THERE has recently been some reporting about the perceived overzealous enforcement of the law by the RSPCA with regard to the prosecution of persons who it considers have failed to care properly for the animals entrusted to them.
In one instance, the owner of an animal refuge was prosecuted, a person who gained the support of an MP who was highly critical of the RSPCA’s action. In the case in question it was reported that the defendant (a woman of 71 years of age) pleaded guilty to the charge of animal neglect and the court banned the lady from keeping all animals other than cats, dogs and squirrels for a three-year period.
Many vets in practice will have had some experience of working with the owners/managers of animal refuges. Many of these refuges are started by people with a “love” of animals that leads them to take in waifs and strays for care and/or rehoming.
Through local reputation and word of mouth, the whole thing quickly snowballs and a new animal rescue society or refuge is born. Often the result is the formation of some sort of local charity and the medium- to longterm outcome frequently develops along one of two common pathways.
The first is that a committee is convened to oversee the work of the charity and with good management the refuge can grow and develop into a well-respected, well-run and wellmaintained institution. With the right professional help it can become a beacon for all that is commendable in the world of animal welfare.
The second scenario is that the refuge can be run and managed in a much more autocratic manner. The danger with this approach is that whilst the person in charge is almost universally wellintentioned, their grasp of the welfare needs of the animals they care for might be poor and be based on “love” rather than practicality and a sound knowledge of animal husbandry.
Such refuges can become decrepit, cash starved, poorly maintained and overcrowded, in truth little more than animal slums. They are often staffed by volunteers who have a homespun knowledge of an animal’s needs.
And whilst there is rarely any intentional cruelty involved in the care of animals on this type of premises, there may be severe animal welfare problems as a result of misplaced emotional involvement and poor decision making.
When refuges like this seek veterinary attention for their charges it is usually for treatment of the “fire brigade” type with little thought for preventive health-care planning. This approach might be justified by the animal keeper on the grounds that more proactive veterinary involvement is too expensive.
It might also be that the advice given by a vet concerning general care and management is considered unpalatable and goes against the ethos of the person in charge.
In my experience, dealing with the owners/managers of this latter type of refuge is not easy and can seriously test your professionalism.
Open to manipulation
If one is too outspoken about the shortfalls of the place then the likelihood of anyone listening to the veterinary advice given is virtually zero. But if one is too accommodating of the refuge’s obvious shortcomings then one is in danger of becoming complicit in the suffering of the animals and also open to manipulation by the person in charge.
Manipulation is something that the person in question is often very good at, possessing cunning in substantial measure.
Such a person not infrequently has a “favourite” vet who is held up as an example to all other vets … until the inevitable falling out, usually as the result of a disagreement over the treatment or otherwise of an individual sick animal or perhaps over a policy decision. A decision such as how many animals the refuge can really care for in a satisfactory manner, and what to do with the surplus.
Vets who find themselves providing veterinary care for this type of institution are often caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. After all, we have a professional responsibility and, in most of us at least, a personal desire to do the best that we possibly can for the animals committed to our care.
If, however, we can see that the very conditions in which the animals are kept are not conducive to safeguarding their well-being then we have a clear duty to express our misgivings and give appropriate advice as to what should be done to rectify the situation.
It is at this point that the vet might be shown the door by the refuge owner who then contacts the next vet on the list in the Yellow Pages, often with a somewhat protracted tale of woe.
So what should one do then? Breathe a sigh of relief that you no longer have to be involved with the place and that it is now somebody else’s responsibility? Or report the matter to the RSPCA in the hope that some sort of enforcement action will be taken to improve the welfare of the animals?
The answer is, of course, obvious to anyone with a modicum of interest in animal welfare. You might, though, risk the wrath of Parliament if there happens to be a tame MP to hand.