The Government's response has been "reasonably positive", the society said yesterday, when it released its annual figures on animal cruelty, showing a 17.5 per cent rise in convictions in 1998 from 1997.
The RSPCA believes the remarkable increase is more due to a rise in public awareness gained from programmes such as Rolf Harris's Animal Hospital than an absolute increase in cruelty, but it still highlighted large numbers of what it called "barbaric and debased" cases of animals being ill-treated.
Yesterday the society called for the microchipping of all animals where suitable, a move it believes would greatly diminish cases of cruelty and neglect as the silicon chips, which are the size of a cooked grain of rice and can be harmlessly inserted under the skin, would enable owners to be traced without fail. The chips can be fitted to virtually all animals "from a mouse to a camel", as well as to reptiles and birds, the charity's communications director, John Rolls, said.
In some of the worst cases the RSPCA highlighted yesterday, including that of a dog hung from a railway bridge, the owners had not been traced.
At the moment there is a purely voluntary scheme under which pets microchipped by a vet for a fee of about pounds 20 are registered on PetLog, a database run jointly by the RSPCA and the Kennel Club. Take-up has so far been modest, covering about 470,000 of Britain's 6.9 million dogs and 270,000 of eight million cats. "To have every pet microchipped would be the ideal situation," said Tony Crittenden, the RSPCA's chief inspector.
Government sources confirmed yesterday that talks are taking place with several interested bodies about "the permanent identification of dogs", by microchipping or tattooing. "The key question is whether or not it should be compulsory," a source said. "The Government has no fixed views." A working group on the issue, chaired by the Environment minister Alan Meale, will have its first meeting in a month's time.
Last year, the RSPCA said, there were 3,114 convictions for animal cruelty in England and Wales, 17.5 per cent up on the 1997 figure of 2,650. Prison sentences were imposed on 73 people. The society received 1,558,131 telephone calls - one every 20 seconds - 11 per cent up from the 1,397,516 calls it received the year before. "The increases are partly due to the fact that we have more inspectors than ever before, but we also think programmes like Animal Hospital make the public more aware of our work, and more likely than ever to report cruelty to us," Mr Crittenden said.
The North-east headed the regional animal cruelty table for the fifth year running, with 798 convictions last year, far more than any other region. Also noticeable in the new statistics was a large jump in cruelty to farm animals; there were 191 cases of cruelty to cattle last year as against 44 in 1997; 448 cases of cruelty to sheep, against 150; and 210 cases of cruelty to pigs, up from 39. "These figures must in some way reflect the current farming crisis, although we believe that 99 per cent of farmers are very concerned with their animals' welfare," Mr Crittenden said.
Cases of abuse included a South American iguana suffering from multiple abscesses and mite infestation abandoned among a flock of sheep in Somerset; three greyhound puppies who nearly starved to death and only survived by eating the bodies of their dead siblings; a cat scalded and given multiple fractures from kicking by its owner, who was later sent to jail; a flock of sheep found dead and dying as their farmer owner celebrated his wedding day; and the dog hung from a bridge in the Leicestershire town of Loughborough.
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