Cage & Aviary Letters to the editor.

Published January 1st 2004

Dear Sir,

With reference to the RSPCA seeking powers under the proposed new Animal Welfare Bill (as stated 15th December issue of Cage & Aviary Birds), in the presentation made by Graham Thurlow at the Federation of British Herpetologists (FBH) Conference held on the 25th of October this year, he did state that no decisions had been made in respect of giving powers to issue improvement notices to the RSPCA and that they had not specifically asked for powers of entry. It is, however, very clear that the RSPCA are expecting to be given such powers and that the purpose of improvement notices would be hindered without such.

Whilst RSPCA Headquarters may well openly state that they have no powers of entry (and indeed do not wish to have such powers), this is not reflected by what we see on the ground. The RSPCA currently have no powers of entry and when raiding a property in course of an investigation police are asked to attend to prevent a breach of the peace, often blissfully unaware that it is their presence that has facilitated entry. The police are then left to carry the can when the activity has been proven to be unlawful, as has been demonstrated in a recent Court case.

The RSPCA claim “The courts are a last resort for inspectors, who prefer to educate rather than prosecute”. This is palpably untrue the vast majority of inspectors have little or no training on reptiles, or birds for that matter, and no idea of specialist husbandry. It is, therefore, highly questionable how they can educate others if they themselves do not have the necessary expertise. In all too many cases the first visit by the RSPCA sees the animals removed, often in dubious circumstances, and summonses duly issued. The major concern that the FBH has with this situation is that RSPCA prosecutions are not quality tested in that no independent overview of the case is taken, as is the case with police prosecutions. Should the police seek to prosecute then the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will independently review the case to see if an offence has actually been committed and, if so, if there is sufficient evidence to secure a prosecution.

RSPCA prosecutions are private prosecutions and no such safeguards are in place. In essence, the RSPCA could bring a prosecution against any animal keeper at any time, even if little or no evidence of cruelty or neglect exists. All that is required to secure a conviction is an expert witness who is paid (and often very highly paid) by the RSPCA to state that in his opinion the animal/s is suffering. Is this right? The FBH view is that it is not and we further believe that the RSPCA should operate the same system as the Scottish SPCA. This would mean they do not directly bring the prosecution but gather evidence of any offences and present this to the CPS with a view to prosecute. This would give a safeguard that all prosecutions would be independently reviewed by an external body and that anyone accused would be entitled to a defense. Worryingly this is not currently the case with RSPCA prosecutions and if you are unable to afford to defend yourself you will almost certainly be found guilty as a result. The FBH currently have concerns that up to 80% of RSPCA prosecutions are unsafe.

Today that the RSPCA see themselves as the ‘Animal Police’ (a term they coined) or as some inspectors say “we are the law enforcement agency for animals". They are not, they are a charity and as such their income is exempt from taxation, meaning we all pay to subsidise their activities. In order to get this benefit they are meant to comply with the law on charities, a complex web of statute and case law which includes various things that a charity cannot do - specifically indulge in political activity, ie campaigning for laws to be changed.

Should they be given any formal powers under the proposed new Bill it would be disastrous for bird, reptile, and indeed animal keepers in general. The continuing downward spiral of the RSPCA from Animal Welfare Organisation to Animal Rights Group and the licentious political campaigning must surely preclude them from holding any authority over animal keepers. The principle of improvement notices is sound and desirable, but clearly the RSPCA is not the organisation that could be entrusted to hold such a important role in today’s society.

Chris Newman

Editor Reptilian Magazine

Chairman Federation British Herpetologists