Are you something of a Dr Dolittle? Even if you can't talk to the animals, you may have a passion for animal rights and welfare. Katy Geary shows how the RSPCA works to prevent cruelty to animals, enforce animal welfare law and prosecute offenders

What is the RSPCA?

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was formed in 1824 to improve the lives of animals through campaigning, education and practical means. The largest and oldest animal welfare organisation in the world, it is a charity that receives no government funding. In 2000, the RSPCA's 24-hour cruelty line received a call every 19 seconds. Trained staff offer advice to callers or pass instructions to one of the uniformed RSPCA inspectors or animal collection officers (ACOs) across England and Wales. A separate organisation, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA), covers all of Scotland with a similar team of inspectors.

Pets and their problems

An RSPCA inspector's most important task is to investigate cruelty complaints, which typically involve domestic pets. These complaints can range from dogs with flea problems to rabbits kept in cramped hutches. Often the suffering is caused by ignorance, so the inspector will offer welfare advice. Many people take on pets without considering the costs and commitment involved. This can lead to the cruel abandonment of animals simply because their owners can no longer cope. The RSPCA is particularly concerned about the trend in keeping exotic pets, which have specialised needs and are difficult to look after.

Animal rescues

Helping animals in distress is all part of an RSPCA inspector's job. Inspectors have retrieved iguanas from trees, rescued cats from chimney pots and hauled cows from rivers. Animal emergencies can occur on land and at sea, so boats are used in the recovery of injured birds from waterways and to rescue seals stranded on the coast. On hand to assist the inspectors are RSPCA animal collection officers, who pick up casualties and transfer them to hospitals or animal centres.

Working with wildlife

Inspectors and ACOs are kept busy all year round rescuing sick and injured wildlife. Common casualties are small mammals and birds entangled in litter or fishing tackle, swans that have flown into overhead cables, and foxes, deer and badgers involved in road accidents.

Farm animal welfare

The RSPCA campaigns to improve the lives of farm animals. The society runs a scheme called Freedom Food, which includes meat, eggs and dairy products from animals reared, transported and slaughtered according to high UK standards of welfare. Inspectors also investigate complaints of cruelty to livestock on farms and smallholdings.

Action against cruelty

The RSPCA aims to prevent cruelty through education, taking court proceedings only as a last resort. On occasion it is necessary to prosecute in an attempt to ban cruel owners from having custody of animals. Last year, the RSPCA's 328 inspectors investigated a total of 126,746 complaints, leading to over800 prosecutions.

How YOU can help the RSPCA help animals

The RSPCA relies on public support in its fight for the welfare of all animals across the world. You can help in many ways:

  • Make a donation
  • Become a member of the RSPCA
  • If you have younger relatives or family friends aged 12 or under, they may also be able to join in and help unprotected animals. The RSPCA Animal Action club is there for young animal lovers
  • Volunteer to help out at your local RSPCA branch
  • Ask your teacher to register on the RSPCA Education website
  • Campaign against cruelty by writing to your MP about animal welfare issues
  • If you see an animal that you believe is suffering, call the RSPCA on 08705 555999

Combating cruelty at home and overseas with the RSPCA

The International department has been assisting over 400 overseas animal welfare organisations, donating funds to projects abroad, and campaigning in Europe to improve animal welfare. It has set up projects in India to help neuter stray dogs and has trained workers from overseas welfare organisations.

The Farm Animals department works with the Government and farming organisations to improve the welfare of farm animals. This can range from improvements in the rearing and transport of animals, to the use of hormones in cattle.

The Research Animals department works to improve welfare standards for research animals. The RSPCA is against all animal experiments or procedures that cause pain, suffering or distress. It campaigns to find humane alternatives to testing on animals, to reduce the number of animals used in experiments and to bring about a reduction in suffering and substantial improvements in the welfare of laboratory animals.

The Wildlife department works to protect wild animals from cruelty, anything from research into saving oiled birds, to lobbying the Government and Europe to tighten up regulations on fishing nets that can kill porpoises. It addresses four main areas: wildlife care and rehabilitation; management and control of native wildlife; trade in wildlife; and marine mammals and fisheries.

The Veterinary department manages the RSPCA's four animal hospitals, five clinics and 13 animal centres, and sets standards for the society's network of branch vet clinics and homes. The small team of experts works closely with the British Veterinary Association and other groups.

The Special Operations Unit works to gather intelligence on the mistreatment of animals in areas such as cock fighting and badger baiting. Plain-clothes officers trail live transport shipments to monitor any infringement of regulations, and often take part in weeks of undercover surveillance to expose illegal events such as dog fighting.

Public affairs specialists advise MPs and ministers about welfare issues ­ over the 177 years that the RSPCA has been in existence, the charity has managed to implement a considerable amount of legislation to improve animal welfare.

Careers in the RSPCA/SSPCA

RSPCA and SSPCA inspectors are driven by an overwhelming concern for animal welfare. They work long hours in conditions that are often cold, dangerous, dirty and distressing.

You must be at least 22 years old before you can join, physically fit, able to swim 50m fully clothed and able to drive. You must also be prepared to compete with 1,000 other people for every vacancy!

Wild life:

If you want to help our furry, fluffy and feathered friends, here are some more useful contacts for registered animal charities. Many of the websites also advertise job vacancies.

Action for Animals, PO Box 986, Southampton, SO19 5TR;

Animal Aid, Tel: 01732 364 546;

Battersea Dogs Home, 4 Battersea Park Road, SW8 4AA, tel: 020-7622 3626;Crowhurst Lane, Ask, Kent, tel: 01474 874994,Priest Hill, Old Windsor, Berkshire, tel: 01784 432929;

Blue Cross, Shilton Road, Burford, Oxon, OX18 4PF, tel: 01993 822 651;

World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Panda House, Weyside Park, Godalming, Surrey, GU7 1XR,tel: 01483 426 444;

You might also look at some of the following: in World Farming is campaigning to end the factory farming of animals Mammal Society's site provides access to its publications, lists of forthcoming events and activities, and a fun zone You can visit this site to search for or register a lost pet Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity you're an animal fan, nature sleuth or young environmentalist, Wildlife Watch is an exciting way to explore your surroundings and get closer to the wildlife around you

worldanimal.netWorld Animal Net is a worldwide network of animal protection societies campaigning to improve the status and welfare of animals Society for the Protection of Animals has grown over the past 45 years into one of the biggest animal welfare organisations in the world