WMN opinion: RSPCA status as acceptable face of animal care at risk
The RSPCA is a part of the fabric of British life. Its formation in 1824, by anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, MP Richard Martin and Devon clergyman Arthur Broome, marked a turning point in the way animals – especially working horses, dogs and other domestic animals – were treated. Among its most enthusiastic supporters, down the years, have been dog owners, horse riders and farmers – country folk often engaged in country sports and anxious to see the animals they lived with, worked with and relied upon, treated properly.
But there is no doubt that in more recent years support from huntsmen, gundog owners and others engaged in rural activities involving animals have grown wary about the position of the RSPCA. It may have launched the Freedom Foods brand in partnership with farmers who follow high welfare standards but it has also, in just the last few months, threatened to “name and shame” farmers who cooperate with the upcoming pilot badger culls here in the Westcountry and, most recently of all, spent over £300,000 in legal fees taking David Cameron’s local hunt, the Heythrop in Oxfordshire, to court for illegal hunting. This has raised questions about whether it is using its supporters’ funds wisely.
That’s why at yesterday’s debate in Westminster Hall, MPs were asking whether the charity, which takes a great deal of money in modest donations from trusting animal-lovers, has lost its animal welfare credentials to an aggressive animal-rights driven agenda.
Even more importantly, the debate asked if the RSPCA’s role as a quasi-judicial organisation, prosecuting alleged cases of cruelty under its own steam, rather than through the police and the Crown Prosecution Service is appropriate, given what seems to many to be the increasing politicisation of the organisation. Let’s be clear, animal rights organisations promoting an end to all country sports, even the emancipation of all farm animals and total vegetarianism, have a perfect right to exist. So long as they clearly state their aims and objectives, in line with Charity Commission rules and regulations, no one can object. If they attract members and support, so be it – that’s how a free society works.
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What is not acceptable, however, is for an organisation that purports to be one thing and attracts its funding in that guise, actually operates in quite a different way. Under its relatively recently appointed chief executive, Gavin Grant, the RSPCA appears to have lurched significantly towards following a much harder line on animal rights. That, we would suggest, is out of kilter with its status as a prosecutor and its use of its inspectors as the “policemen” of the animal world. It would be unthinkable, for example if Animal Aid or other more combative charities had such a status. Is it time the RSPCA joined them?