Friday, 6 July 2012

A Place in The Sun

Given the on-going Leveson Inquiry, you’d be forgiven for thinking that tabloid journalists aren’t the most popular bunch on the block right now. In terms of groundbreaking discoveries though, that’s hardly up there with the Higgs boson particle.

For an industry that thrives on title-tattle of the rich and famous, criticism is nothing new to the red-top press.

So why then, you may be wondering, has the RSPCA thrown its support behind The Sun newspaper’s Safer Dogs Campaign? How can a newspaper which regularly prints images of snarling canines and ‘devil dog’ headlines get the backing of Britain’s biggest animal welfare charity?

From a press officer’s point of view, the facts are simple. As of May this year, with sales of more than 2.6million copies every day, The Sun is the highest selling national newspaper. Despite the recent backlash against tabloid journalism, its influence is still huge.

Just like the job of frontline inspectors is to rescue animals and prevent cruelty, the job of a press officer is to get the RSPCA’s message across in the media. In this instance, Britain’s biggest selling newspaper has essentially put it on a plate for us. We’d be crazy not to bite their hand off.

When The Sun came to us, asking our opinion and what reforms to dog law we want from the Government, we were happy to share those thoughts. When The Sun then used that information as the basis for a campaign to apply more pressure on our country’s decision makers, why wouldn’t we support that? It means we are essentially getting our messaging directly into the homes of more than 2.6million people on a regular basis. That is probably more than many advertising campaigns or mail-outs could achieve, and at no financial cost to ourselves.

As press officers, we can try our best to get our point of view across to journalists and media. Despite this, we can’t control what images or headlines The Sun uses. However, we are more likely to influence such matters by working closely with them than we are by not.

You might not be the biggest fan of Page Three girls, sensational headlines or double page features on Jedward (seriously, who is?), but our priority remains animal welfare – not The Sun’s editorial policy.

Newspapers are ever-changing and we can’t predict whether The Sun will suddenly decide to change its view by this time tomorrow. If it does change its tune, then no doubt we’ll have plenty to say about it. We’ve not signed up to any secretive deal. We’ve not exchanged black briefcases outside a dimly lit tube station. We’ve not given anyone a secret handshake. We’ve simply applauded a major media outlet for pointing out what we’ve been saying for years – that the root of the problem is deed not breed.

The proof will of course be in the pudding. However, if the newspaper’s Safer Dogs Campaign makes a real difference and improves the lives of thousands upon thousands of dogs – not to mention the vast majority of responsible dog owners – and stops the demonization of dogs, then we hope we won’t be the only ones who offer them a pat on the back.

Andy Robbins - senior press officer

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Ten Cat Commandments, inspired by Moses the moggie

There exists a calm, well-behaved and wise old cat called Moses. He is owned by my friend's mum, a preacher.

There also exists a pair of tiny, naughty and greedy pests called Gracie and Blod. They are owned by me.

It is often pot luck as to which you end up with, though I will say to potential cat owners that a pet moggie really is a fabulous thing. Here's my advice for what it's worth!

1. Thou shalt not restrict ownership to 'crazy cat lady' only
Cats need a re-branding. Where has this popular image come from that moggies are mainly or only owned by mad cat ladies who dress them as babies and push them around in a pram?

Cats can make great pets for all, including men. Think Top Gear's James May and Fusker, Robert de Niro and Mr. Jinx and James Bond’s Blofeld with that moody-looking Persian. I can think of many male friends who could give a rescue cat a responsible, loving home...

2. Thou shalt not underestimate feline intelligence

Poor kitties, they never rank in these ‘top ten intelligent animals’ surveys. So what if a crow can make tools and an ape understand words - could they press down a door handle with their paws and then swing in on it before dropping to the floor ninja-style like my friend’s cat?

Cat intelligence does seem mainly to be of the need-to-know type which is only used when push comes to shove, and mostly hidden so that they are not made to learn tricks.

3. Thou shalt not pigeon-hole cats!
Words commonly and unfairly bandied about to describe cats are ‘selfish’, ‘disloyal’ and ‘lazy’. Occasionally you will also get ‘evil’. Plus, there are websites dedicated to cats that look like Hitler!

OK so my mother in law’s cat Fudge is somewhat of an evil genius, but on the other hand teeny 18-year old Dennis (female)  is a happy-go-lucky and hapless thing.

She is currently wearing an eye patch like a tiny pirate after an irritated Fudge caused her to lose an eye, but Dennis remains loyal.

4. Thou shalt get thy cat neutered

A single unneutered cat can cause havoc with the kitten population over the years, filling RSPCA catteries and foster homes to the brim.
Neutering or spaying is a one off, often discounted solution, and the money you make from not feeding those extra mouths can buy a whole heap of 'ten cute kittens hanging from tree' Athena posters.

5. Thou shalt not give them too much of an inch...

... Or the cunning cats amongst them will take the mile! My cat ownership began on a slippery slope which for me meant letting them sleep in the bedroom (cue regular 4am wake-up calls) and treating them to extra titbits from our plate, which eventually turned them into plate thiefs (or should that be cat burglars?).

Make life easier - feed them a regular cat diet and assign them their own sleeping area with the door to your bedroom firmly shut!!

6. Thou shalt make your community a cat haven

Cats and their free roaming ways often take them away from your back garden and into contact with neighbours, strangers or sticky situations.

Common cat problems in my experience include antifreeze poisoning (whether accidental or deliberate), air weapon attacks and wild animal traps. As well as reporting incidents to us, why not discuss possible preventative measures in a local community group.

7. Thou shalt microchip your mog

We say this all the time in our press work, but an updated record of your details linking to the cat’s microchip is the best chance you have of being reunited if moggie is stolen or strays!

Added to this there should only ever be one collar you should use on your cat, and that is a safe snap away’ kind - I recently witnessed some horrific lacerations at Newport Animal Centre when a cat wearing a regular collar got caught on a tree.

8. Thou shalt love thy cat on youtube

Dogs owners have the park and all the canine camaraderie that comes with it to show off. But cats are more of a ‘private’ pet and so you tube is the perfect place to share your moggie’s 'mad half hour' or general quirks with the world.

Cat capers seem to outweigh the canine sort on youtube; my current favourite is still ‘cat gets caught barking by a human’.

9. Thou shalt repeat: A cat is for life and not just for Christmas

This goes for all animals of course and it is sad when people rehome their cat because it doesn't get on with the new dog. Always build your pet family bit by bit like a jigsaw!

Some may also worry that it's necessary to rehome a cat during pregnancy due to health worries, but my expectant friend was recently reassured by a vet that taking simple precautions such as getting others to change the litter tray and washing hands is sufficient.

10. Thou shalt anthropomorphise your cat!

This goes a step further than Point 3 and creates a whole life or persona for your cat/pet (done by many of my friends). I think it just shows the affection people have for their animals.

However, if you have created bands for your cats as we have done (little Gracie is in a Motown girl group called Mop & the Moppettes while black cat Blod is in an EMO band), then you have gone a step too far.

Happy cat capers all!

Lowri Jones - press officer - Wales

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

I want to work for the RSPCA!

One of the things I hear most often when I tell people I work for the RSPCA is “Oh I would love a job with them,” or “I want to work with the animals, can you help me?” or even “That was my dream job when I was little but I suppose it’s too late now”

Do you want to know a secret? It was my childhood dream too.

Me (with big sister) aged five - already passionate about animals!

The RSPCA has always had a special place in my heart. Throughout my adolescence I raised money for the charity through cake sales and even penned a passionate article about the RSPCA and puppy farms in the magazine I used to write as an 11 year old. (Interesting note: the magazine was alarmingly entitled ‘Kinky Mag’ but only because I had no idea at all what that word meant. Honest).

I staged campaigns and petitions through my school on all manner of animal related issues, including veal crates and battery eggs.

At six, I held a protest in office of my then headmistress, to convince her to make a wildlife conservation area in a wooded patch at the edge of our playing fields.

After much wrangling, she agreed. I didn’t do myself any favours with my schoolmates though. Most rather fancied the idea of a tennis court to be honest.

One summer I even lied about my age to volunteer at an RSPCA branch near Cardiff. (I am not proud of the fact I fibbed...well maybe a little).

I loved it - walking the animals, feeding and brushing them, even cleaning up dog poo. I would call my mum in tears most days begging to be able to bring home the dogs and cats I had been looking after.

Indeed I became so attached to one cat - who I named ‘Dribble Cat’ - that I still have a picture of her in a photo album. Mind you, this was about 17 years ago now, so I would guess Dribble Cat is enjoying fish pie in the sky by now.

But I didn’t start my career working for the RSPCA. Like many people I speak to, I just didn’t know how.

So I became a journalist instead. Which given my auspicious start as the editor of Kinky Mag - is hardly surprising really.

A decade later, I had done my post grad in news journalism, worked as a regional reporter, food critic, theatre and art reviewer and even a health and science reporter.

It was great – although stressful – and yet I had become a little disillusioned with my line of work.

I would occasionally hear people say how much they ‘loved’ their jobs. I liked mine, (a lot of the time anyway), but ‘love’ your job? Surely it wasn’t possible for normal people like me to love their jobs?

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the travel and excitement that come with my job, but I felt I wanted something more...I wanted to do something that mattered. Something I really cared about.

That was when I saw the advert. Suddenly I realised I would combine journalism with animal welfare by working as a press officer for the RSPCA. I had never even thought of that. WOW.

I found out I had got the job on my 26th birthday and now, here I am four years later.

Its not all going to TV studios and hugging fluffy kittens and lovely bunnies though.

I have watched endless hours of horrible footage; heard harrowing stories from those on the ground; visited countless farms, animal centres, hospitals and branches; watched dozens of castrations and operations; seen the terrible affects of cruelty on vulnerable animal and humans through schemes like Pet Retreat...and yet...

...I can honestly say I do love my job (most days!) and I feel like I do something worthwhile.

I sometimes wonder how I have come so far from the 11 year-old girl sitting in her room writing impassioned articles about puppy the 30 year-old sitting in an office writing impassioned articles about puppy farms!

But of course, sometimes coming right back to where you started is a pretty amazing place to be.

To find out more about working or volunteering for the RSPCA, why not visit:
Calie Rydings, Snr Press Officer

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Dead Horse Living

My husband would tell you I am obsessed with two things – animals (in particular horses) and Zombies (the Hollywood type that cannot communicate, move slowly and have no purpose in their life except the quest for food.

Seven years ago, I would have said my two interests had nothing in common – but then I met Mai.

Mai, an 18-year-old chestnut coloured thoroughbred mare came to me via an RSPCA inspector, as her owner could not afford to keep her. She was underweight, covered in lice and rubbed raw by her rug and she had a bad case of mud fever [when horses get mud around their feet, and it causes irritation around their lower limbs] on her heels.

Once at our home, Mai was alive, in the dictionary sense of the word, but she didn’t seem to acknowledge anyone around her. I would hold her bucket as she ate, bath her sores and stand and stroke her – but I can honestly say she never looked at or acknowledged me.

I tried hard not to take it personally, as I knew that whilst I brought her food I was also the person that covered her in lice powder and had to clean her painful scabs, which would probably not make me very popular.

Three weeks after arriving with me, Mai was standing by the field gate looking towards the house and making a terrible whinny noise, the first sound she had made and daft as it sounds I know she was asking for something from me and it wasn’t food.

As she stood there, I took her rug off and started to massage her all over. The thick woolly coat she has hung onto, until then to protect her starving frame, was now coming out by the handful leaving a carpet of hair on the floor.

And, as I groomed her, with my hands, as I had many times before, she decided it was time that she finally acknowledged my existence and she started to rub her muzzle against me and return the favour.

That was the day the light in Mai’s eyes came back – and instead of just going through the process of living, she decided it was worthwhile being alive
Mai, fully recovered and being a supernanny!

Six years on, Mai has become a permanent member of my family and a vital member of my fostering team. When a new pony has been through its quarantine period I usually match it up with Mai, who at 24 and going strong, could probably give Jo Frost a run for her money in the nanny stakes.

With food, water and veterinary attention most animals can be brought back to health but giving them a purpose and a reason to live and teaching them there is a benefit to being with humans is much harder.

By fostering an RSPCA equine not only are you teaching it the skills it needs to be rehomed but you are opening it up to a bright new future and proving that for them, zombie life is over – the future has more to offer than just struggling to find the next meal.

Jo Barr, Snr Regional Press Officer

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

An obligation to care

Today I am pleased to introduce a very special guest blogger. Nathan Paice, who is doing work experience on behalf of the RSPCA, to help promote our Good Business Awards and inspire organisations to implement higher animal welfare standards.

So without further ado, here is what he had to say:

"The welfare of animals, in fact the welfare of the environment and all wildlife, has been a cause close to me since I was young enough to remember.

In my eyes, we’re no better or worse than any other living thing; we all have a role to play on this planet and we all deserve the same decent treatment and level of respect – we’re all animals anyway aren’t we?

Thankfully, those important values have long been instilled in me by my close family and friends growing up.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks the same way. In my experience talking about subjects like this, there always seems to be two extremes with varying opinions drifting in between.

You have the ultimate animal welfare enthusiast on one end of the spectrum – the militant, fruitarian activist. While on the other end, you have the seemingly cold-hearted opinion of someone who believes we’re top of the food chain, it’s survival of the fittest, that we need animals purely for our survival and they live solely to serve our diets, modern medicine and the fashion industry, bla bla bla…

The ones who deliberately hurt animals either for their own pleasure, or because they’re cowards with no self-control, I’ve left out of the spectrum altogether; they’re soulless in my eyes.

Animals don’t have a voice like us, so they can’t shout out if they’re being treated cruelly. That’s why I feel such an obligation to lend a helping hand to the RSPCA – I think the fact I’m a huge animal lover helps as well though!

There is so much we take for granted with regards to animal welfare. I had an understanding of the injustices to animals in various industries like food and fashion, but I didn’t quite realise how deep it went until I started working with the RSPCA. It was harrowing to learn.

You see all those pieces in the media and hear opinions from people about shock tactics and not wanting to know all the gory details.

 For me though, it’s important to have an awareness and keep that spark to help fight for animal welfare alive by staying in touch with the real, gritty issues. You can’t live life through rose-tinted glasses; the very garment your wearing (it doesn’t necessarily have to be an expensive designer, fur item) could have been manufactured out of untold suffering and blood – quite literally.

It really doesn’t take much to look at a label and question where something is really coming from or how it was made in the first place.

I’m not na├»ve enough to think everyone will become vegan and animal rights should be placed before ours, because I know that’s not the case. However, we can work to ensure animal rights are placed alongside ours as mutual living things on this planet, and we can work to ensure animals used in industries like food and fashion are handled with respect and treated like we would want to be treated. It’s only right.

To think otherwise just seems plain immoral. There really is no excuse for animal welfare neglect in this day and age.

If you’re not so big on animal interaction, I really do recommend you try and connect with them. Interacting with animals is such a rewarding experience."

Nathan Paice

Thank you so much to Nathan for a fantastic blog, and for all his help with the RSPCA's Good Business Awards. Whatever his future career, we are sure he will have every success!

Calie Rydings (Snr RSPCA press officer)

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Castration nation

What other job means you get to watch several castrations, meet a cat with thumbs and eat cake all in the same morning...well, mine.

It’s sunrise, or maybe just after. I arrive in a car park next to an RSPCA branch in Brighton East Sussex. My breath comes out in vapour despite winter finally giving way to spring.
A queue of people is already forming. They stand in a straggly line in front of a large white RSPCA van with plastic cat cases in their hands.

The air is punctuated with plaintive cries from the felines within...these clever cats know something is going on...they just don’t know what.

The door to the van swings open and down steps a small woman with short hair and a business-like expression on her face. She starts taking the cats from owners.
I introduce myself nervously. She looks me up and down – from my crumpled RSPCA polo shirt to my pale face - and says: “I do hope you aren’t too squeamish. We’ve had three people faint on this bus I don’t want you to be the fourth.”

This is Nicky Honey, the RSPCA’s one-woman cat neutering dynamo!

Nicky Honey, with vet Alan. Two animal welfare heroes!

For the last 11 years her mobile clinic has become a familiar sight in car parks, outside supermarkets, pubs and community halls in south-east England. The mobile clinic provides low cost cat neutering operations to pet owners in the region's communities who are on low incomes and benefits.

Inside the mobile neutering van

Alongside her partner in crime (vet Alan), Nicky works anything up to 60 hour weeks because she is so passionate about the value of neutering – which is not only important to protect cats' health, but also in reducing the numbers of unwanted kittens.

A cat with thumbs!

Nicky tells me that one cat was brought in to be neutered after apparently having had 17 litters- which equates to around 150 kittens born to owners that did not want them and left to animal charities such as RSPCA and Cats Protection to pick up the pieces.

But the mobile clinic goes far beyond simple neutering. Nicky says sadly that one cat was brought in for neutering which was actually in labour, and the owner hadn’t realised. Nicky and the vet managed to save three of the kittens after doing an emergency caesarean.

Often the cats have other health problems when they are examined by the vet. One was brought in with a ruptured diaphragm and ear problems, mouth abscesses, fractures and gynaecological problems are all too common.

Nicky says the nature of the job involves many skills from nursing to plumbing. It can be quite intense and she has learned to expect the unexpected.

Today there are 14 cats; nine female and seven male. Apparently the procedure is more complicated for the gals than the guys.

I see a female spay first. Now please bear in mind that I am a bit on the softy side when it comes to animals – I was once almost hit by a car rushing to the centre of a duel carriage way to rescue a pigeon (it died in my arms)...

That rather emotional response to animals – and my dislike of blood –is why I highly suspected that I might just keel over at the first sight of blood.

However - all's well that ends well - I didn’t faint... and I got to meet a cat that had thumbs! Now that’s not the sort of thing you get to do every day. Afterwards, as reward for all my hard work (ie: not passing out), Nicky gave me a slice of cake. Nice.

Nicky Honey is an amazing woman, who really does dedicate her life to animals. I feel very privaliged to have spent the day seeing her work, and to have the opportunity to learn why neutering plays such an important part in the on-going fight to improve animal welfare.

By Calie Rydings, snr RSPCA press officer

Monday, 16 April 2012

The not-so-Grand National

I've got a real soft spot for horses having been lucky enough to have been put in a saddle before I could walk and grew up spending the summer competing at shows or at pony club camp. So when I was asked to be the RSPCA's press officer at the Grand National I leapt at the chance.

Equine Consultant David Muir checking a water jump
 The RSPCA's equine consultant, David Muir (a former mounted police officer and fellow horse nut) has been working with the British Horseracing Authority for more than a decade to bring in dozens of safety improvements and thanks to his tireless work I was treated to a rare behind the scenes tour at Aintree.

I watched the towering, glossy horses trotting through the pre-race vet examine, was shown round the state-of-the art post-race cooling station where sweaty horses are misted and hosed down, and I nearly got drenched by the on-course watering system designed to make sure the going is 'good'. All these improvements are thanks in part to the RSPCA's persistent call for better welfare.

I pulled on my wellies to walk the world-famous course. The fences were massive - I couldn't see over a couple of them and incredibly some are even wider than they are tall.

But my magical moment came on a tour of the stables to meet the horses. They were absolutely stunning, in tip top physical condition and groomed to perfection.

I was lucky enough to stroke last year's winner Bally Briggs and chat to his stable lad who revealed his favourite treat is Polos. There is no doubt that all the people I met that morning love horses, it came shining through speaking to the vets, the grooms and the jockeys.

But sadly that is where my fairytale trip to Aintree ended.

I have nervously watched the Grand National on television countless time, peering between my fingers and willing them all home but standing on that famous course as the 40 horses and their jockeys circled before the starting line was gut-wrenching. I hoped all those beautiful horses would come back safely but knew there was a strong chance they wouldn't.

RSPCA equine officers

As they thundered out of sight I watched the race on a giant screen and listened to updates from the RSPCA equine officers stationed at jumps along the course. Through the crackly radios we heard the heartbreaking news that two horses - According to Pete and one of the favourites Synchronised - had both fractured legs and had to be put to sleep by vets.

While thousands of smartly-dressed race fans cheered the two leaders to a photo-finish in the stands our equine officers saw a very different side to the so-called Grand National behind the ominous screens. And while merry racegoers filed nosily out of Aintree and made their way home two horse boxes left with empty spaces in the back.

Despite all the safety improvements over the years it is obvious that more needs to be done if this world famous race continues.

I'll always remember my first ever day at the races but sadly for all the wrong reasons.

Press officer Cat on a horse...some 10 years ago!

Catherine Peerless, RSPCA Press Officer