This Issue

RSPCA Told to Put Human Needs Before Animal Pain

By Simon Ward

International News for CAMPFIRE, April 1996

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), Britain's oldest animal welfare organisation but a recent convert to animal rights, has been instructed by the commission which oversees UK charities to stop campaigning against activities of benefit to man.

The slap on the wrist from the Charity Commissioners is contained in a letter to the RSPCA from chief commissioner Richard Fries. ART was refused a copy of the original, but the letter was quoted at length in The Guardian (March 27).

According to the Guardian, Fries told the RSPCA it would be acting "in a way inconsistent with its charitable status" if it "asserted that the infliction of pain on animals could not be justified, even in circumstances in which it confers a higher benefit upon mankind."

The RSPCA promptly sought a legal opinion on the validity of the ruling which proved even blunter. "Charity must serve the overriding object of the public benefit," wrote Christopher McCall QC. "That is to be measured in terms of the benefit to mankind."

Ron Kirkby, chairman of the RSPCA's ruling council, was quoted as saying: "As a responsible charity, we must now accept human needs are paramount."

However, Dr. Arthur Lindley, head of the RSPCA's Wildlife Department, told International News that discussions were still ongoing on interpretation of the Charity Law. "The Charity Commissioners have indicated that the RSPCA "should have regard to any demonstrable human benefit" when devising its campaigns, he said, and that cases of "overriding human benefit" should "influence" the charity's position.

One thing is certain: if change does result, it will involve difficult decisions for an organisation which has spent the last 20 years expanding its remit from simple animal welfare to embrace both animal rights and conservation.

Wealthiest Charity

Founded in 1824, the RSPCA receives more donations than any other British charity (34 million in 1994), and has reserves estimated at over 100 million. Yet while its revenues have continued to grow, bolstered by legacies of people perhaps unaware of the shift in policy, membership has been in sharp decline, from a peak of 55,000 in the late 1960s to about 28,000 today.

In part this is because of the proliferation since the 1970s of charities competing for animal lovers' donations, in particular "environmental" NGOs, but there has also been a mass defection by members despairing at the RSPCA's political strategy.

Once known for sending kindly middle-aged inspectors to investigate local instances of cruelty, the RSPCA is today associated more with high-profile campaigns, such as saving whales or banning blood sports, that raise awareness of the organisation but do nothing for such traditional "constituents" as unwanted or abused pets.

This shift in outlook can be traced back to the early 1980s, when the emerging animal rights faction within the RSPCA began to usurp power from the animal welfare moderates. The culmination of this move was the adoption by the RSPCA in 1984 of an official "Declaration of Animal Rights" (see Box), and the passing of a resolution urging members to become vegetarians.

Animal rights remained a low-key item on Britain's political agenda until, in 1992, a bill came before Parliament seeking to ban all blood sports, including the time-honoured rural tradition of fox-hunting. Between them, the RSPCA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) reportedly spent some 3 million in three weeks on shocking advertisements in support of this bill.

International Issues

The RSPCA has also branched out from tackling domestic issues to become a player in the international animal-protection movement.

The back-stage role which the RSPCA seems to prefer makes it hard to quantify its influence, but it is known to fund work by other animal-protection groups - such as by the Environmental Investigation Agency on the wild bird trade - and the funds at its disposal are considerable.

It is also a member of the Species Survival Network (SSN), an informal grouping of NGOs whose mission statement is: "Working within CITES for the protection and conservation of species in international commercial trade."

The SSN, which counts among its members such influential animal rights groups as IFAW and the Humane Society of the U.S., is generally opposed to trade in wildlife and is expected to mount a major campaign to prevent the downlisting of the African elephant when CITES next meets in June 1997.

The RSPCA's Lindley declined to comment on any position the SSN might adopt. However, he did say that if "overriding human benefit" can be demonstrated by a wildlife resource management programme such as Campfire, "it may affect the RSPCA's work."

ART is hopeful, therefore, that Lindley will accept a recent offer to show him examples of Campfire projects prior to the next meeting of CITES.

Change or Rebellion?

While the RSPCA's stance on trade in wildlife is unlikely to come under close scrutiny in Britain (it is generally viewed as a "conservation" issue, and the domestic constituency affected is small), its uncompromising stance on blood sports has opened the eyes of the whole spectrum of British animal users, from anglers to farmers, to the organisation's animal rights agenda.

If the RSPCA bows to the will of the Charity Commissioners, this will all change.

According to the Guardian, the RSPCA's campaign against the use of chimpanzees for vivisection in the Netherlands has been an early "casualty", whilst its campaigns against hunting and live exports are now open to legal challenge. Keynote publications detailing the philosophical and ethical arguments for animal rights may have to be withdrawn or heavily revised, and a policy that requires all members to accept the RSPCA's views or face ejection (including an outright ban on membership by intensive farmers) may face review.

But whether it can easily abandon this agenda remains to be seen.

The RSPCA's current ruling council is heavily weighted with prominent animal rights activists, among them Angela Walder, who told the Guardian: "The situation is incomprehensible. We've got little old ladies all round the country giving us money from their pensions to fight for animals - they aren't going to understand this quango saying we can't do it. To hell with the Charity Commissioners."


RSPCA "Declaration of Animal Rights"

(Published in "Policies on Animal Welfare", revised 1991)

"Inasmuch as there is ample evidence that many animal species are capable of feeling, we condemn totally the infliction of suffering upon our fellow creatures and the curtailment of their behavioural and other needs save where this is necessary for their own individual benefit.

"We do not accept that a difference in species alone (any more than a difference in race) can justify wanton exploitation or oppression in the name of science or sport, or for use as food, for commercial profit or for other human gain.

"We believe in the evolutionary and moral kinship of all animals and declare our belief that all sentient creatures have rights to life, liberty and natural enjoyment.

"We therefore call for the protection of these rights."