Thursday, September 12, 2013

RSPCA Hospitals Appeal

Click the image if you'd like to donate towards one of the large national hospitals (in London, Manchester and Birmingham). If you're based in Cambridge, please consider donating towards our branch animal clinic.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Welfare v. Rights mark 3

As I've argued in earlier posts, treating animal welfare and animal rights as though they represented opposites is at best a mistake, and at worst an example of "bad faith" claims aimed at intentionally confusing people.

Animal rights is a theory about the ethics of the way we should treat animals, but it's more helpful to treat it as one of a number of possible theories about the moral status of animals and avoid using it as a slogan. Ethical theory is essentially about clarifying what we believe about our obligations and helping us to think about this in a clear and logical fashion. It's not primarily about practical outcomes, although most theories of ethics incorporate some requirements to assess whether the outcomes of following a theory are likely to be good or bad.

If pressed, I think I'd plump for Erskine's definition of rights as a legal term (so animals have some rights in the UK as the law protects them against sadistic cruelty and neglect).

Animal welfare is usually defined in terms such as "physical and psychological well-being" and animal welfare science is the corpus of evidence-based knowledge about how this may be achieved.

So, someone who has been convinced that animal suffering matters should be interested in knowing more about the practicalities of animal welfare in order to be successful in putting their beliefs into practice.

Someone who already cares about animals may well take an interest in animal ethics to clarify their thinking when difficult choices need to be made (for example whether it can be right to use vaccines which have been tested on animals in order to protect other animals from fatal diseases).

If you're interested in pursuing this, I suggest taking a look at the exercises and case studies on the free, interactive Animal Ethics Dilemma site. You might also read, Putting the Horse before Descartes by the philosopher Bernard Rollin.

What's gone wrong?

  1. Bernard Rollin argues part of the problem is that good animal welfare and high productivity were at one time inextricably linked, simply because agricultural animals would die if their basic needs were not met. However, the advent of factory farming meant that animals could be kept in very poor conditions (overcrowded, dirty etc.) and remain productive through the use of technological aids like antibiotics. When animal protection organisations became concerned that animals were suffering in these systems, it was natural for the producers to counter this by claiming welfare must be good because productivity was still high. Gradually, through abuse of language, "welfare" became a term used by the animal industry to oppose better treatment.
  2. Advocates of a strong version of animal rights are opposed to "welfarism" because it's seen as a way of justifying keeping animals to be killed for meat and excusing systems which are only a little better than the worst excesses of factory farming.
  3. Fox hunting! Opponents of a ban on hunting find it a useful tactic to claim the RSPCA has been taken over by people who don't care about animal welfare because they want to destroy the RSPCA's credibility with ordinary people. (In fact this tactic tends to be used by any group that feels threatened by the RSPCA's campaigning activities—for example groups promoting exotic pets.)

"Bad Faith"

The problem with all this is that it makes it very hard to have a rational discussion about what needs doing in order to save more animals. It is absurd that an organisation whose supporters shoot around 10 million pheasants each year (Lees, A. C., Newton, I. and Balmford, A. (2013), Pheasants, buzzards, and trophic cascades. Conservation Letters, 6: 141–144. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2012.00301.x) gets a respectful hearing when it claims that "the Hunting Act has not saved a single fox" or exclaims with faux indignation about the euthanasia of sick animals.

Incidentally pheasants make up a startling 30% of the total land bird biomass of the British Isles (presumably chickens are not included).

What is news?

The 90-odd percent of the RSPCA's activities which don't involve startling cruelty, heroic rescues or very cute/unusual animals are not "news".

Unfortunately this means that:
  1. The public see quite a lot of the isolated newsworthy items but never really get a larger picture of what's going on.
  2. It's easy to claim that only the photogenic incidents are being dealt with—the public don't get to view inspectors driving round collecting small, injured animals and ferrying them to vets, or all the help given by arranging treatment via the telephone because there's not really anything much to see. Confidentiality issues normally mean it's not possible to film situations where the inspectors are negotiating with owners who aren't irresponsible enough to be prosecuted and any film of prosecutions can only be released after any court case has concluded. This means they have no real way to judge what's actually happening unless they go to the trouble of reading the public Annual Reports.
  3. Anything that can be made to look like a scandal of some sort is news, and modern newspapers are strapped for cash and very short of investigative journalists. This means it's easy for organisations opposed to animal welfare to write articles misrepresenting the RSPCA, then issue them as press releases or feed them as news to individual journalists and get them published pretty well verbatim as though they were news actually discovered by the paper.
  4. Muddling  up the distinction between rights and welfare (and why people who care about animals should be interested in both) is just another tool to spread disinformation about the animal protection movement, with the added bonus of helping to divide the movement.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Cats and dogs and other animals

Lulu: signed over because she was kept permenently
in a shed and had untreated mange
While writing up the previous post I searched for statistics on saving pets in the UK; how the numbers changed over time, and what needs to be done to save more animals and discovered that reliable information is a) remarkably sparse, b) skewed towards an assumption that this is predominantly about healthy stray dogs, and c) probably unreliable although it may point up trends.

The situation is very different in the US because their equivalents of the UK's dog warden services collect cats as well as dogs and they will also take pets who are simply not wanted by their owners (including sick animals whose owners can't afford the cost of euthanasia at a vet). The result is extremely high rates of euthanasia—around 71% of cats and 56% of dogs compared with around 7% for stray dogs in the UK.

The largest organisation rehoming stray and unwanted cats in the UK is Cats Protection, and they fairly recently conducted a large-scale study of mortality rates in their adoption centres, which revealed an average of 4.7%, qualified by a warning that the study period did not include the kitten season and the death rate is probably higher then because young kittens are more vulnerable to infections.

(Murray, J. K., Skillings, E., & Gruffydd-Jones, T. J. (2008). A study of risk factors for cat mortality in adoption centres of a UK cat charity. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 10(4), 338–45. doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2008.01.005)

Few of the cats who died or had to be euthanased were suffering from traumatic injuries (e.g. from traffic accidents), which is to be expected because fatally injured casualties would be likely to be euthanased by a veterinary surgeon before they could be admitted to a rehoming centre. 

One of the most reliable sources relating to stray dogs is probably the Dogs Trust Stray Dogs Survey— in their conclusion:

"The number of stray dogs reported by UK authorities overall has decreased by six percentage points since last year. The grossed number now stands at an estimated 118,932 stray dogs across the UK. Reported figures suggest that the majority (70%) of these dogs were seized by the local authority as strays.

In line with last year, two fifths (47%) of the estimated stray dogs handled in the UK between 1st April 2011 to 31st March 2012 were reunited with their owners, and a quarter (24%) were passed on to a welfare organisation or dog kennel for possible rehoming. A further 9% were re-homed by the local authority.

The proportion of stray dogs being put to sleep across the UK remains an at estimated 7% of the total number of strays."

This was collated by surveying the UK local authorities, who are responsible for collecting and providing 7 days of boarding for stray dogs.

In total, 8,093 stray dogs were put to sleep, 40% of these because they were not considered re-homeable for behavioural or veterinary reasons or because they belonged to illegal breeds.

It's not clear which local authorities also accept unwanted dogs from their owners and whether these are added in with the stray figures or not, and the euthanasia figures probably don't include dogs handed over to rescue organisations after the 7 days and later assessed as not rehomeable, or dogs put to sleep when found injured and hence never transferred to the local authority pound.

Funds and rehoming costs

Calculation of a figure for total income divided by numbers of animals rehomed for some of the larger animal charities gives a very approximate idea of how funding relates to the numbers of animals.

These figures are not "the cost of rehoming an animal" or "funds available per animal" because a proportion of income will always have to be spent working to generate funds (e.g. rent paid for charity shops), and all of the charities do other welfare activities as well as rehoming (for example about half of the Blue Cross's welfare activity is devoted to provision of welfare hospitals and the Dogs Trust provides free veterinary treatment for dogs owned by homeless people).

The figures do help in understanding what's likely to be possible for the charities and when pressuring them will simply be a distraction that hinders them from helping larger numbers of animals (for example it wouldn't be possible for Cat's Protection to take on large numbers of cats needing expensive fracture repair). They also disprove the claim that the RSPCA rehomes disproportionately fewer animals than other welfare organisations: on the contrary their benchmark figure lies well in the middle of the range in spite of their unique rĂ´le in investigation and prosecution of cruelty.

It's extremely short-sighted to say that all income should be diverted to rehoming because funds spent on making it possible for owners to keep the animals they have and on preventing the birth of unwanted animals will help to prevent animals needing to be rehomed. 

Cats Protection: £800 per cat rehomed (note that Cats Protection also does a very large amount of work on cat neutering)

Shelters responding to Nottingham University PUPS survey: £1,400 per animal

Wood Green Animal Shelters: £2,000 per animal rehomed

Battersea cats and dogs home: £2,300 per animal rehomed

RSPCA: £2,500 per animal rehomed (or released in the case of wildlife)

Blue Cross: £4,000 per animal rehomed (but note that the Blue Cross spends roughly half its income on provision of veterinary treatment)

Dogs Trust: £5,000 per dog rehomed (note that Dogs Trust provides free veterinary treatment for dogs owned by homeless people and runs a neutering scheme in certain areas of high need).

Animals who are not strays

Neither the cat nor the dog survey tells us how many animals are put down because their owners no longer want them or can't afford the cost of veterinary treatment they need and arrange euthanasia at a private vet, or who simply die because their owners don't arrange treatment or don't know how to provide proper care. However the frequency with which this crops up in veterinary forums suggests the number is significant, for example:
The dilemma in the September issue concerned a vet presented with a dog with dystocia (In Practice, September 2010, volume 32, pages 413–414). Clinical examination revealed an oversized puppy impacted in the birth canal and the vet advised an emergency caesarean. The owner said she was claiming benefits and had no savings with which to meet the cost. [...] 
If payment was not possible, it was acceptable to refuse to perform the caesarean without payment and prevent the suffering of the bitch through euthanasia. Experience suggested that, even with promises of payment, the debt would generally remain unpaid and the owner would never return to the clinic.  (In Practice 32:459 doi:10.1136/inp.c5098)