won’t be any job losses. If I’m not successful, the society is not in a sustainable position.”
In my role as a pet magazine columnist, unsavoury stories about the RSPCA continued to reach me: breeders of small pets and animal education companies hounded following unsubstantiated allegations; ferrets and reptiles redirected to smaller charities; healthy cats and dogs euthanised; rehoming offers refused; reports of neglect and cruelty dismissed by call-centre staff. Issues like these are not new. They have tarnished the reputation of the charity over the decades. Proudly “Looking to the future”, the new management has inherited a multitude of problems deeply ingrained from past mistakes.
In September, Grant pulled off a PR coup. Dr Brian May CBE of Queen fame was announced as a vice-president of the charity. May is beyond celebrity: he is an international icon, a respected animal welfarist, an academic and a genuinely likeable individual. He had already positioned himself as the spokesman for badgers. The badger cull debate essentially revolves around scientific uncertainty. If evidence that culling is the most appropriate option is not forthcoming, op-ponents of the cull are certain to have popular support. This association has been excellent publicity for the RSPCA.
The arrival of May was a clear indication of the direction in which Grant wanted to take the RSPCA. May founded Save Me during the run-up to the 2010 elections. This non-profit organisation is unapologetically political. The website reads: “It was evident that if David Cameron were to become elected as prime minister he would try to bring back Fox Hunting by repealing the act. It was an issue firmly in his manifesto and clearly important to him.” The Save Me objective, which echoes that of the League Against Cruel Sports’ (LACS), is to speak out “about the cruel minority in our society that feels it is their right to persecute and torture wildlife for sport”. The main difference is that Save Me is driven by May, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) UK person of the Year 2012.
Save Me shares its supporters with the LACS, Hunt Saboteurs Association, Born Free and Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (Viva!). They each do excellent work in relation to their respective causes, but their views can be seen as marginal, some would say extreme, which denies them mainstream support. If it is Grant’s intention to realign the RSPCA with groups that promote animal rights over animal welfare, the UK’s largest charity will lose members, his staff will lose their jobs and animals will suffer.
Hunting with hounds has been a thorny subject for the RSPCA for some time. Recent press coverage of the Heythrop Hunt prosecution has been a PR disaster, comparable to a near-forgotten event in 1906 when, during the RSPCA’s 82nd anniversary meeting on 21 May, Humanitarian League member Stephen Coleridge unexpectedly proposed that the committee should prepare a Bill to make otter-hunting illegal. Standing in front of an eagerly awaiting audience in Egyptian Hall, Mansion House, Coleridge put forward a rather lengthy case for his unauthorised but “friendly amendment” to the report. Coleridge’s speech was welcomed with loud cheers and applause. By gently questioning the purpose of the RSPCA, and urging its members to answer with action, the majority of the audience was won over. The charity agreed to support a Bill to outlaw otter-hunting. However, after two months of pressure, the Bill was exposed as an empty promise and the RSPCA decided not to risk its reputation.
Now, 106 years later, the RSPCA has once again bared its teeth against blood sports, this time in court. The problem is that the media frenzy surrounding such an emotive issue pushes foxes (and badgers) to the forefront of the public imagination. Members who have donated to help rehome pets, rehabilitate wild animals and ensure that future food is treated ethically in life are understandably miffed that culled badgers and hunted foxes are the new priority. They are not, but they appear to be. Admittedly, the £327,000 spent on the Heythrop case did not help matters; this could have maintained at least 10 smaller, independent rescue centres for the whole of 2013. But it is not this but the rhetoric surrounding these issues that is doing the damage.
On 19 December 2012, Grant wrote in the Guardian: “Those who have accused the RSPCA of having political motives are plain wrong. We were founded and are supported by politicians of all parties. Our motivations are to prevent cruelty and promote compassion for animals.”
The motivations are not in question but targeting the local foxhunt of the Conservative prime minister does appear politically driven, especially in light of the Save Me link. The Humanitarian League, formed in 1891, targeted the Queen’s Buckhounds, which hunted carted deer, and the Eton Beagles in the 1890s and 1900s. It makes perfect sense to find a high-profile peg on which to hang your intentions. But previous attempts to prosecute hunts through the Crown Prosecution Service have not reached court. Strategically, in terms of setting a precedent, private prosecution may have been the only option for the RSPCA. Aside from the cost, this case underlines the fact the law does protect hunted animals.
Sentencing in relation to animal cruelty is far too lenient. Grant knows this, as does the public. Stephen Stacey from Portsmouth, for example, was given a 16-week custodial sentence suspended for 18 months for microwaving his cat. Javed Jahangir from Chesham received 20 weeks in prison, a £5,000 fine and a lifetime ban from keeping animals after admitting four charges linked to dog-fighting. Back-street dog breeders James and Lorraine Perks and Stephen Jenkins buried newborn puppies alive in their Tamworth garden; each was sentenced to 25 weeks in prison. Finally, Richard Sumner and Julian Barnfield pleaded guilty to four charges of unlawfully hunting a wild fox with dogs, as did the Heythrop Hunt. The collective fines were £6,800, plus costs.
When the forward-thinking chief executive mentioned jail sentences of two to five years for those convicted under the Hunting Act, the eyebrows of even the most ardent RSPCA members were raised. In the context of broader prosecutions the suggestion is blinkered, inconsistent and sensationalist. Grant can argue he was highlighting the untrodden legal ground upon which this “landmark” prosecution stands. A foxhunt had not been prosecuted before. “Two years? Five years?” was his actual quote. But, again, public image and politics have informed the society’s reputation, blurring intentions and seemingly prioritising hunted animals. Perceptions of animal cruelty are subjective, but “ideal” sentencing must be clear and consistent. More severe penalties are most welcome, but they must be imposed on all animal abusers, not just those who attract national press coverage.
Grant’s fighting talk has been publicity gold. “Those who get a kick out of it, those who consciously abuse animals for profit or for pleasure – they are the enemies of the animals, and that makes them the enemies of the RSPCA.” But is this what the milder-mannered RSPCA members want? It is fine to be “heard ever more loudly, ever more clearly”, but compassion is what they signed up for. Now Grant’s personal reputation has been firmly established, one hopes this passion and energy will be redirected to the charity’s internal problems. No doubt this is in action, but the public does not know about it. Clarity is needed. As changes start being made to inherited inconsistencies, Grant should shout proudly about such achievements.
The associated propaganda has also been publicity-centric. On 24 December, May Tweeted: “On Boxing Day the vile Hunters will be out there pretending they are not pursuing foxes. This obscenity must end. Support #RSPCA #LACS.” With one Tweet, 250,000 hunt supporters vilified.
This was closely followed by an inaccurate generalisation about fox behaviour: “If anyone tells you their dogs killed a fox ‘by accident’ remember a fox will be out in daylight ONLY if its earth has been blocked up.” The fact that most people hunt to ride, and foxes have been known to wander freely around the countryside during the day, is ignored. May is an intelligent man. In all likelihood he was merely preaching to the choir, reminding followers about the cause and generating support. But in these days of social media, “Support #RSPCA #LACS” speaks for itself.
At the end of 2012, the public perception of the RSPCA was of a charitable cash cow being milked of its donations and dignity by Save Me and the LACS. Attempts to revolutionise the society have resulted in some traditional members becoming disillusioned and support is wavering. If the charity wants to deflect claims of its being a politically motivated organisation, it must start supporting smaller, non-profit organisations and charities with its powers to prosecute, not by funding their campaigns. The recent launch of a Fighting Fund was an intelligent move that should dismiss future criticism. Supporters can donate specifically to the fund, on the understanding that their contributions will be used to finance large, private prosecutions.
The RSPCA needs change. In Grant, the charity has a passionate leader desperate to make a difference. In May, it has an influential and respected lobbyist with a proven record of supporting wildlife rescue. As with all revolutions there will be casualties, but the new management needs to think carefully about what it is changing the RSPCA into.
Its officials claim to be rescuers, rehabili-tators, rehomers, advisors, campaigners, lobbyists and the only animal charity with the powers to prosecute. Its areas of concern include wildlife, pets, farm animals and animals in laboratories. Its five pledges are to: end overpopulation of companion animals and tackle related issues; end the euthanasia of any rehomeable animal; increase the proportion of animals reared under higher welfare systems in the UK; reduce the number of animals in the UK that undergo severe suffering when used in experiments; and reduce the number of exotic animals kept as pets and increase their humane care. An inward-looking pledge is notable by its absence. The RSPCA may be the oldest, largest and richest animal-welfare charity in the UK, but it has clearly bitten off more than it can chew. So what does the future hold for the charity?
If Grant wants to improve the reputation of the RSPCA and attract new members, he would be wise to tone down his rhetoric. He should let go of the coat-tails of other charity causes and be seen to be putting his own house in order. He must take stock of inherited inadequacies, investigate claims of incompetence and listen to the members who pay his wages. Last year was one of transition; 2013 must be a year of reflection and stabilisation. The future promises to be fascinating and I, personally, look forward to positive change. However, the RSPCA should take note of anti-hunting rhetoric: tradition does not protect a repu-tation or ensure future support.
Dr Daniel Allen is an affiliate member of IUCN/SSC Otter Specialist Group and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (www.drdanielallen.co.uk). His book, The Nature Magpie (Icon Books), is released May 2013.