Thursday, September 5, 2013

What has changed since 1972? What has stayed the same?

Obviously, quite a few things, but some comments about my previous post about the RSPCA's welfare statistics in 1972-3 made me think it might be instructive to discuss some of them, particularly where change in the wider society has created knock-on changes in the way we work as a welfare organisation.

Far more women go out to work and nearly everyone has a mobile phone.

The 1972 RSPCA relied very heavily on getting two people for the price of one inspector's salary, with the inspector's wife acting as unpaid receptionist and animal carer. Today the inspector may be female and in any case will not have a spouse willing to take phone calls all day.

When I first got involved with the Cambridge branch in the early 1990s female inspectors had just started being recruited and, two years earlier, the Society had invested in regional control centres (one each for pairs of the 10 branch electoral regions) to take calls and task them out to the inspectors and/or branches.

This worked (although there were lots of complaints about not being able to phone the local inspector direct) on the basis that BT could provide a single RSPCA number which diverted to the relevant control centre depending on the area code of the calling phone. The control centre team were directly employed by the RSPCA and had some day to day contact with the inspectors and local management as they were based in the regional headquarters. Over time, they developed a fair bit of local knowledge although the areas they covered were large.

The most immediate outcome for branches was a huge increase in the demand for help with wildlife casualties and injured stray animals, because it was now possible to contact the RSPCA 24/7 whereas the inspectors' wives were selfish enough to eat and sleep occasionally. At that time, the branches had financial responsibility for the costs of any treatment for wildlife from their branch area which had been arranged via their Regional Control Centre. The BVA/RSPCA memorandum of understanding restricted this to some extent as vets were then (as now) supposed to treat small wild animals free of charge during normal working hours. In practice this created a considerable amount of heated discussion about the definition of "small" (a swan? a muntjac deer?) and whether the memorandum really applied to members of the public who had been told to come to the surgery by the RSPCA rather than simply turning up of their own volition.

A few years down the line, the National RSPCA recognised that it was unreasonable for the control centres owned by them to be able to run up charges on behalf of branches with the individual branch lacking any ability to say that they would simply not be able to pay. The system was modified to the one currently in place whereby the Control Centre authorises initial emergency payment from central funds and the onus falls on the vet to contact their local branch to ask for payment of continuing care costs.

Where do mobile phones come in?

The system of regional control centres depended on BT having the ability to detect the caller's location. Mobile calls might be from anywhere as the location is not passed through to the landline exchange. Once large numbers of incoming calls were no longer regional, the centre staff's local knowledge could be a positive hindrance if they assumed that Streatham was actually Stretham and so on.

This made it more cost-effective to create a National Control Centre in 2003; outsourced to a commercial call-handing company, but with a stable team who would gradually build up their own knowledge.

The comparative ease of access to make cruelty complaints via the NCC probably explains why their number has risen so dramatically since 1972 (although it may partly be explained by the wives being selective about which complaints they recorded and which they silently discarded as impossible to investigate or misguided).

Further developments

A few years later, there was a push to encourage branches to provide a more standard "kit" of services—MAWS, or Minimum Animal Welfare Standards. This had been preceded by various directives aimed at improving the proportion of animals saved by:

  • Encouraging all branches to do at least some rehoming activity.
  • Discouraging branches from taking on council stray dog contracts unless they could guarantee to save the majority of rehomeable dogs (so ending the situation described in Who Cares for Animals where some animal homes were no better than ordinary council pounds).
  • Encouraging the neutering of all animals rehomed by the RSPCA (where medically appropriate) and the provision of neutering vouchers for kittens and puppies rehomed before they were old enough to neuter.
  • Encouraging branches to get involved with trapping and neutering feral cats.
There was also continued roll-out of regional animal centres and wildlife hospitals, funded and run by the National RSPCA.

Cats and Dogs

Periodically a particular type of dog will be taken up as a kind of fad and this nearly always causes problems. When I first started volunteering with the RSPCA, the current fad type was the lurcher; a cross between one of the running breeds, such as a greyhound or whippet and either a different type of running dog or another breed altogether. This was originally done to produce a dog nearly as fast as a greyhound, but with more intelligence and trainability and hence a more efficient poacher's dog. There was also a fashion for Border Collies (likely as a side-effect of the TV show "One Man and His Dog") which caused some real suffering when dogs who craved an outlet for their intelligence were expected to cope  with nothing to do all day. 

A very young David Grant makes an appearance in Who Cares for Animals and here he is, just before his retirement, talking through some of the issues of the latest fad for "bull breed" dogs. Note that the dogs shown in the video do have owners, although not very competent ones.

The reason why the 1972 RSPCA put down so many healthy dogs in some areas was uncontrolled breeding by bitches who were allowed to roam and produce unwanted puppies. Over the next three decades it became socially unacceptable to allow this to happen (although rather in the sense that drunk driving is socially unacceptable—some people still do it). Street markets are now barred from selling pets, but too many buyers are still silly enough to accept a seller's offer to meet them at a motorway service station with their pup. Most of the time the 2013 dog problem is not unexpected litters of unwanted puppies but pups who have been produced purely for their commercial value and dogs whose owners didn't understand the financial or practical implications of dog ownership (or even that a mastiff is harder to carry in an emergency than a terrier).

In the case of dogs the welfare issues are like the hydra's heads: no sooner is one set of problems solved  than the situation mutates to throw up different ones. The situation for cats is much brighter: widespread availability of affordable spaying and neutering has reduced kitten production to a level that means nearly all healthy and friendly cats can be rehomed, but the cats themselves haven't changed in the dramatic way we've seen with dogs.

Who Cares for Animals gives the total number of animals humanely destroyed in 1972 as 240,509 (roughly 3 times the number of animals rehomed). I'm not totally convinced this can be meaningfully compared with the 64,295 figure for 2012 because the 1972 figure doesn't seem to include animals put down after admission to animal centres and the 2012 figure doesn't include terminally ill owned animals.

Branches had been urged not to take stray dog contracts unless they had a realistic prospect of rehoming most of the dogs as early as the 1990s (the point being that RSPCA resources should be spent on saving animals, not on killing strays for the local council).

In 2009/10 this was made slightly more hard-line with the introduction of "RSPCA-generated"—basically a policy that priority should be given to those animals for which the RSPCA had a moral responsibility, either because there was a specific concern that they would be subjected to suffering if not taken in or because they had been taken in as a result of an RSPCA investigation.

This meant that branches might still accept stray dogs whose time was up at the local authority pound or take on stray dog contracts but should only do this provided no rehomeable RSPCA-generated animals would be put to sleep to make space for them. Regional animal centres could only take unwanted animals from the public on the same basis of not depriving a neglected animal of a place in favour of a potentially more rehomeable one whose owners would be capable of seeking a new home themselves.

It might be helpful to benchmark the RSPCA's current performance by comparison with the  Dogs' Trust, whose intake policy is also perfectly sensible and aimed at maximising their ability to help dogs.

As might be expected, far more of the RSPCA intake have to be put to sleep for medical or behavioural reasons because the Dogs Trust are taking in predominantly healthy dogs of good temperament, while most of the RSPCA animals come in precisely because they have been neglected or injured. In spite of this, the RSPCA managed to rehome nearly as many dogs (11,356) as Dogs Trust (12,822) in 2012.

Total RSPCA income is about twice that of the Dogs Trust, so considering that the RSPCA also rehomes other animals it looks as though the RSPCA rehoming program is at least as efficient in terms of placing dogs in new homes.

Animal Populations

The size of any animal population ultimately depends on the carrying capacity of its habitat; in the case of domestic animals usually determined by the amount of food resources provided by humans. Where the population's production of offspring exceeds this the supply of resources must be increased or else numbers must be reduced. Providing more animal shelter places is a short-term way of increasing available resources, but the shelters will ultimately become overwhelmed unless production can be limited.

If resources increase in the wider society (for example there is some evidence that cats are becoming more popular as pets, probably because they can be left alone during the day), then the population can increase until it runs up against the resource limit once more.

This is why talk about "pet over-population" has to be treated with some care. Increase in the number of people keeping a particular species means the number of animals needing to be rehomed will rise (because there will always be a percentage of people who can't keep their animals for one reason or another and need help), but it doesn't necessarily mean those animals can't be rehomed (because the number of homes has increased in proportion). Production of offspring beyond what's needed to replace the existing adults in a population with a limited resource base will always mean some of them can't be rehomed (because the homes aren't there).

This means that rehoming alone can't solve the problem of unwanted animals without education and increased provision for spay/neuter and it's why commercial production of animals who are poorly suited to life in human families is a welfare disaster because it encourages people to acquire animals, discard them and replace them, thus increasing the population beyond carrying capacity.

The Inspectorate

In 1973 there were 221 inspectors, 36 market inspectors and 1 docks inspector. Today there are 278 fully trained inspectors, 57 in training, 82 animal welfare officers and 58 animal collection officers (the last two classifications reflect an experimental attempt at division of labour between staff investigating cruelty or neglect, animal rescues and collections of sick or injured animals needing to be transported for treatment which took place a decade ago).

Veterinary treatments

Veterinary treatment numbers have gone up from 174,577 in 1972 to 263,267 (including spay/neuter) in 2012. This is something of a Cinderella area of welfare (probably because it's seen as help provided to the owner rather than the animal) but is crucially important in preventing cruelty due to neglecting to get treatment for sick or injured pets. Notice that the dog in the video had injuries which had gone untreated for long enough to become infested with maggots.


The 1970s RSPCA did try to provide treatment for wildlife, most notably for oiled sea-birds, following the Torrey Canyon incident but it was a bit ad-hoc and investigation of survival rates after release was just beginning. Today it's more organised, with four dedicated wildlife centres funded by the national RSPCA and programs of post-release tracking to study survival rates (this is important because wildlife rehabilitation attempts are worse than useless if they're simply prolonging the process of dying).

Heathrow Airport Hostel

Who Cares for Animals describes the RSPCA Airport Hostel at Heathrow during the period of its activity. Fortunately campaigns against the trade in wild animals finally succeeded in reducing the need for this facility and it was closed in 1981.