Monday, February 11, 2013

Superpowers? What works?

The RSPCA was originally founded as a political organisation with the threefold aims of enforcing "Martin's Act"; pursuing improved legal protection for animals and altering the moral feelings of the country towards cruelty to animals.

Over time its practical welfare services developed, sometimes in a relatively strategic way; for example the roll-out of animal homes in the regions was planned as a way to work towards the goal of ending the euthanasia of healthy companion animals. Most of it "just grew" as a reaction to the needs of the time.

If owners are to be prosecuted for failing to seek treatment for sick animals, there is an obligation on the prosecuting body to make sure at least basic treatment can be accessed by owners who genuinely have no money for a private vet. Hence the requirement for branches to provide basic veterinary help for owners on state benefits.

Once legislation had incorporated provisions to deprive owners of animals who had been subjected to cruel treatment there was a need for facilities to house and care for these "case animals" until they could be rehomed.

Sometimes the practical services were intended to encourage someone else to be helpful: the RSPCA has an agreement with the BVA to pay for basic first aid and/or euthanasia of sick or injured strays and larger wild animals. In return the BVA members agree to give basic care to small wild life (smaller than a duck or rabbit) free of charge if brought in by members of the public.

RSPCA inspectors became known as animal experts and were asked to rescue animals in difficulty or danger, generating a need for training and equipment and for wildlife hospitals to care for viable wild animals not fit for immediate release.

As telephones became more common and inspectors' wives became less willing to act as unpaid receptionists there was a need for staff to take incoming calls; initially at regional centres and today at the single RSPCA National Control Centre. The change to one unified centre was partly driven by cost, but mostly by the ubiquity of mobile phones which removed the concept of a local call.

At times these practical roles shade into education, Freedom Food being the prime example of science and evidence-based technical advice and accreditation schemes intended to lead achievable improvements in the welfare of farmed animals. 

The RSPCA's welfare services are now seen by the public as its raison d'ĂȘtre and as the things which  validate its claims to expertise in guiding further change.  In a somewhat back-handed way the ongoing hunt saga only goes to prove the importance of campaigns AND practical work (including the prosecutions as another form of practical service) as it's become fairly clear that without the Inspectorate, the hunting ban might have been quietly ignored for high-profile people. The only way to achieve real, not just paper, improvement for animals is to combine the campaigns to change the law and alter personal behaviour with services that make it possibly to comply and enforcement to ensure the law can't be ignored because other things are seen as more important. Good services keep the public on our side and make the RSPCA message credible.

It's not an accident that opponents who object to RSPCA policies nearly always attack the services, either by claiming that they are not good enough, or by attempting to discourage the donations needed to keep them going.

Fundamentally, most politicians are not very interested in animal welfare, beyond the extent to which it affects their ability to get votes. They are not going to promote welfare changes if these are going to involve significant detriment to anything higher in their list of priorities. Animal experimentation is the prime example of this; a campaign aimed at abolition and nothing else would fail without benefiting animals, while lower-profile improvements like the establishment of the national centre for the 3Rs can be portrayed as "welfarism" but have a better chance of doing some actual good. Promoting veganism and nothing else is perhaps another (although it's a little different in that it would promote a personal change rather than a political one).

I do wonder if someone thought there was political advantage to be gained by getting public approval for taking action on the problems of irresponsible dog ownership through the relatively cheap option of microchipping using chips provided by an animal charity. The cynic in me says I would not be a bit surprised to find that the next step was to say universal chipping means there's no longer any reason why local authorities should fund 7-day boarding for stray dogs, as it should be possible to contact their owners immediately. I suspect we should be thinking about using the 3 years grace period before all dogs are supposed to be chipped to prepare for a potential demand that the RSPCA should take on all the un-chipped strays.

The RSPCA is often in a delicate position between special interest groups who need to be kept on side if progress is to be made at all. One group may resent time and effort spent on anything other than their particular concern even if that might be more fruitfully promoted at another time. Breed specific legislation is an example of this; if it's certain that politicians are not going to budge at the current time it's pointless and damaging for the RSPCA to be forced into a campaign that can't be won — and would be even more damaging if it happened at the end of a series of attacks claiming that the RSPCA doesn't care about animals. Campaigns that make us feel good without helping animals are really not much more than self-indulgence.

Bottom line: if you care about animals and have a specific concern, you can be far more effective if you work with other animal lovers, even if they may not have identical priorities. The public don't like infighting and they're much more sympathetic to campaigns if they come from groups with a track record of practical welfare work. The majority of them do love their own pets and that's the foundation on which we can build.

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