Thursday, July 25, 2013

If I ruled the world...

(Or at least had unlimited powers to remodel the RSPCA as I thought fit, and unlimited money to do it.)

This summer has been a grouchy time with lots of complaints on social media on the lines of: "RSPCA, you should do X, that's what we pay you for!" (Occasionally: "RSPCA, you should stop doing X!" but that's life).

Much of this is just lack of realism about what's possible, but what could we do to improve?

First of all, most of the things people demand would need a LOT of extra funds—the RSPCA would need to be 2 or three times larger overall to do everything that's expected of us.

Secondly, people want contradictory things: nothing is going to satisfy both the person who wants no RSPCA prosecutions and the one who wants lots more of them.

If money was no object

1.  Stray Dogs

People expect us to deal with them; local authorities usually don't provide anything approaching a satisfactory service—they usually won't pick up at weekends when more people are about and likely to find strays, for example.

Why don't we do this already?
To some extent we do—several branches have arrangements with their local authority either to take over strays and rehome them after their 7 days in LA care is up or to take in strays directly with the LA paying for the first 7 days care.

Local Authorities are legally obliged to provide a stray dogs service and all strays taken in must, by law, be notified to them. They are not obliged to provide a collection service outside office hours and this is the major practical issue for members of the public who have found a stray dog because of the potential problems involved in having a strange dog loose in your car.

The RSPCA already has a control centre and trained staff with suitable vehicles available 24/7 which could be scaled up to provide a collection service.

That's not the whole solution, though, because the inspector who picks up a dog then has to find somewhere to leave him. Animal home staff would need to be re-organised to make someone available during the night, or kennel units would need to be arranged so that the inspector could get in to drop dogs off and set them up with food and water.

£30 million additional annual spend would probably make it possible to collect strays, provide veterinary treatment where needed and board dogs until rehomed (assuming an average dog stays in kennels 30 days before finding a home).

2.  Injured Wildlife

The RSPCA has an arrangement with the British Veterinary Association (BVA) which theoretically ensures that veterinary surgeries will provide first aid for small injured wildlife free of charge if they are brought in during normal working hours, and the RSPCA will fund treatment of larger wild animals, such as deer, and pay an out of hours fee if an animal needs treatment out of normal working hours. The RSPCA will also collect wildlife if the finder doesn't have transport.

The public don't like this; they expect to be able to phone the RSPCA and have an inspector turning up to collect the animal within  minutes, or, slightly more realistically, to have an RSPCA animal centre capable of treating wildlife within a few minutes drive.

Actually I don't think I'd want to solve this by a huge increase in the numbers of RSPCA drivers going round picking up animals because this is such an inefficient way of providing help—if there is a vet available within a 10 minute journey and the finder is able to move the animal it is much better all round for the finder to transport to the vet rather than for the RSPCA driver to do a 20 minute journey, followed by the same 10 minute one.

A more effective solution would be for the RSPCA to pay vets a realistic amount for all injured wildlife; many vets really don't see why the BVA agreement exists and it makes their reception staff grumpy with the helpful members of the public who do try to transport animals themselves. Vets are businesses after all, and if wildlife was an opportunity for them, instead of a rather grudging duty, it would make things pleasanter all round and stop the ghastly circular phone chases in which we tell the MOP to contact a vet, vet says, "No, I'm not a charity," and the poor MOP is back in our telephone queue once more.

Another £20 million would probably fund that.

3. Stray domestic animals other than dogs

Mostly cats.

Collecting and locking up healthy, uninjured adult cats is not the way to go, and we should resist doing it however much flak this causes. Cats are not funny-looking dogs and living in varying degrees of attachment to human beings is natural for them. Australia and the USA have truly dreadful levels of killing of healthy cats purely because so much of their welfare and animal control organisation is focussed on collecting cats who don't need to be collected.

There is a genuine problem of cat year-on-year over-production (more kittens than there are homes—or more precisely, so many kittens that adult cats struggle to find good homes). 

The best way to solve this is more cat neutering and more people and resources available to catch, neuter and release cats who are living semi-, or entirely-independently of people.

Say another £10 million for more cat neutering, concentrating on the hard-to-get cases. 

Stray animals of other species usually do need collection, as their chances of unaided survival are minimal. This includes various small animals such as ferrets, rabbits, hamsters etc. Most of these do get collected at present and can generally be placed in foster care of some kind.

Injured and sick strays are a much bigger problem — probably around 30,000 cats each year. The majority of those reported to the RSPCA will be taken in and given at least basic treatment. Survival rates could almost certainly be increased if more funds were available to treat severe injuries.

It would need to be around £500 for each badly injured cat, so about another £5 million on top of what the RSPCA and its branches already spend.

4. Veterinary treatment for owned animals

Because I answer the branch helpline at night, I'm painfully aware of the amount of untouched need which exists out there.

The RSPCA is in a cleft stick because helping irresponsible owners has the potential to enable them to acquire more and more animals until they end up with welfare issues that are nothing to do with needing veterinary treatment. However it is the ONLY organisation which is available to be contacted in the small hours when an animal desperately needs treatment and the owner has no funds at all.

I'm leaning more and more towards a view that we should help the animal but impose some sanctions on the owner—possibly require that the animal is signed over for rehoming, or at least make it a condition of help that the owner should subsequently register at an RSPCA clinic  or receive a follow-up visit from an Inspector.

At present, most owners are likely to get at best some financial help to cover a vet's consultation fee, which may in some cases mean the animal won't be seen at all.

So, add another £5 million.

5. Horses

It's difficult to know where to start.

A large and complex equine case can, at worst, result in literally thousands of horses being handed over to welfare charities. Until now, the large equine charities and the RSPCA have managed to share the burden, using private livery stables to accommodate the overspill.

The thought of so many lives at stake must keep equine field officers awake at night.

On top of that are all the hundreds of calls about horses in less than ideal, but not illegal conditions.

Free or low-cost neutering may not be a concept that's normally applied to equines, but providing substantial amounts of free castration for colts would make them more valuable as riding horses and reduce some of the accidental breeding of unwanted foals which are then neglected.

Probably another £5 million

Bear in mind that all of this would have to be EXTRA money, because these are extra things on top of what's already being done—you can't look at the existing funds and say: "Aha! there's plenty of money, we'll just take the amount spent on dogs and that will fund the cats and then take the money spent on cats and use it to fund the dogs".

Sunday, July 21, 2013


The RSPCA is the only animal charity in England and Wales which operates a comprehensive rescue service round the clock with phones answered 24/7 and frontline staff available to go out at any time. 

Summer always brings a surge of extra calls due to a combination of young wild animals getting into trouble; the fact that more people are outside and able to notice animal problems, and incidents due to the heat itself.

Extra phone-line staff are put in to manage this call peak, but there are limits on what is possible (there's no point spending so much money on taking calls that there's none left to pay staff to do the actual rescues). 

In a lot of situations all an inspector would do would be to take the animal to the closest available vet for treatment, which is why we ask people finding animals in distress to do this if they have transport and are able to contain the animal safely. It takes much longer for an inspector to drive to their location and then to a vet than it would to take the animal direct to the vet.

The RSPCA has an agreement with the British Veterinary Association (BVA) which aims to ensure that stray animals and wildlife can receive at least basic treatment to relieve suffering. Vets agree to provide treatment for small wild mammals and birds brought to the practice in normal working hours and the RSPCA agrees to fund treatment of larger animals, treatment outside normal hours, and treatment of domestic stray animals (dogs are legally the responsibility of the local authority but the RSPCA will help if it is impossible to contact the LA).

You can read the current agreement in full on the BVA website and also some information on current negotiations to update the agreement

For comparison, you might also like to take a look at the current arrangements between the BVA and the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

If you find an injured animal and you can safely transport it to a vet yourself, please phone the surgery in advance to check that they are open. All vets should have details of the number they need to call in order to get an RSPCA log number which will ensure that they are paid by the RSPCA for the treatment they provide.

And, please, don't listen to the people who say the fact that we ask the public to take animals directly to vets means you shouldn't donate to the RSPCA—donations are much more usefully spent on treating animals than on buying petrol.