What a fickle beast the media is. You can nurture it and feed it for years; it comes when you call, sits up and begs on command. Then one day something flips and it leaps at you, snarling and gnashing. You prise its jaws from your clothing, throw it outside, slam the door and let out a sigh of relief and bewilderment. Where did that come from?
The RSPCA is currently leaning against the wall, examining its torn trousers, while the feral beast scratches at the door. If this was one of their rescue dogs, they’d designate it unsuitable for rehoming and have it put down faster than you can say ‘Heythrop Hunt’. Unfortunately for them, the snarling beast is not so much staffie as badger: wild and protected by law. Even when it has its teeth in your soft and tender parts, you can shout all you like but you can’t whack it with a shovel.
For years the media loved the RSPCA. They lapped up the output from the charity’s press office: stories of daring clifftop rescues, neglected donkeys and abandoned kittens. We Brits adore a cute animal story, and the RSPCA knew how to press all the right buttons: huggable, fluffy animals in mortal peril, their big, round eyes fixing you with a pleading stare. Any newspaper editor worth his salt could see the value to his circulation figures.
More recently, though, there have been warning signs. A responsible, caring owner would notice the occasional growl over the food bowl, the dog pushing through the door first or ignoring the whistle. There are plenty of arrogant owners who fail to spot such things, however. Their friends tell them all the time how wonderful they are with animals, and they come to believe their own hype. When the dog finally bites, they are hurt and bewildered. It never crosses their mind that the fault may lie with them, not the dog.
The British public has been growling at the RSPCA increasingly often lately. There have been rumblings in the local press about heavy-handed prosecutions; stories of loving pet owners taken to court rather than given support when they found themselves unable to provide the level of care the charity deemed necessary.
Considerable publicity surrounded the 2009 case of 10 German shepherd dogs in south Wales, shot with a captive bolt slaughter gun when an RSPCA inspector deemed them too difficult to rehome. The following year the charity was criticised for challenging a court ruling overturning a will that would have left them a £2.35 million farmhouse and land in North Yorkshire.
Outside the mainstream media, in the twilight world of internet blogs and forums, the criticism is more strident. The Self Help Group was set up in 1990 “to help people defend themselves and their animals from the RSPCA”; it now has a blog and an active Facebook group. Elsewhere, the RSPCA Injustice Blog asks whether it is “time for a review of the RSPCA animal charity’s bullyboy tactics,” and claims: “This blog has been established by animal lovers to expose the double standards, hypocrisy and media-driven prosecution policy that is institutional within the RSPCA.”
Vets and lawyers have complained about the RSPCA’s aggressive tactics in its relentless pursuit of cruelty convictions. “You will experience more aggression from the RSPCA than almost any other litigant,” said Jonathan Rich, a barrister who has been at the bar for 25 years and defended hundreds of people involved in prosecutions brought by the RSPCA. Hampshire vet Bill Cartmell found himself under investigation in 2010 by his profession’s governing body, the RCVS. He said: “Anyone who tries to defend people against the RSPCA now risks professional complaints.”
Meanwhile, the media was hungry as ever for the charity’s press releases, laced with tasty titbits along the lines of “the most shocking case of cruelty I have seen in all my years as an RSPCA inspector,” and “lucky to be alive after dramatic rescue.” Perhaps, like the smug dog owner, the charity mistook greed for love, and never saw the simmering resentment building up. The appointment of a new chief executive, Gavin Grant, at the beginning of 2012 marked a new phase for the RSPCA. Far from listening to the low growls, the charity pushed its luck to the limit with stunts that made it look less about animal welfare, and more about political campaigning and throwing its considerable weight around.
A line was crossed when Grant, the former UK head of one of the world’s biggest PR companies, not only voiced his opposition to the badger cull, but called for participating farmers to be “named and shamed” – something that would inevitably lead to them being abused and harassed by animal rights extremists. That alone wasn’t enough to spark an all-out attack on the RSPCA by the mainstream media, but the organisation’s staggeringly expensive prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt tipped the balance. Even the judge was moved to comment that “members of the public may feel that RSPCA funds can be more usefully employed.” The Telegraph asked: “Is the animal charity’s mission becoming ever more political?” while the Daily Mail went for the jugular with the headline “Revealed: RSPCA destroys HALF of the animals that it rescues – yet thousands are completely healthy”, backed with “shock figures” showing 3,400 animals put down for non-medical reasons while prosecutions jumped 20 per cent.
Before long we had a new story, as a crossparty group of MPs and peers reported the RSPCA to the Charity Commission claiming it had breached its “duty of prudence” by blowing £326,000 on its private prosecution against members of the hunt. A comment piece in The Telegraph sums up the zeitgeist, stating simply: “The RSPCA has lost the plot.”
Far from saving kittens from floods, the organisation is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, often under fire from many of its traditional supporters. Donations and legacy income are bound to take a hit, and the shortfall may or may not be made up by the more militant type of ‘animal lovers’ who relish the idea of prosecuting the ‘bloodthirsty toffs’ of David Cameron’s local hunt. If it’s a deliberate strategy, it’s a risky one at a time when most charities are cutting their cloth and keeping their heads down. If it’s not deliberate, one has to ask why Gavin Grant, with his extensive PR experience, didn’t see it coming – unless, like that irresponsible dog owner, he was too wrapped up in his own self-importance to see the warning signs.