The RSPCA: Can it destroy and protect animals at the same time?

A debate will take place in the House of Commons tomorrow on the role of the RSPCA


No charity has seen its public estimation plunge lower and faster than that of the RSPCA.

The country’s biggest animal welfare charity with a royal title, ‘is one of Britain’s most complained about charities,’ according to the Charity Commission. And now the RSPCA is under attack for its expenditure on prosecutions at the expense of rehoming animals and is accused of playing politics instead of focusing on animal welfare. Tomorrow the Tory MP Simon Hart is sponsoring a debate in the House of Commons on the role of the RSPCA as a prosecutor.

Is all this criticism fair? Well, you cannot have missed the woeful tales of the UK’s homeless animals. Rescue centres across the country are overwhelmed with the furry, the feathered, the tailed and the lop eared who bring so much comfort and joy into our lives but find themselves the hapless victims of rogue owners. Unwanted and homeless the clock starts ticking from the moment they arrive and every passing day the odds against our animal friends stack up.

Many rescue centres have stopped accepting more strays or unwanted animals altogether simply because they haven’t the room to house them. Most of them are young, healthy and there for reasons beyond their control like ‘change of circumstances,’ ‘unsuitable,’ or ‘split up.’ Synonyms for ‘change of mind,’ ‘can’t be bothered’ or ‘doesn’t match the sofa.’ Pets are discarded as readily as we throw out pieces of junk to free up some space. None of this is the RSPCA’s doing.

But what is undeniably so heart breaking is the numbers destroyed every year. The RSPCA destroyed more than 53,000 animals last year, nearly half of all the animals it rescued, and thousands of these died simply for lack of space. And this is what outrages many people. Amidst destruction on this scale then, it could be understandable that the public find it hard to justify the eye watering £326,000 spent by the charity on prosecuting members of the Heythrop Hunt in Oxfordshire; money that some argue would surely have been better spent on saving the lives of the homeless. I too feel just as brokenhearted at the thought that we can do no better than extinguish these happy little lives as they are each led out, tails wagging and delighted to see someone at last.

Yet despite these tragic figures I stand by every penny spent by the RSPCA on prosecutions against animal abuse and applaud the 20% leap in convictions they secured last year. Holding people responsible for atrocious acts of animal cruelty is not only just and proper in itself but an essential part of any civilised society. Whether it’s ‘sportsmen’ who get a kick out of ripping live foxes to shreds, youngsters microwaving their hamsters or the deliberate malicious suffering inflicted upon a horse, prosecutions reinforce the important message of zero tolerance towards animal cruelty.

Based upon a success rate of over 98% of prosecutions the RSPCA is evidently good at upholding the laws to prevent cruelty to animals. But why all the shock and hostility when the RSPCA is, after all, only doing what it says on the tin and fulfilling its commitment to the animals and the promise made to their supporters when they generously hand over hard earned cash. If not the RSPCA, who else do we see prepared to defend the most vulnerable who are unable to stand up for themselves? Animal abusers will get away with it, with whatever ensuing human directed crimes that may invoke, and the view that animals are mere ‘things’ to satisfy our wishes will remain entrenched in society.

It is no coincidence that the House of Commons debate tomorrow has been raised by ex-chief executive of the pro-hunting lobby group ‘Countryside Alliance’, following the recent successful prosecution of Heythrop Hunt - which predictably upset those seeking repeal of the Hunting Act and the return of blood sports. However, it was the prevarication of the huntsmen themselves, who eventually pleaded guilty to numerous charges, that caused the costs to escalate. It was the commitment of the RSPCA against people like these who take the law into their own hands and persist with gory antiquated traditions that are incongruent with contemporary society and public opinion that won in the end.

And so prosecuting the law breakers is essential to teach people, young and old, that animals are sentient beings that deserve our compassion and respect and that we have a responsibility of care towards them. These responsibilities include spaying and neutering our pets, important steps toward ending animal homelessness on the scale we see today.

So while we are outraged over euthanising healthy dogs that have been abandoned, we should remember the underlying attitude of our throw away consumerist society that includes animals, those who cannot afford to keep pets during the recession, the decline in donations and legacies to animal charities like the RSPCA and check the neuter status of our own pets. We should also ask who are the ones doing anything about it.

No animal should have to live their final days on death’s row unloved and unwanted as the clock ticks down their final hours. But while we may abhor the euthanisation of perfectly healthy good natured animals we should equally support prosecutions, even the most astronomically expensive ones, which are a step towards a day that sees all pets as loved and valued family members and all animals treated with the respect and kindness they deserve. Otherwise, we have to ask what kind of savage, inhumane and uncompassionate society do we want to live in, and what is to be done with 126,176 and rising abandoned dogs each year?

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