Sunday, 25 March 2012


A growing number of animal sanctuaries are closing due to an inability to cope with an increase in abandoned pets and growing bureaucratic pressure from the RSPCA.

For 27 years, Veronica and Rye Mepham ran an animal sanctuary taking in thousands of abandoned pets, injured wild animals and unwanted livestock.
Run from a smallholding near Benfleet, Essex, their centre was so well regarded it even provided owls for use in the Harry Potter films and squirrels for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
But their life's work came to an abrupt end after the RSPCA visited on a routine inspection and accused them of animal cruelty.
Although they denied all the charges, they did not have the resources for a costly court case. To their continuing anguish, they agreed to close down the sanctuary and get rid of all the animals, in exchange for the case being dropped.
Their experience highlights a growing divide in the animal welfare world.
On the one side are the small-scale animal sanctuaries – often run by couples, like the Mephams, on shoestring budgets and with rudimentary facilities.
On the other is the RSPCA, the country's leading animal charity, which handles more than a million phone calls a year from members of the public concerned about incidents of animal cruelty.
Both sides say they are driven solely by the desire to help animals. Yet they are increasingly coming into conflict about how best to achieve this aim, with a mounting number of sanctuaries closing under pressure from the RSPCA.
Most sanctuaries have an open-door policy and find it hard to turn away any animal in need – and in the economic downturn, with a rise in abandoned pets, they are seeing increasing numbers.
But the RSPCA believe this can all too easily lead to problems, as it becomes too difficult for sanctuary owners and volunteers to provide suitable care to their growing menageries – the cleaning, the health checks, the feeding and watering.

David Bowles, head of communications for the society, said: "There is a thin line between people wanting to do their best for animals and them getting into difficulties.
"When these places are set up, they get a reputation locally and get more people giving animals to them. Things can spiral out of control very quickly. That is when we tend to get called in.
"A lot of people may have run sanctuaries for a long time. They are getting old. They can no longer raise the funds that they used to raise. They can no longer feed the animals they used to feed."
He said the society was supportive of well-run sanctuaries, and tried to offer advice before taking firmer action. But that is not how the Mephams feel their case was handled.
The couple started with just a few sick animals but as their reputation grew they began to take in more and more.
When Mr Mepham received a redundancy payout from his job as a medical engineer, they used the money to set up their site. Later they moved into a mobile home on the smallholding to be near their animals.
At their peak, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the couple looked after around 200 creatures, including horses, pigs, owls, dogs, fox cubs, and squirrels – mainly handed in by the public.
Their clash with the RSPCA began in August 2010 when they were reported to the society by a council inspector. They were arrested and charged with 18 counts of "animal cruelty".
Among the allegations were that they kept a fox and fox cub in unsuitable conditions, failed to stop a duck from suffering preventable injury, and failed to give a wood pigeon adequate food and veterinary care.
But Mr Mepham, 66, said they could have defended themselves against all charges. "The foxes were in the on-site hospital, which was always clean and tidy, so I never understood what the RSPCA were complaining about.
"The duck came to us with the injury so I really can't see how we could have done anything to prevent it. We were merely trying to nurse it back to health. And with the wood pigeon, we fed and watered it in the evening, as we always do.

"Then the RSPCA came the next morning. They wouldn't allow us into the pens to feed or water the animals, so the fact that they were unfed was the RSPCA's fault."
He added: "It's a sanctuary, so the animals come to you when they are in a bad way. Of course you are going to find some that don't look very healthy. Our job is to restore them back to health. We don't put down the animals, unlike the RSPCA."
More than 1,000 people signed a petition in support of the couple and many offered witness statements to assist them, including their vet.
The couple were due to appear before magistrates last year but the charges were dropped before the trial, after the couple signed a legal agreement to shut down. All the animals had to be re-homed. The couple now have only five pet dogs.
Mrs Mepham, 72, a former funeral director, said: "The sanctuary has been our life for almost 30 years. We've put everything we have into it. We've been deeply traumatised and our health has even suffered because of it."
The lack of financial resources – either to take on the RSPCA in court, or to meet its demands for changes – is a common reason given by sanctuaries closing down.
Dawn Critchlow, 44, last year shut the "Animal Haven" sanctuary, in Sheffield, which she had run for 22 years and which looked after dozens of dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, rabbits and guinea pigs.
When RSPCA inspectors told her she needed new kennels costing £12,000, she felt she had no choice.
"The RSPCA offered no help whatsoever. You would think they would want to support little organisations like this one. Everything we do is for the animals, not for ourselves. It broke my heart having to give up but there was no other way," she said.
But Mr Bowles said: "If you are running a sanctuary, like any business, you have to have the money to make sure it is operating properly and to the standards demanded by the [animal welfare] legislation.
"If some of these places do not see themselves as businesses then that may be the issue. They may just be animal lovers who have taken on more than they can handle."
In some cases, animals have been seized from sanctuaries and later destroyed by the RSPCA.

Three dogs – Stocking, Diesel and Clarke – were put down by vets accompanying RSPCA officers in a raid on the Rosedene Animal Rescue Centre, in Walsall, last year.
The animals were deemed to be too aggressive – a claim which was strongly contested by volunteers from the centre who regularly walked them.
Around 1,000 people joined an internet campaign in support of the centre, which looked after around 25 dogs, and it eventually reopened after the council returned its license.
Currently, anyone can set up a sanctuary and there are no regulatory checks. The RSPCA wants sanctuaries to have clear policies on their capacity, accommodation, staffing levels and staff-to-animal ratios.
Partly in response to these difficulties being faced by sanctuaries, a new organisation is being set up, to represent their interests: the Federation of British Animal Sanctuaries.
Sue Burton, who runs a horse sanctuary in Essex and is behind the new group, said she would endorse a "measured tightening up" in the rules, but warned: "The RSPCA need to understand that the smaller sanctuaries do not have millions of pounds in their bank accounts but work hand to mouth - so any changes need to be reachable targets.
"This is about sanctuaries getting together to help each other out. There is no one speaking for them with a powerful voice and that is the idea behind the federation. Centres need advice and help on the law."

While there is no register of sanctuaries, it is thought their number could extend into the thousands.
John Hemming, MP for Birmingham Yardley, said he would investigate the emerging threat to sanctuaries.
He said: "The RSPCA don't seem to care about killing animals, but they do care if they are overcrowded.
"Sanctuary owners are animal lovers who don't like the idea of stray animals. Most are very responsible and simply want to look after animals."

  • Commenter's avatar
    From it looks like the RSPCA ethanization (kill) count for dogs is 50% of ones adopted out, and in the case of cats they "manage" to adopt out 3 times as many as they kill. Whoop-de-doo!
    Page 19 - consolidated financials - makes interesting reading too. And they spend nearly as much on prosecutions as they do on Animal Centers!
    The amount for "Inspectorate" is horrifying - $31 MILLION.
  • Commenter's avatar
    The RSPCA are becoming increasingly fanatical. They seem to relish pursuing well meaning people who have fallen short in some (often trivial) way. Going after animal sanctuaries like this seems to be more about wiping out competition than animal welfare. I used to donate but never again.
  • Commenter's avatar
    A friend is a veterinary nurse whose practice now tries to have as few dealings as possible with the RSPCA as they're utterly unhelpful.
    One starts to wonder what the RSPCA is useful for, as it seems more interested in making life hell for people than in helping animals. I now refuse to give them a penny and would much sooner support sanctuaries run by people who genuinely care for animals.
  • Commenter's avatar
    26 minutes ago
    I can only echo your comments. My wife is involved with animal rescue - she shares your disdain for the RSPCA. Bureaucratic and unhelpful at best, obstructive at worst.
  • Commenter's avatar
    52 minutes ago
    When you say " All the animals had to be re-homed", no doubt you mean, re-homed by the RSPCA in the cold, cold ground!
  • Commenter's avatar
    RSPCA, RSPB-too much say , too much power, too much eye on membership income. Hypocrites all.
  • Commenter's avatar
    The RSPCA should lose its charitable status and also its quasi legal status and be replaced by an arm of the police and the governments vets. officers. They are quite right to draw attention to the shambles of many so called sanctuaries-those who claim to love animals are often the least suited to to look after them correctly. But the RSPCA has failed to address the real problem and that is unfettered pet ownership. They and animal rights organisations have consistently targeted cages and penning in farming yet have failed to call for a ban on keeping caged rabbits, birds and reptiles or for a dog licence with compulsory tagging and insurance, or for a licence to keep a horse with proof of suitable accommodation. Farm animals have birth to slaughter paperwork, horses now have paperwork incase they enter the food chain,but any fool can buy one and keep it on dog biscuits in a back garden.
    I have long doubted the training and expertise of RSPCA inspectors and wondered about the objectivity of directly employed RSPCA vets.
  • Commenter's avatar
    Today 10:33 AM
    Adequate food and veterinary care are mentioned here.This goes without saying, but whether this is really possible, is another thing. Both can be very expensive, particularly the latter.
    Sanctuaries, let alone those who have domestic pets all have to face these continually rising costs. Frankly, I don't know how they continue to do it. As a family we had dogs and cats as family pets in the past and even then Vets bills could be high - but not as high as now - and then there were more affordable insurance plans. Now, we would really think very carefully about taking on such a commitment again. It's a pity, we would love to take on another pet but it is a long term commitment - very long, in some cases.
  • Commenter's avatar
    The RSPCA shelter on the Wirral was begging for money or it had to close down yet they have millions in the bank to fight small sancturies.I have given up giving to the stasi RSPCA.
    They are too fond of the money and getting people to court yet happily put down thousands of animals every year.
    It is all about money now.
  • Commenter's avatar
    Today 10:39 AM
    I've just noticed your comment, some friends of ours were going to leave some money to the same organization but have now decided not to, for similar reasons as your own.
  • Commenter's avatar
    The RSPCSA used to be a good organisation but for several years now has been a politically motivated campaigning outfit with no regard for animals - in fact animals are really just the tool they use to extract money from a well-intentioned but gullible public.
    If anything should close down it is the RSPCA - but perhaps for a start they should be stripped of the "Royal" part.
  • Commenter's avatar
    Today 09:26 AM
    Another shower of self appointed know better than everyone else pc jobsworths.
    Tell them to f-off, all they see are others doing their job for them and doing it better and at no cost.
    Therein lies the problem with the UK, useless expensive quangos,run by useless expensive jobsworths of no use to society with their own pc objectives and a barrefull of spite and vindictiveness.
    Note i no longer give to this charity lke many more people because of their twisted logic and large salaried senior staff
  • Commenter's avatar
    The RSPCA has overstepped it's mark. They are only interested in big personal bank accounts. Instead of critizing the small sanctuaries why don't they help out a bit more? They also seem to have a high kill rate of animals in their care for the merest of reasons.
    It's an excellent idea for all the small sanctuaries to get together under one umbrella and try to regulate their businesses.
    We should give more support to these small sanctuaries who do so much for needy animals without thinking of fat salaries.
    Shame on the big animal charities.
  • Commenter's avatar
    "Big personal bank accounts". Indeed it would be interesting to know the levels of remuneration for executives in the RSPCA. I would bet that some at least are on six figure salaries.
  • Commenter's avatar
    When the RSPCA condemn animal shelters what exactly are the problems they are seeing? A few rough buildings, maybe? What would the animals use as shelters in the wild? Perhaps old pottery bowls used for food and water instead of stainless steel? Again, what would the food come in in the wild?
    Veterinary treatment is available at these shelters. Many vets reduce their charges in cases like this. That's more than would be available in the wild where the animals may well suffer a slow, painful death.
    Yes, of course animal rescuers should provide good conditions, and most do to the best of their ability. Much of the daily care is done by volunteers, not well paid RSPCA officials in their nice uniforms no doubt paid for out of our contributions. What I find worrying in this report is that the RSPCA didn't take into account the word of the independant witnesses that the rescued animals were being well cared for, and that in another case the council saw fit to relicense one refuge, so they obviously believed the owners were capable of doing a good job in spite of what the RSPCA said.
    The RSPCA rehome a lot of animals with refuges. They have some nice facilities of their own, too, but then they are a huge organisation which is well publicised nationally and they get a lot of money from the public. They still euthanise a lot of healthy animals every year though.
  • Commenter's avatar
    Today 09:08 AM
    The RSPCA, RSPB, WWF and others have lost their original sense of purpose. They now appear to be run for the personal ambition of a highly paid few, whose sense of self worth is only satisfied by the expansion of bureaucracy and power. They know best in all matters and must use this knowledge to dictate what is good for the rest of us.
  • Commenter's avatar
    Today 08:33 AM
    When did the RSPCA acquire these draconian powers?
    I can see that animal sanctuaries could easily become overwhelmed, but how on earth have we reached the stage where a charity has become an arm of the government?
    Personally, I stopped giving money to the RSPCA years ago, as I disliked their dictatorial attitude, but I hadn't realised they'd become bad.


Anonymous said...

once the rspca have elininated all competing sanctuaries they will be very well placed to go back to government for tax payers money, it would be illegal if this were happening in industry

Queenie said...

I believe that the RSPCA want to get rid of all small sanctuaries and rescues, and to rule the large ones, such as Dogs Trust etc, I also believe the RSPCA want control over every animal keeper in Britain, domestic or wild, and THEY will choose who can keep pets, and they will make people jump through hoops to own one and prosecute them if one tiny thing is failing. Animal police.? Animal Gestapo more like !

Ziggy said...

I run a sanctuary for rats. I've been doing it for 8 years, and the very reason I had to start was because while volunteering at the RSPCA one day, a rat was dumped there. It had a tumour, and they wanted to euthanise it. They knew I had rats, so asked if I'd take it. I did, had her operated on, and she lived well over another year.

Since then, the RSPCA have referred all their rat related calls to me. I had 55 rats at one point. I now have 40, but get calls constantly for them to come in.
In 8 years, I never asked a penny. But last year, I had 3 rats all needing costly surgery, all referred to me by them, and asked for a bit of financial help. They refused, and the reason stated was 'rats aren't important. we need to save our money for dogs and cats'.

True. Thats exactly what they said, though they phoned me up to tell me because they didn't want it in writing in case I used it against them.

To date, they've not given me a penny. They say the only way they will is if I attend fund raising meets of theirs in the next town away, at their request (I don't drive) and only then would I be potentially entitled to a small amount of the money. Maybe. There was no guarantee.

Given that I look after 40 rats that they couldn't be bothered with, haven't I done enough for them? By taking these rats, I've saved them at the very LEAST the price of the euthanasia of them!

Several times, I've asked them to come out to help with a rat in trouble (usually pets released into gardens of abandoned houses or in woods) and been told they won't help. I no longer bother contacting them for anything. I go out on my own to get these animals, and continue to fund everything out of my own pocket. And only working part time, I am literally penniless sometimes.