On St Martin’s Lane, next to where there’s now a Starbucks, there used to stand ‘Old Slaughter’s’, a celebrated coffee house once favoured by the artists, scholars and bohemians of London.
It was here 190 years ago that the MPs Richard Martin and William Wilberforce sat down for their morning coffee and thrashed out a plan for the world’s first ‘Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’, quite unaware of the astonishing good the charity would go on to do for the creatures of this country.
Martin and Wilberforce had to wait almost twenty years before Queen Victoria afforded their society royal status. Zoom forward to the present day and for the first time in almost two centuries, it’s beginning to look like the RSPCA doesn’t deserve it.
To put it bluntly, the famous old charity is being wrecked by its new bosses whose ever more militant approach (heavy-handed at best, hostile at worst) is alienating their supporters and overlooking the key needs of animals.
People’s hard-earned donations are being squandered on hugely expensive, politically-driven lawsuits; thousands of healthy rescued animals are killed with little justification; and critical former employees are bullied and harassed to the point of suicide, if reports are to be believed – these are sadly just some of the crimes the charity must now be associated with.
The RSPCA has always had a esteemed reputation to uphold and if it carries on down this sinister route it only has itself to blame. Five crucial lessons need to be taken on board, and fast:
1) Stop throwing money away
As was widely reported last year, the RSPCA spent over £300,000 of donations bringing David Cameron’s former hunting buddies to justice, a prime example of politically-driven idiocy that was publically condemned by Judge Pattinson. This was just the tip of the iceberg – the charity brought thousands of similar cases to court at huge expense during 2013, four-fifths of which were unsuccessful. While large-scale hearings like the Heythrop Hunt hit the headlines, it’s the smaller examples that are the most baffling. The charity spent £10,000 bringing to court an elderly lady who forgot to take her cat to the vet over the weekend; further money was wasted failing to prosecute a dog-owner for using the wrong kind of anti-flea shampoo. What’s next – old people hauled up for forgetting to feed their guinea-pigs? Children prosecuted for not cleaning their ant farms? It doesn’t matter that the charity raises £120million a year – every penny of that must go directly towards rescuing animals, as donors want it to when they hand over their cash. After being backed into a corner the RSPCA grudgingly agreeed to a legal review of their prosecutions – it’s a start, but the attitude that squandering people’s donations is fine needs to go.
2) Drop the bullying tactics
Over the past few years the charity has developed a menacing streak that has left a bitter taste in many peoples’ mouths. Innocent pet-lovers are made to feel like criminals for minor infringements; animal sanctuaries are raided without warning or justification, threatening the livelihoods of their proprietors. Respected veterinary expert Colin Vogel recently told of how the RSPCA tried to humiliate and discredit him after he stood against them in a trial. Then there’s the troubling story of Dawn Aubrey-Ward, a former welfare officer for the RSPCA who committed suicide just months after leaking evidence of the charity’s misdeeds to the press. “They ruined my life” read the note she left behind, prompting cries of condemnation for the RSPCA’s bullying approach. This tendency to intimidate people makes the charity seem more like a group of militant activists than a benevolent organisation, and it’s deeply unpleasant.
3) Listen to criticism
Everyone from high court judges to Clarissa Dickson-Wright has laid into the RSPCA over the past year, and although some might question the opinion of a celebrity chef who claims rabbits are “vermin” that cause the majority of the UK’s landslides, the point stands: no other UK charity invites such vigorous disapproval for its behaviour. Sir Barney White-Spunner’s very public denunciation of the RSPCA as “nasty” and “sinister” was splashed over the front pages of many a broadsheet. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury snubbed an offer to be a patron – how many more people will be alienated by the charity before they listen up and make changes? Yet the RSPCA rebuffs every tiny criticism levelled at them – the aforementioned Miss Aubrey-Ward was openly dismissed as a “disgruntled former employee” by a charity spokesman. They don’t pick their supporters well either – Brian May recently made the astonishing claim that criticising the RSPCA is like wanting paedophiles to escape justice. If the charity is ever going to reverse this negative perception, it has to take on board what is being said about them and resolve itself to making changes.
4) Be transparent
Last year the unpleasant news leaked that the charity puts down half of all the animals it rescues, thousands of which are perfectly healthy, due to lack of living space. It’s not unreasonable to expect that donors are informed of this, so that they know what their money is going towards – yet the RSPCA has been knowingly hiding this kind of practice for years. Bits and pieces of information about the charity’s processes have steadily emerged but only thanks to internal whistleblowers, appalled by what they are being instructed to do. It’s time we found out exactly what the RSPCA gets up to and how donations are really being divided up – the charity has a duty to the public to ensure this happens, and we have a right to know.
5) Get your priorities right
The RSPCA states that its mission is, by all lawful means, to prevent cruelty, promote kindness to and alleviate suffering of animals. As far as I can see, the charity is breaching these promises with its behaviour – and it would do well to remember why it was first set up all those years ago. Helping animals must always be the prime objective and all this moralising activism a secondary concern that should in no way infringe on the charity’s benevolent purpose. Then and only then can the RSCPA hope to get their once great organisation back on track.