Archive for December 2008

The RSPCA should be ashamed

December 16, 2008

I have just finished reading Bleak House. My favourite author is Jane Austen (favourite book, Emma – not Pride and Prejudice) and I am afraid I do not enjoy reading Dickens very much. I know his plots are wonderful and his characterisation incredible and appreciate the sections when the story moves forward but there are just too many unnecessary words. I know the reason for the dense, impenetrable and opaque verbiage (you can tell it is having an effect on my own style)but why did he not have the common sense to edit the novels after their publication in the weekly magazines and before they were published as books. Who has ever actually read the opening chapter of A Tale of Two Cities? It is a mountain of language, piled up into an impassable wall of words which quickly becomes not just futile but meaningless and empty. On the other hand, properly and sensitively edited, his work can be fantastic as can be appreciated in the current radio version of A Christmas Carol being read by David Jason on Radio 4.

However, to return to Bleak House, Angela has always said I should not comment on things I know nothing about and while I have usually replied that there is no point at my age of changing the habits of a lifetime, I did agree that I would stop criticising Charles D until I had actually read a complete book. So now I have and I am pleased to have done so although I found much of it very heavy going. But it was particularly interesting because it is his book that focuses most sharply on the workings of the legal system. It seems to me that there is a great deal in the truism that the more things change the more they stay the same. Both Dickens in Little Dorrit and Trollope in The Way We Live Now, write in considerable detail about the irresponsible activities of banks and bankers and it seems to me that great chunks of their plots and characters are still relevant today as evidenced by the current hedge fund scandal in the Untied States.

The law is no exception to these observations and these thoughts passed through my mind as I sat in a Crown Court this week, the activities of which, other than their length, would have done credit to Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the core of the plot of Beak House, in which a case in Chancery goes on for so long that every last penny of a valuable estate being challenged by competing claimants is absorbed by the lawyers so when it is finally resolved there is nothing left.

The case being heard is one in which I have been involved as an expert witness and was an appeal against a very questionable judgement by a Magistrates Court earlier this year in a case brought by the RSPCA.

I should explain at this point that the RSPCA is not one charity but many and while the small locally based organisations do excellent work in caring for and rescuing animals in their region everyone should be aware although they have ‘the name’ they are independent, separate organisations who have to fund themselves and receive nothing (yes – nothing!) from ‘head office’. If you leave money in your will to ‘the RSPCA’ (and most of its income comes from this source) it automatically goes to headquarters at Horsham when you pop your clogs: your local charity (other than the very few shelters which are directly controlled) will not receive a penny. So when I talk about the RSPCA, I am referring to ‘headquarters’ and their income of around £100m a year. Its main preoccupation seems to me just to generate publicity which will keep the charity in the forefront of the minds of people who love animals so that when their solicitor suggests bequests, they are the organisation which comes to mind.

In this case, a man had collected his two ten year old bitches from a kennel – which I have visited and can confirm is one of the best in the UK. One, it is suggested, may have been lethargic and had been off a food for a day or two. Having actually managed kennels I know that most dogs are healthy and behave normally and consequently you remember very little about them and their stay. If a dog is not behaving normally and/or shows signs of sickness you spot them quickly and do something about it. The kennel’s veterinary surgeon gave clear evidence that the kennel tended, if anything, to be over cautious and that if there was ever a problem dogs were taken in straight away and having been established for twenty years the kennel has an unblemished record. The bitches were brought out of the kennel when their owner came to collect them and one was quieter than usual but not showing any symptoms of illness. It’s hind quarters were wet but it was explained that she had apparently and inadvertently fouled herself and been bathed – entirely reasonably.

On his way home, the owner become concerned and told the Court that he had smelled urine. The dog had not urinated in the car (and I personally wonder whether he smelled the remains of disinfectant) and did not urinate at the veterinary surgery when he took the dog to his own vet two hours later. The young veterinary surgeon examined the bitch and diagnosed a likely pyometra for, by the time it arrived on his table there was some puss seeping from the vulva. The bitch was put on a drip and was successfully operated on the following day.

As you will know, a closed pyometra is extremely difficult to diagnose. It develops slowly, usually a few weeks after a season but shows no symptoms until the final few hours when it advances rapidly and can lead to sudden death. Owners have put their pet to bed last thing at night and come down in the morning to find the dog dead or dying having had no indication that anything was wrong other than, perhaps, she was a bit below par on the preceding day.

Given the quality of care at this establishment I am certain that had the bitch remained in the kennels for a few more hours the discharge would have been noticed and she would have been taken to their vet but the owner reported the matter to the RSPCA saying that the kennels had not properly cared for his dog. An inspector interviewed the owner and then turned up at the kennels, unannounced, and took witness statements from the owners and the manager. The kennels owners wanted to co-operate. They did not realise that the RSPCA inspector had no rights to take statements and, in fact, the procedure was so poorly prepared that they were not acceptable to the Court. However, despite the facts set out above – an unfortunate coincidence in effect – the RSPCA decided to prosecute.

They got their headlines ‘ XXX kennels to be prosecuted by RSPCA’. On both occasions, had the whole process not been so distressing for those involved in the farce, I could almost feel sorry for the Barrister acting for the society. He had no evidence of any substance and spent hours (and I mean hours) repeating questions over and over again trying to get an admission on which he could hang some sort of case. In my evidence I was asked a number of questions about the 1963 Act, about the Model License Condition (which I helped to write) and the Animal Welfare Act. His point was that kennels had a responsibility to take a dog to a vet if it was ill. I agreed – of course they do. Unfortunately they was no evidence that the dog showed any symptoms of illness.

At the Magistrates Court hearing the kennel owners were exonerated but the kennel manager was found guilty by a magistrate sitting alone who during the two day hearing complained of a headache and insisted that she need to go home early. Even in my layman’s view there was no case to answer and the evidence presented was both insubstantial and unsatisfactory: how she came to her conclusions is a mystery. Fortunately at the appeal, there was a ‘proper’ judge who was patient and fair, had a grasp of relevant evidence (none), was understanding and sympathetic to the distress of the kennel manager, was unbelievably reasonable in allowing what arguments there were to be put across, sensible in his assessment (although, I felt, was clearly frustrated by the determination of the RSPCA’s barrister to drag inconsequential arguments out until they were stretched beyond reason) and came to the conclusion that was blindingly obvious from the start, ruling that there was, in effect, no evidence of any value. He and his colleagues brought in a verdict of not guilty and awarded costs against the society.

In my view, the RSPCA should be ashamed of themselves, not just because of the misery caused by this action against hard working and innocent people but for the inevitable damage the media inflicted on the business by responding to the Society’s publicity machine as well as the waste of the enormous sum of money expended – which had been collected from ordinary people who believed they were contributing to an organisation which would use it to help animals in real distress.

Be assured this is one of many such actions.

Happy New Year!

Crufts will not be televised by the BBC – a response

December 14, 2008
This is the text of a letter to the editor of The Guardian in response to their report about the BBC not broadcasting Crufts.  It could well have been submitted to all the nationals. of course but I thought The Guardian was the most likely to publish it.
Dear Sir,
As the publisher of the UK’s oldest specialist canine publication, Our Dogs, and Studies Coordinator of the leading pet welfare educational organisation, the Animal Care College, I hope I can make a contribution to the debate concerning your article reporting on the decision of the Kennel Club not to cooperate with the BBC following the broadcasters request that some breeds should be withdrawn from competition at Crufts on the grounds that they are ‘at risk’.
The BBC appear to be taking this stance on ‘evidence’ provided in the misleading and distorted programme they broadcast last August, Pedigree Dogs Exposed.  A small cabal of vets and charities colluded with the programme maker, Jemima Harrison, to make outrageous claims about the Kennel Club, pedigree dogs and dog breeders using techniques of which Goebbles himself would have been proud.   The rest of the media, understandably but erroneously, did not see fit to question the selective statistics, slanted video clips and carefully edited interviews – why let the facts get in the way of a good story – and the result has been an entirely unnecessary furore leading to the present impasse.

When this programme was aired I made a series of short talks for You Tube and placed the tests on my web log ( and, to try and lay out sensible and realistic approaches to the fundamental questions the programme posed – for there were important kernels of truth among the dross.  The original talk has had almost 8,000 viewings and, overwhelmingly, the comments made support and reflect the views I expressed.

However, we have to start from here.  The fuss has brought the world of dogs and dog ownership (and the Kennel Club too) to a Rubicon which, if crossed, could lead to a complete and damaging reassessment of the role of dogs in society.  It could effect not only the lives of the many millions of families and enthusiasts who enjoy the peerless companionship that dogs offer, but those who are actively involved in working with dogs professionally,from veterinary surgeons to groomers, those who are disabled who rely on dogs as working partners as well as the thousands of service military, police and security dogs and their handlers.

I accept that a small proportion of breeds suffer from genetic defects and that these are often the result of selective breeding, but your readers should be reassured that the vast majority of pedigree dogs in the UK are fit and healthy.  What is more, despite the programme’s assertions, the Kennel Club in Britain in association with the Animal Health Trust and others, is aware of those problems, has been working towards solving them for many years and has made more progress in eliminating a wider range of hereditary defects in dogs than any other country.  As an International judge of dogs dedicated to soundness both in my judging and in my educational role, I can confirm that the quality of pedigree dogs in the UK is, overall, higher than anywhere else the world.

What should the Kennel Club do?

Crufts, which is not just about pedigree dogs or show dogs, is a reflection of the relationship millions of people have with their pets and, like Ascot, Henley and Wimbledon, is part of the cultural fabric of this country and recognised world wide.  It must therefore absolutely deserves a place on the airwaves as a featured event rather than just another news story.  It would be tragic if Sky or another broadcaster was influenced by the controversy surrounding this particular issue and was therefore not prepared to consider featuring the event.  The Kennel Club must make every effort to ensure this coverage is maintained – not in its own interest but in the interests of dog owners both here and around the world, all of whom may be prevented from enjoying this spectacular and exciting occasion as a result of the BBC’s unfortunate and misguided attempt (supported by well meaning but short sighted lobby groups) to take what it probably believes is the moral high ground.