RSPCA TO TAKE ON ‘POLICE’ ROLE?
RSPCA INSPECTORS look set to take on police-like roles next month when the Animal Welfare Act becomes law… and cat owners could be facing doorstep inquisitions on their pets’ welfare – especially if the cats are ‘indoor’ cats that are not let outside.
Under the terms of the existing Cruelty to Animals Act 1911, the RSPCA can only intervene and prosecute when they can prove cruelty, which often comes too late for the animals involved.
On 7th April, the new Animal Welfare Act will force pet owners to meet their animals’ basic needs, with a proper diet, suitable living space and live with or without animal companions, as appropriate.
It will also compel owners to care for pets in a way that allows them to “express normal behaviour” and take “reasonable steps to protect them from pain, suffering, injury or disease”.
Whereas before, the RSPCA could only confiscate pets and prosecute owners once cruelty had been proved, from April it will be able to act before the damage is done, if pet owners ignore their advice. However, some observers have said that this amounts to a ‘sus’ law and may lead to perfectly responsible pet owners being harassed – and possibly having their animals seized – simply if, in the subjective view of an RSPCA Inspector, they are not caring for the animals ‘properly’.
In a recent report, a reporter from the Cambridge Evening News accompanied RSPCA inspectors have been visiting homes across Arbury and King’s Hedges, in Cambridge, to tell pet owners about their responsibilities and offer subsidised treatment, including neutering.
The News joined Richard Lythgoe of the RSPCA on one estate, where Samantha Smith, 21, jumped at the chance of booking in her one-year-old Lurcher, Faith, to be neutered.
She said: “Faith’s been on heat a few times and it is very difficult for us because we have a male dog, Rascal, too, and it drives him wild. This is a great chance to sort the problem out without spending a fortune.”
Insp. Lythgoe said: “Our main aim is to get as many dogs and cats neutered as possible, because although it costs us a lot, it will be well worth it when we stop litters of puppies and kittens being born, which then have litters of their own and contribute to the large number of strays and rescue animals we have to re-home every year.”
At another block on a King’s Hedges estate, Inspector Jon Knight spoke to a woman who has five cats in her small flat, who told him they are never allowed out.
Hers is the sort of case the RSPCA may investigate further once the law changes. As many cat fanciers do not allow their cats out of the house – or possibly keep them confined to open runs in their back gardens – the Act’s new powers may see individual Inspectors ‘flexing their muscles’ and accusing such cat owners of cruelty.
Although many pet owners were keen to take up the RSPCA’s offer of subsidised neutering and microchipping, the approach of knocking on doors and asking questions about residents’ pets also drew criticism.
Councillor Louise Downham, who represents King’s Hedges, said: “I applaud them for holding a drop-in centre, but calling at homes and asking questions about people’s pets and how they care for them was too intrusive.
“They should be offering help to those who want it and responding to complaints, not knocking on doors at random.”
Jenny Carpenter, a partner at Cambridge law firm Adams Harrison who successfully defended a Trumpington woman Deborah Koehorst when the RSPCA accused her of cruelty to her pet pig, also expressed doubts.
She said the new Animal Welfare Act gave the RSPCA too much power, adding: “I have been concerned the RSPCA have been over-zealous in their approach, especially when taking people’s pets away.
Nothing To Fear
“The new Act will give the RSPCA more power in this respect. It will also permit them to dictate how people should look after their animals, down to specifics such as diet and the living environment. Animals need to be protected from abuse, harm and neglect but the new Act gives the RSPCA too much control.”
OUR CATS spoke to the RSPCA’s Press Office and asked whether owners of house cats needed to be afraid of a knock on the door from the RSPCA .
Press Officer Helen Briggs commented: “Cat owners who keep their pet indoors have nothing to worry about as long as they meet its needs. For example, if your cat has a suitable environment with enough space to run around in, can express normal behaviour and isn’t distressed or ill as a result of being kept indoors, you should have nothing to worry about. It should also have access to adequate food and water. If in doubt, pet owners can contact their vet or the RSPCA for further advice.
“The RSPCA has neither sought any additional powers nor been given any. The only people who have anything to worry about are people who are cruel to or neglect animals.
“The welfare offence will be enforced by the RSPCA (and others) in a similar way to the existing cruelty offence. Animal owners will have a legal responsibility to ensure their animals have adequate food, water, ability to express normal behaviour, provide them with a suitable environment and protect them from illness and distress.
“The RSPCA won’t seek to prosecute under the welfare offence without first explaining to the owner which element of the animal’s welfare had not been met and giving them an opportunity to rectify the situation. And no prosecution will be brought without veterinary or other expert evidence that the animal’s welfare needs have not been met.”
She pointed out that pet owners have a responsibility to the animal in their care and that making sure they are informed about its needs was merely part of exercising that responsibility.
* To help people understand what their pet needs, the RSPCA publishes an extensive list of pet care booklets and leaflets which are available from RSPCA centres, national enquiries phone line, or via their website: www.rspca.org.uk
*** What do YOU think of the RSPCA’s views on ‘house cats’? Drop us a line and let us know to VIEWPOINT at the usual Editorial and e-mail addresses.