The Guardian Weekend 24 May 1997

Written by Lynne Wallis

All is not well within the RSPCA, the country's largest, oldest and best known animal-welfare charity. Its high profile, enhanced by aggressive marketing and royal patronage, ensures it an income of around 40 million a year in donations far more than any of the other animal charities. But its growing number of critics believe that, if the archetypal, animal- loving little old ladies knew how their contributions were spent, they'd be shaking their collecting tins and earmarking their legacies for some other cause.

Critics include members of the RSPCA's own council, other animal charities, vets, breeders, current and ex-staff, disillusioned volunteers, breed rescue groups and animal behaviourists. They say the society has grown arrogant: its financial clout and friends in high places have made it impervious to criticism and adept at marginalising those who question policy.

In a nutshell, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stands accused of destroying too many animals and misusing, or under-using, its huge financial resources. There has been internal dissent for many years and frequent bust-ups between branches and head office. The charity, so say the critics, is run on inappropiately military lines; far too much is spent on administration; and there is too little commitment to animal welfare.

The RSPCA faced its last major challenge in 1974, when the independent Sparrow Inquiry looked into the charity's handling of its finances following allegations of mismanagement. There were accusations of "high living" by HQ staff while animals were kept in poor conditions. Three members of the reform group responsible for much of the criticism made headline news when they claimed they had received death threats. In his report, Charles Sparrow QC made 30 recommendations, including better long-term financial planning and improved budgetary systems.

Then in 1994, some members of the RSPCA Council, the charity's elected governing body, called for another inquiry into the use of funds, pointing to the senselessness of sitting on a cash mountain of 75m while volunteers struggled to raise money for animal welfare. The criticisms were rejected by the charity's directors and the request for an inquiry refused.

An organisation calling itself the Provisional RSPCA has recently begun sending letters out on RSPCA letterhead to the branches, signed A Mole, detailing RSPCA plans such as its scheduled move to new premises at an estimated cost of 10-12m. The current HQ, a Georgian mansion in Horsham, isn't big enough, and Peter Davies, director general of the RSPCA, pointed out that it gets unbearably hot in summer. A Mole has also written about alleged losses of 1-2m incurred by the Freedom Food initiative, launched to improve standards of animal food production and widely perceived as a huge failure.

The charity's reserves have now reached 85m(Update 1999). Half of its 40m annual income still goes on salaries, compared with less than seven per cent at the National Canine Defence League (NCDL) and a similar figure at Blue Cross. The RSPCA argues that its salary bill is high because it employs 1,200 people, many more than the other charities. Davies says: "We do have large reserves now, and we put it down to television programmes like Animal Hospital attracting more donations than ever, but we've also been rather lucky with legacies recently. It happens sometimes. Anyway, the British public think we do a bloody good job, or they wouldn't donate to us." The society has just announced plans to spend 10m on new animal homes.

At present, the RSPCA puts down more animals than any other charity: in 1995, no less than 71,596. Of that number, 25,661 were deemed too sick or too injured to live. The RSPCA claims it doesn't have the facilities to keep animals for long if no new home is found, and after seven days they can be put down. It blames the high number of animal deaths on the public for irresponsible animal ownership. Ten years ago, the RSPCA announced that it would stop killing healthy dogs, but to date nothing much has changed The destruction figures for l 996, as yet unpublished are expected to show a rise in the numbers of animals destroyed, with a much higher proportion deemed too sick or injured to live.

Davies denies that animals are put down unnecessarily "We only ever destroy animals if they are in severe pain, are sick, or exhibit anti-social behaviour, which means they are impossible to re-home. We take the view that it is cruel to keep an animal locked up for the rest of its life, but it is simply not true that we put animals down needlessly." His constant refrain is that the function of the RSPCA is to prevent cruelty.

To gain some insight into the culture of the RSPCA, it's worth looking at its history. The SPCA was set up in 1824 following the establishment of the Society for the Suppression of Vice a few years previously, and gained Royal assent in 1840. In the new post- enlightenment industrial Britain popular recreations boomed and the emerging working class discovered football alongside such "sports" as bull-baiting and cockfighting. Industrialists were keen to stamp out anything that distracted the populace from factory work. Lewis Gompertz a genuine animal-rights campaigner, helped set up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1835. The social historian Robert Malcolmson writes in Popular Recreations In English Society, l700- l850: "The SPCA's first decade was one of insecurity, disorder and dissension. Financial difficulties concentration on prosecuting offenders and the use of paid informers was well documented. Anti-semitism is evident early in the charity's history. Gompertz, who was Jewish, resigned in 1832 when the SPCA announced it was open to "Christians only".

Malcolmson writes: "The reformers' energies were mobilised largely against popular amusements... Few were so indelicate as to storm the citadels of genteel pleasure. despite protests to the contrary, the RSPCA discreetly disregarded the pleasures of the fashionable world and almost always prosecuted only plebeian sportsmen In other words if you owned the land on which you pursued your sport no one could touch you. Some would say the same rules apply today.

Beverley Cuddy, editor of Dogs Today magazine and a newspaper columnist is well respected in animal-welfare circles and a fierce critic of the world's most famous animal charity. The RSPCA are like a police force with their rows of studs and epaulettes and short hair and uniforms she says. Nor does she believe the RSPCA is interested in promoting animal ownership. "They are totally negative, and obsessed with making prosecutions." RSPCA policies are, she says, very inflexible: living in a flat or being over 65 is likely to count against a prospective pet owner who wishes to take a cat or dog off the RSPCA's hands as is, says Cuddy, simply living in an unconventional way. (Cuddy and others are concerned at the RSPCA's plans to run a new dog licensing scheme, Favoured by Labour which they fear will give the charity powers to decide who is a suitable owner

"People like the vet and breeder Helen Hein are prosecuted for keeping animals in filthy conditions Yes, Helen is eccentric but in her defence she was living in the same conditions as her dogs and the notion that dogs appreciate cleanliness is ludicrous! She wasn't cruel, or evil, but if the RSPCA think you're odd, a bit anti-establishment, you're unsuitable. If you haven't got electricity or running water, you're done for." Cuddy says what Helen needed most was constructive advice. "instead there was a costly prosecution. But for the RSPCA, it's another statistic, and the tabloids loved it. What a good story: a house full of shit and Helen demonised as a 'monster'. Judges and magistrates never question the RSPCA precisely because of who they are."

Bill Cartnell, an eminent vet who acted as an advisor in the Hein case, says: " Helen's a very strong-minded lady, and she was at odds with the law, but it's a preposterous suggestion that she could be cruel. She's dedicated her life and put all her money into animals."

Statistics gaining prosecutions for cruelty are the lifeblood of the RSPCA. In March, a number of inspectors were withholding statistical information on rescues and re-homing as a protest against a failed pay claim Their union had advised them that upsetting the charity's bureaucracy was the best way bringing pressure to bear.

Workers at branch level say the charity receives hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints from the public who have firsthand experience of over zealous inspectors removing animals from their owners like Mike and Anne Whitworth, who do not fall into the RSPCA's usual category of target, Mike, a chiropodist and former colonel, married to Anne a social worker left their 16-year old Springer Spaniel in a basket in the back of Mike's Range Rover while he was working at a nursing home. He'd left the car parked under a tree for shade, and positioned the vehicle so he could see it from the window of the room where he was working. Bella was 16, emaciated with diabetes and partially blind, and the Whitworths knew she hadn't long left, but claim she still enjoyed life. They fed her a complex special diet, and fussed over her terribly.

Mike says he heard a commotion outside and startled returned to his car to find an RSPCA inspector driving off in a van with Bella. A workman at the nursing home had seen Bella, assumed from her appearance she was being ill-treated, and called the RSPCA. That afternoon the Whitworths were telephoned to be told that Bella had been put down by an RSPCA vet, and that they would be prosecuted for cruelty. Anne says: "We couldn't understand it. We loved her, they stole her, and we were treated like common criminals." The RSPCA backed down from a prosecution, but asked Anne and Mike to sign statements that would be kept at the police station and referred to if they ever "re-offended". (Mike was once awarded a bravery medal by the RSPCA for pulling two dogs out of a canal in Scotland.) the RSPCA insists Bella was left in a car boot with only one inch open, and that the inspector, "as a woman on her own", took the dog to the vet in order to let the owner calm down as he was "extremely aggressive and threatening" which Mike vigorously denies. The RSPCA maintains Bella was put down on humanitarian grounds.

Last year, Andrea Furze's cat was let out at 9am and was dead by 2.30pm. It had been mistaken for a stray by the RSPCA. Chief Inspector Jeremy Goodger apologised but says his team "acted in good faith". A neighbour of Andrea's phoned the charity and reported a "stray", which then scratched the inspector when he tried to pick it up. He put the cat down instantly in Andrea's neighbour's kitchen, on the basis that it was "dangerous" All he needed was the neighbour's signature to verify the cat was a stray. The RSPCA settled out of court.

Ex-RSPCA inspector David Barnes says: "When you've put down a lot of animals, you become immune to any emotional feeling about it, and you do it almost without blinking" Barnes left the RSPCA to set up another animal charity.

In l988, a former RSPCA branch secretary Margaret House, co-founded Watchdog, a newsletter critical of the RSPCA which claims to receive contributions and letters from hundreds of present and former members of the society. She and four others the Watchdog Five were expelled from the RSPCA, but have all since been reinstated She argues that "the RSPCA is undergoing the worst period of discord it has ever known and some of the most dedicated workers are cold-shouldered because they might be progressive, or vegetarian or question the RSPCA. The basic trouble is that the paid staff aren't animal welfare people they just have to be proficient in managerial skills and admin ".

The RSPCA has been known for recruiting large numbers of its inspectorate the 320 paid inspectors whose job it is to bring prosecutions against perpetrators of animal cruelty -- from the armed services and police forces The RSPCA calls itself a law enforcement agency. All the inspectors are, in the words of the director general Peter Davies, himself ex-army, "subject to my discipline". A large chunk of the inspectors' 26-week training is devoted to learning how to destroy animals humanely, and an inspector may he required to put down as many as 60 animals, including healthy ones, to prove that he or she has the guts for the job. All inspectors carry firearms.

The RSPCA's London headquarters, in South Norwood is the HQ for around 30 inspectors working the capital. When I visited three years ago, female telephone operators were taking calls and the almost exclusively male inspectors such as ex-soldier Steve Dockery were waiting for their lists of visits. Inspector Cliff Harrison, a concerned, quietly spoken man tells me about some appalling cruelty cases he and his colleagues have had to deal with. There's nothing terribly dramatic coming in for Dockery, and he is bored. He leaps up. "There's a man who might have tied his dog to a sink pipe, and a Rotherhithe woman who reportedly keeps letting her cat and dog get pregnant". Dockery's off, and from his manner he could be about to lead a major drugs bust. As we approach the Rotherhithe council estate, Dockery glances up at the high-rise block and says, "These people haven't got a clue when it comes to looking after animals." He appears put out to learn all the woman's animals had in fact been spayed. "She says she'd had 'em 'spaded'," he mutters. "Can't even speak English" a message from HQ comes over his radio. "It's from a Miss E," says the operator "She says, quote, I will knock you over and fucking kill you if I ever see you, and I hate you to distraction, unquote." It was from someone he'd prosecuted. Dockery shrugs his shoulders

Back in the street, a young woman called Debbie runs over to the white RSPCA van and asks the inspector if he could find homes for a cat and dog she can no longer afford to keep She sobs as Dockery takes them from her shabby home Debbie phones South Norwood a few hours later stating she'd made a mistake and wants them back "lt's too late," Dockery tells me when he gets her message "She'll have to apply through proper channels, but she's bound to fail the home check. She lives in a flat"

Davies insists that all his inspectors are animal-lovers. "We have thousands more applications than there are inspectors' jobs available, and those who apply love animals and want to help them. I'm an animal-lover, we all are. I've had dogs all my life." He is twitchy about accusations that his charity is "too military" and says that nowadays, although the RSPCA still uses the forces' employment bureau, only three in 20 new recruits are ex-service people. He says he wants more ethnic minority applicants, more animal welfare types and has already got more women at senior level (18 per cent of inspectors are female) than the police "There's nothing wrong with the ex- service people they do a magnificent job and their training tends to stand them in good stead but we're looking at a new breed of person now."

Dr Roger Mugford, the celebrated animal behaviourist, faces RSPCA inspectors and vets almost weekly in court over "dangerous dog" disputes and cruelty cases, appearing for the defence. The 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act demands that all Pit Bull "types" and other potentially dangerous dogs are registered, insured against injury to other persons, micro chipped, tattooed and muzzled at all times in public places. Any animal whose owner is found to be in breach of the rules is put under a mandatory destruction order, although amendments to this less than humane element of the act are imminent. The "death row dogs", as the tabloids have christened them, are held in private holding kennels for around 9 per dog per night. The act has cost the taxpayer 3, I 75,542 so far in kennelling fees alone.

The RSPCA says it opposes the "flawed" Dangerous Dogs Act but continued until very recently to provide inspectors in court as expert witnesses for the prosecution. Mugford contributed to the DDA as a consultant to the Home Office under Kenneth Baker's rule in 199I, but he has since changed his stance. "I realised immediately that this panic measure was a terrible mistake," he says. "I offered to train RSPCA inspectors in animal behaviour therapy. They refused. When I first heard the blatant, errant, nonsense being uttered in the witness box about so-called dangerous dogs by RSPCA inspectors bent on prosecution, and saw how their resources are poured into gaining convictions, my eyes were opened. They are a charity whose generosity of spirit is invisible. A lot of the real work is done by pensioners, like the Animal Samaritans." Mugford believes the RSPCA doesn't target large organisations that have the power to defend themselves he continues: "Successful prosecutions of, say, circuses or wealthy farmers are rare. It's generally some poor sod on a housing estate, or a bloke who keeps a few chickens in his shed."

Davies denies the RSPCA is wedded to prosecutions: "That is simply not true. We take this extreme measure when we have to, but we always try to sort things out by giving advice and issuing warnings. A lot of cruelty is caused by ignorance, so you go in to the home and say, look, this is a flea, this is what fleas do to dogs, this is what you do to prevent it. Prosecutions are a last resort. First and foremost, we are about preventing cruelty and promoting animal welfare."

Until very recently London RSPCA Inspector Jan Eachus, together with three RSPCA vets, regularly appeared for the prosecution as a Pit Bull "type" expert in dangerous dog cases. Dr Mugford, Our Dogs journalist Robert Killick, Beverley Cuddy and others in the dog world have asked for him to stand down on the basis that he is too quick to condemn and have questioned his expertise on "dangerous" dogs. The RSPCA agreed several years ago that he was to cease appearing for the prosecution, but the lengthy nature of DDA cases ensured his continued appearance in court for some time.

A Canadian chain-smoker whose gait and manner is straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie, Eachus told journalist Tony Thompson in 1990: "We are the police force for animals. We exist because we're needed, not because we're liked... I am the law, And if people don't like it, well, there's not a damn thing they can do about it." Thompson concluded that Eachus has contributed significantly to the deaths of a large number of the 900 dogs put down so far under the act.

Davies says of Eachus: "He has done a tremendous job, but the poor man has had a rough time for doing it. The alternative to Eachus was to have someone who doesn't know about dangerous dogs. In 199l, we wanted to ban these Pit Bull type breeds from coming in because they are for fighting, and we know a lot about what these so- called anti-Dangerous Dogs Act people get up to, believe me. Dog fighting. People may not like coming forward to register their dogs, but that is the law. Anyway, 20 per cent of the suspected Pit Bulls Eachus looked at weren't put down."

Eachus condemned a paraplegic, toothless dog in 1995 whose owner, with backing from Dr Mugford and vet Peter Larkin, claims she was a "Staffy". Jessie had never bitten anybody, and her owner, Mark O'Brien, was distraught when, after a year in police kennels (at a cost to the taxpayer of 3,285), she was killed by lethal injection because her owner didn't have a "dangerous dog" licence. It is difficult to understand what danger such a dog could have posed.

It is sometimes the police who condemn a dog. A Pit Bull Terrier called Khan was shot by an RSPCA inspector when its mandatory insurance had lapsed by three days. The RSPCA says it bit a policeman, but no charges were brought against Khan's owner, John Thompson. Thompson could not prove posting of the insurance, hut a cheque arrived three days after Khan's death. The case was dismissed and the dog was cremated without the owner's consent.

Internal rows have plagued the RSPCA for years, virtually since its inception, and there have been numerous sackings, oustings, disciplinary hearings, and tribunals. Peter Davies, 59, left his post as Major General in the army and joined the RSPCA in 1991 as chief executive. A charming, tanned politician of a man who enjoys good food and wine, Davies consulted his wife before accepting the job. He told one newspaper: "She saw that the organisation had a hierarchical structure, its officers wore uniforms and it would appeal to my sense of order." During the nine years prior to Davies's appointment, there was a succession of ex- military men heading the charity, following the ousting of Julian Hopkins, a progressive animal rights vegetarian, in 1982.

A current furore concerns the imminent replacement of the existing deputy director general, Derek Sayce, by the current director of science, Dr Tony Suckling, an ex- vivisector. The society claims to oppose all experiments involving cruelty, although during the l980s the charity invested in drug firms including ICI and Beechams which use animals for experiments. Suckling says he left his old job because he could no longer justify the destruction of animals for the sort of work his company was doing.

Former inspector and shelter manager Jamie Stephenson was sacked after five weeks. One of the reasons given was that he couldn't remember the names of all the cats and dogs in his care. The RSPCA was found to be in breach of contract and he was awarded 2,010 at tribunal.

The ousting of one particular RSPCA inspector is of especial concern. Animal welfare isn't renowned for its employment of ethnic minorities some charities, including the RSPCA and the NCDL, claim blacks just don't apply the RSPCA has one Asian and one black inspector out of more than 300. Ex-marine Ossie Glover, the RSPCA's first ever black inspector, was, he claims, continually harassed and told he would not be able to cope as an inspector, because he would suffer prejudice from the public. In a story he sent to the newsletter Watchdog, he describes his experiences working under Superintendent Freddie Drew, whose daily routine included marching and parading inspectors and organising training trips to the Royal Army Veterinary Corps at Melton Mowbray, where the army keeps horses used for hunting.

Glover also writes of the terror of learning how to electrocute and shoot healthy dogs. His local branch in Enfield supported him throughout but, after months of humiliation, Glover resigned in 1987.

The RSPCA's chief officer of the Inspectorate, Richard Davies, says the only concerns Glover ever registered in writing were about the volume of work and needless destruction of animals. "One thing I will not accept in this job is prejudice of any kind and I would discipline anyone who displayed prejudice immediately. We have very egalitarian standards. Mr Drew is an experienced and very capable senior officer, and he was on the interview panel which selected Glover, so it is difficult to understand allegations of racism. If Glover was discriminated against, I would have known about it."

There have been a series of disputes between RSPCA branches and HQ, which have often led to expulsions or resignations. The "Wakefield Three" were voluntary branch committee members who were made to resign in one such case. In 1994 after questions were asked about the running of their branch. To understand Wakefield, it's important to grasp the relationship between local branches and HQ. The branches are semi-independent but ultimately answerable to the RSPCA HQ in Horsham via ten RSPCA regional boards. But funds raised locally through any of the RSPCA's 200 branches don't go to local projects but to headquarters, the source of many branch versus HQ disputes, The branches pay an annual membership fee to HQ of 4,000 and, in return, are able to use the good name of the RSPCA, which handles all prosecutions against perpetrators of animal cruelty.

Although Watchdog and many other supporters across the country protested the innocence of the Wakefield Three, the case dragged on for two years, cost the RSPCA, on some estimates 100,000, although the charity insists a third of that figure is more accurate, and resulted in the three being reinstated and awarded their legal costs, The RSPCA, which backed off before judicial review, on the basis that the rules under which the three had been disciplined were invalid, said the dispute was caused by a minor procedural flaw. The three, Inspector Peter Clarke of West Yorkshire Police, his wife Wendy and bank manager Brian Harvey, say they were persecuted because they stood up to HQ.

The most vocal of the Wakefield Three, Inspector Clarke, explained: "The branch was broke, so we built up some reserves to expand the facilities for re-homing. But, after building started, we were 3,000 short, and it was either pay the RSPCA quota or finish the work. We knew we'd be okay again shortly because we had a legacy of 40,000 due. (Ironically, the departed lady altered her will after a row with the RSPCA about use of funds, and it was Wendy and I who persuaded her to change her mind.) A month after we'd raised the quota we 'owed', we were informed we were all suspended. We were put before a kangaroo court of seven people and told to explain why we shouldn't be thrown off, even though the legacy had come through by then. They made a list of 30 'charges', including things like not recording the numbers of animals re- homed, which we had done! We sat there in total amazement."

Peter Davies commented: "In any large organisation, where Iots of people are giving their time for free, there will be difficulties, like Wakefeld. But the majority of the branches are marvellous. They're always writing to let me know what they're up to. Generally, there is a collective identity, and everyone pulls together. There isn't a lot of trouble at branch level."

Prior to Wakefield, the entire l4 strong committee of the Newcastle branch sought a judicial review after being disbanded by HQ in 1991 after conflicts over their new kennels and the branch's re-homing policies. The branch paid 5,000 in legal costs in preparation and were advised by their QC they had a good chance of winning, but they backed down through fear of losing the case (and consequently their homes, to pay damages). The RSPCA sold the kennels and offices for 27,000 and now uses privately run kennels and sanctuaries. The charity says the Newcastle project wasn't up to scratch. Why then, with such huge reserves, didn't they replace it with something decent? Because the rule is, the branches must themselves fund-raise locally for their projects.

Enfield branch claims to have been persecuted relentlessly over a dispute with HQ which took disciplinary action against it under rules the RSPCA has since (as they did in Wakefield) acknowledged to be invalid. And North East London branch members barricaded themselves into their building when HQ tried and eventually succeeded in closing them down during the Eighties after they fell behind on their quota. But Swansea takes the biscuit.

The Glamorgan and Swansea branch, which affiliated to the RSPCA in 1968 while remaining financially independent (or so its volunteers believed), raised more than a million pounds over 30 years for a new animal centre. But they needed HQ approval for their plans, which were to buy modest premises, allow 390,000 for two years' running costs, and keep some funds in reserve. Instead, HQ shut the branch out of all decision-making about its project and instructed architects to design a home for 1.3 million which, even with an HQ grant of 360,000, still left the branch in the red before building had begun. HQ's property services manager appointed architects for the sum of 120,000. Joe Harris, branch chair, says the costs should have been just 25,000, and has ten firms willing to back him up on that, even one which offered to do it free of charge.

Amid fervent protest, the work began in January last year, and RSPCA HQ issued a formal complaint to the Charity Commission that the branch had mishandled funds. The society has since withdrawn this allegation, although it forms the basis of its decision to disband the branch. Swansea's former members describe the current project as 75 acres of land, a cathedral of an office, three little huts for the animals, l6 dog kennels and 40 cat pens the old centre had room for 60 dogs and cats, so it's hard to see the gain for the animals. The RSPCA says the project was built with expansion in mind, to include an equine facility.

Branch members are currently seeking legal action to regain control of their funds, which they claim HQ has squandered, and have just applied for a judicial review against the decision to disband the branch. If they win, they may sue the RSPCA for professional negligence.

"The RSPCA just wanted a showcase project for public relations, never mind the care of the animals," Joe Harris insists. "The office work could have been done from a portacabin, instead of which we've got this bloody cathedral. The whole thing stinks, but were going to win and get our centre back." Swansea Labour MP Alan Williams is behind the branch, and the RSPCA is known to be extremely worried about the situation, although Peter Davies dismisses it as the actions of a few troublemaking hotheads. "We want them kicked out because they are causing mayhem. We just want to complete the project. The penalties to stop the work now are significant." Davies claims the new project had the full support of the previous committee, which was "taken over" by Harris when he joined the branch last year. Harris denies this. And Nestor Thomas, who served on both committees, old and new, says that there was never local agreement to the HQ scheme.

As well as being torn by internal disputes, the RSPCA has often fallen out with fellow animal charities and campaigns. The lobby group Compassion In World Farming (CWF) is furious that RSPCA vice-patron George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, voted against the banning of transport of live animals last November, something the charity claims to support. "It stinks," says spokeswoman Joyce DeSilva. "It's appalling that he, a supposed champion of animal welfare, has bowed to pressure from farmers." CWF was also piqued when, after campaigning vigorously to improve the appalling way sows are kept in crates during pregnancy, the RSPCA jumped on the bandwagon and stole its thunder.

The campaign group for the abolition of the six-month quarantine laws, Passport For Pets, was forced out of the limelight last year when the RSPCA decided it, too, wanted to replace quarantine with a vaccinations and passport package, after years of defending its pro-quarantine position. Neutering is another issue the RSPCA only began campaigning for with any force after it was successfully promoted by other organisations.

Respect For Animals, in l995, organised a boycott of the three main ferry companies in protest at their participation in the transport of live animals. They were on the brink, they say, of getting ferry transport of live animals banned when Peter Davies stepped in to get the ferry companies to agree to a code of conduct. Mark Glover, a campaign spokesman, fumes: "For 40 years they'd campaigned on this issue, and then they wanted a bloody code of conduct. We were absolutely astonished." Glover believes some of the RSPCA's undercover work is excellent. But, he adds, "the problem is, they don't use their information to change anything. What do they do when ostrich farming hits the headlines? Ban it? No. They want to regulate it."

The NCDL, most famous for advertising guru 'Trevor Beattie's Toys Aren't Us' posters in support of its campaign A Dog Is For Life, is growing in popularity and membership. It was the first to protest to Kenneth Baker about mandatory destruction of dogs under the Dangerous Dogs Act, but it was the RSPCA that reaped the PR benefits. The NCDL was also the first to campaign vigorously against puppy farming last year, yet the bill drafted by the multi-agency working group set up to tackle the problem was hijacked by the RSPCA. The NCDL didn't get an opportunity to comment. Clarissa Baldwin, NCDL's chief executive, was furious. While the NCDL wants to ban puppy farming completely, the RSPCA is content just to tidy it up. Davies's response for the RSPCA is: "The NCDL aren't a campaigning organisation, and their campaigns, like puppy farming, were good, but they weren't gaining momentum, so we took over because it was needed. No one else can do it quite like us. I admit that before I came here five years ago, we did see ourselves a bit as 'big brother' and we were rather aloof. All that is changing. We get on much better now with others, and we're forging links with other charities we wouldn't have before. But people love to hit at successful things, and what we mustn't forget is that all these other charities are about single issues, just dogs, or just cats. We do everything, from wildlife to cats and dogs, which is our core work, to horses, international work, education and lobbying."

Davies insists that the RSPCA is firmly pro-pet. However the RSPCA's advertising campaigns do little, compared with other animal charities, to promote animal ownership in a positive way. Their campaigns, like the controversial pile of dead dogs poster, tend to focus on the negative.

The RSPCA's stand at Crufts featured a dirty kennel with synthetic dog excrement on the floor to illustrate how not to care for dogs. The stand was criticised by passers-by and animal-welfare people. Next to another charity's posters extolling the virtues of pet ownership among the elderly and lonely, the RSPCA's exhibit looked mean-spirited.

Davies says many of his critics are "little old ladies sat there with a box of lever arch files, with nothing better to do". He adds: "I'll sometimes get a complaint from one of them, and then I'll realise she is talking about something that happened 20 years ago. They trot out the same old stuff year after year. How can we be arrogant and uncaring when, twice a year, I invite all the other animal-welfare charities along to tell them what we are doing and exchange ideas? We consult widely with a large number of people. These people who knock us are voices from the past,"

In the wider world, criticism is far out- weighed by the excellent publicity gained from Animal Hospital. The show, now in its fourth year, has proved a more than efficient fund-raising tool for the RSPCA. There are four hospitals in the UK, including Harmsworth in Birmingham where the programme is filmed. The hospitals are not free, however. As Sarah Powell from the PDSA (Peoples' Dispensary for Sick Animals, which operates 45 veterinary clinics across Britain) points out, what they don't broadcast on the programme is that they charge for medicine. "People who can't afford the RSPCA's prices for pills come to us," she says. Single mother Theresa Leves contacted Putney Animal Hospital to get her dog spayed. She was quoted 90, the same price as a private veterinary practice, and they initially offered no concessions, unlike the NCDL, which has a policy of always trying to accommodate people on benefit. The RSPCA finally dropped the price to 40.

The charity keeps a close eye on costs in its more public role. Each year, thousands of abandoned and stray cats and dogs roam the streets of Britain and, until l990, the RSPCA took them in. Since the Environmental Protection Act was passed, the onus is now on local authority dog wardens to look after strays. Sometimes, the RSPCA will take strays in and bill the local authority for kennels but usually, according to the National Dog Warden Association's policy officer, Cuthbert Jackson, the RSPCA won't accept animals unless the owner can be contacted to ensure payment of medical bills, after a road accident for example. The local authority's duty ends at preventing suffering, so paying for emergency surgery, say, would be out of the question. RSPCA to the rescue? Probably not. The RSPCA says that when the new dog ID system is introduced, the problem of strays will decrease, but meanwhile they must remain a local authority responsibility. "If an animal is at the end of the local authority's statutory seven-day period and about to be put down, we may try in some instances to find kennels," says Peter Davies. "We always do what we can to help."

There is a plethora of complex, emotive issues challenging the RSPCA, from vegetarianism to "animal liberation". Among the most intractable is blood sports. Worryingly, the 2,000-3,000 members who leave the RSPCA every year have, since February 1996, been more than replaced by blood sports enthusiasts, Following Labour threats to reform the hunting laws, the British Field Sports Society lobby began infiltrating the RSPCA. Despite the obvious conflict of interests, there is nothing the RSPCA can do to prevent it. The Charity Commission forbade the society to exclude bIoodsports supporters on the basis that a persons membership of one organisation isn't sufficient to ban them from joining another. Meanwhile, RSPCA membership, which costs l5 a year, has risen from 25,000 a year ago to a recent peak of 40,000, and this new membership is fuelling more internal dissension and criticism than ever.

Key policy areas such as hunting are voted on by all members and a majority vote at this year's AGM, although unlikely, could result in a change of policy. The RSPCA is meanwhile supporting the recent Bateson report, which found that hunting deer with hounds is extremely cruel, and resulted in the National Trust banning stag hunting on land it owns. "We are looking into this issue very carefully, and we will be seeking early legislation," Peter Davies says. He recently announced his intention of conducting a similar inquiry into the degree of suffering endured by hunted foxes.

Former RSPCA deputy treasurer Bill Jordan says the RSPCA is made up of pragmatists who believe doing something is better than doing nothing, but who never rock the boat. "They are an establishment organisation," he says. "They never, ever listen to new ideas." The RSPCA would be the first to admit to pragmatism rather than idealism. But is reacting to external events and taking half measures good enough? Change certainly doesn't feature on the RSPCA's agenda. The society believes the best way to prevent cruelty is to prosecute and publicise. How about better education programmes, more advice and help for animal owners, and financial assistance with veterinary care for those who need it? The RSPCA says such help is available, but testimony from those who have had dealings with the RSPCA does not bear this out.

The Michael Howard approach, meanwhile, seems to hold sway. Confiscate the animals, fine offenders, and all will be well. But it isn't working. According to the RSPCA, there has been a steady increase in cruelty. More than a million complaints of cruelty against animals were investigated by the RSPCA last year. If the country's only law enforcement agency for animals is to be properly effective, it needs a new start.

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