Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Walk on the Wild Side

Judith and Boris the pig!
I was conscious of being watched. You know the feeling of eyes being fixed on you?

I turned to the right and two shiny black eyes were fixated on me, intently staring, watching silently. The black crow appeared quite fascinated as I fed the fledgling Great Tits that were jumping about with glee.

The tiny birds knew the routine by now. Every hour on the dot, a human (wearing gloves and a rather fetching green overall), appeared at their spacious cage and patiently stood there until every one of the chirping birds had been fed.

I did wonder what the crow thought of this hourly spectacle as he rested in his box waiting for his feeding time.

During my time volunteering at RSPCA Stapeley Grange Wildlife Centre in Cheshire I kept a diary. Wildlife is a particular passion of mine so I wanted to learn more – and also as an RSPCA press officer the variety of challenging and bizarre questions you get asked about every species known to man has increased the desire to expand my wildlife knowledge!

Questions in the past range from being quizzed about slow worms, to how to stop foxes digging up a bowling green (thank goodness for the experts in RSPCA wildlife department!).

The species that fill the centre change with the seasons but all are in need of either specialist veterinary treatment or expert respite care.

One minute the centre is full of poorly hedgehogs, the next awash with chirping fledglings of every species imaginable. There are plenty of youngsters of every variety- from badgers to bats, seals to shrews.

In fact one of the most delicate jobs I witnessed was the feeding of a baby shrew. It was completely bald and wriggled around like a toddler having a tantrum. But the caring staff member was completely focused on the job in hand and lovingly ensured it was fed.

On my first day at Stapeley the centre had an abundance of hedgehogs. On entering ‘hedgehog hotel’ you can’t actually see any hedgehogs as they are all dozing after their exhausting night trashing their temporary abode, but the fragrant smell that greets you gives the game away.

The hogs are cleaned out and weighed every morning. Some hogs graciously comply with this daily activity and duly roll into a ball to be weighed. Others with a more inquisitive nature don’t stay in a ball for long before their little wet nose is frantically sniffing the air to see what is going on – after all they were sleeping and this morning wake up call is most inconvenient!

Most hogs, when placed back in their fresh clean bed, rustle about for a while until they get comfy in the shredded paper; while others have to investigate a bit further coming to the front of their cage, nose twitching, to have a closer look at this strange world they are currently living in.

There are so many stories I could tell about my time at Stapeley- from donning white overalls and wellies to venture into the isolation unit (where the sickest animals are often treated) to the many fascinating wild animals and birds I was privileged to clean up after!

But the one overriding thought I was left with was the wildlife that comes through the doors of Stapeley are indeed the lucky ones. What makes Stapeley truly special is the staff (not forgetting the many volunteers and students). Their compassion, enthusiasm, expertise and 100% commitment to the wildlife in their care was wonderful to witness.

Judith Haw

Regional Press Officer

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Veal or no veal - The only meat a vegetarian should eat?

If you watched Countryfile this weekend you’ll have seen an extremely emotive topic: What happens to the thousands of young bull calves which are the by-product of the dairy industry? If you missed it you can watch it again here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01bf4qy/Countryfile_22_01_2012/

The simple fact is that dairy cows have to give birth to provide milk - which leads to about half a million male dairy calves every year.

Male dairy calves normally face three futures: Being shot on farm soon after being born, being transported hundreds of miles across Europe and reared for veal in conditions which could be illegal here, or being raised on British farms for beef or veal where minimum legal standards are better.

The RSPCA believes the third option is the best for the welfare of calves but veal is still an unpalatable choice for some people.

It’s not an issue that vegetarians (like myself) have the luxury of avoiding either, in fact I’ve been told three times recently that veal is the one meat a vegetarian who drinks milk should eat.

A quick straw poll of the Peerless family discovered neither my in-laws or my husband had ever eaten veal and are put off because they think it is ‘cruel’, is a ‘baby animal’ and is ‘expensive’.
In fact welfare laws in Britain are higher than EU legislation meaning calves must have a comfortable straw bed and roughage to allow their digestive system to develop properly so they are full of vigour and can charge around with their pals.

Another surprising fact is that veal calves can weigh-in at hefty 300 kilos, a far cry from the cute, big-eyed, wobbly legged animals you instantly picture in your mind, and they live to between six and eight months – far older than chicken, pork and lamb and about half the age of British beef.

Fourth generation farmer David Tory
And as for it being expensive Freedom Food veal farmer David Tory and his business partner Ben Bayer are supplying lower cost cuts of veal such as shin and also veal stir fry packs which they say are a comparable price to chicken and low in fat. They’re hoping they will become a staple part of the weekly shop.

I don’t think I could ever eat veal, or any other meat, however I have switched to soya milk and I will be putting Freedom Food veal in my shopping basket from now on.

Catherine Peerless, farm animal press officer

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

What really gets my goat!

A lot of people are surprised at the amount of mud we get thrown at us at the RSPCA (not literally - we’d be filthy), but one of the most familiar criticisms we hear is that “they’ll only turn up if the cameras are there.”
Clearly, there aren’t cameras there every time we rescue an animal in need. If there were, that would be a lot of cameras (more than 130,000 in 2010 to be precise), but another thing that our detractors often miss is that the press call us FAR more often than we ever call them.

A perfect example came recently when a television news team called to follow-up a story that had already been reported in a national newspaper. After chatting on the phone about the story at some length, as well as several emails pinging their way back and forth, then came the question: “Why are you pushing this story now?” The simple answer: “We aren’t – you called US about it.”

The reality is that people are so aware of what the RSPCA does because people are interested. TV programmes, newspapers, radio stations and websites all like to feature animals because, as they tell us themselves, they spark plenty of responses, comment and debate among their readers, listeners and viewers.

Just to give you an example of the type of calls we have had into the press office in the last few days:

• A TV production company called to ask whether we could suggest any elderly couples with pets they could interview.
• A national newspaper requested a comment on whether we thought American Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was cruel to allegedly put his dog in a crate and transport him on the top of his car.
• An online news website called to ask us to comment on a police investigation into a dog on dog attack that sadly ended in the death of a puppy.
• A children's TV showcalled to ask whether we could provide them with an interview of an animal-loving child affected by domestic violence.
• A well-known religious TV show called to ask if we had any Christians working for RSPCA whose ‘lives had been changed by animals.’
• A LGBT magazine got in contact for an article about promoting cat rehoming among the lesbian community.

Now, if you were to go to the news section of Google right now and type in RSPCA, I guarantee that the stories you  see would be 99% appeals for information.

The press office, a branch or even an inspector will contact a paper either regionally or nationally after something horrible has happened like a puppy being shot in the head and left to die (http://bit.ly/AnYqmy) or a spate of cat poisonings.

These appeals are vital, and can be a lifeblood to our investigations – as, let’s not forget we have no police powers and we rely entirely on the public for support, information and donations.

There is also our desperate need to rehome the animals in our care. So how do we let people know about them? Through the media, and social networks - that's how! (http://bit.ly/zv5S46)

And, of course, when staff members or volunteers do something amazing or above and beyond the call of duty – we want to shout about it. So we do approach the press. Take this story, of an inspirational inspector called Emma who ran 1,425 miles across Africa to raise money for the RSPCA (http://bit.ly/wQCuwU)

Then we work with the media to highlight animal welfare causes (such as badger culling; wild animals in circuses; dog fighting), spread responsible pet ownership messages (neutering, microchipping, insurance) and encourage behaviour change (higher welfare food and farming, ethical shopping). http://bit.ly/t6jemC

Sometimes we are followed by TV crews to see the work we do (Animal Hospital, Animal 24/7) and even asked to give our expert opinion on the news or current events shows such as Countryfile or provide insight and support to fictional shows, like in the final episode ever of a Touch of Frost, which featured an RSPCA inspector as a lead character.
The minute people stop caring about animals or don’t want to hear about what the RSPCA is up to and the phones stop ringing, then maybe that is the time the role press officers like us will become redundant. Until then, expect to see plenty more of the RSPCA in the media – and you’ll get no apology from us for that.

Andy Robbins, senior press officer

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Inspector for a day

I have worked for the RSPCA for three years now, and in my role as a press officer I think I have a good over-view of how the organisation works.

From working closely with the scientific departments and campaigners, to getting my hands dirty at re-homing and wildlife centres–I have seen both the public face and private parts of the RSPCA (har har).

But I have never spent a day with an Inspector, which is strange as they are at the very front line of the RSPCA’s work.

From cliff rescues to house visits... 
There are 410 Inspectors, Trainee Inspectors, Animal Welfare Officers and Animal Collection Officers responding to around 160,000 complaints about animal welfare; Every year they carry out 130,000 collections and rescues of animals in dire need, as well as investigate cruelty complaints, offer advice, guidance and (when necessary) law enforcement.

They have a unique and – I think – often misunderstood role in our society.

So on a dreary winter’s day I hopped into an RSPCA van with Inspector Gemma Dummer and took to the road to see what it’s really like.

Whatever my expectations before, nothing could have prepared me for the realities of a job that seems to be part vet nurse, part social worker and part emergency service.

So much paperwork!
Our first stop was at a vets’ to pick up some paperwork for an ongoing case. The minute Gemma got out of the van she was grabbed by a woman. I watched in astonishment as she shook Gemma’s hand and thanked her.

Apparently Gemma had helped her free a trapped bird a few years back.

“Did you set that up?” I asked her (only half joking).
“No,” Gemma replied, looking genuinely stunned. “That almost never happens!”

I asked about the public’s attitude towards the RSPCA. Gemma said generally people were polite and interested in the work they do, but there was an increasing number verbal or physical abuse towards inspectors.
Now bear in mind she normally works on her own all day, with just the crackling radio keeping her in contact with others. The nature of her job means she often goes alone to properties with no idea what, or who, she might find inside.

It is sobering to think these men and woman are working a very high pressure, high profile job pretty much on their own.

Next I asked Gemma what was the most shocking case she had ever dealt with. A couple that sprung immediately to mind was a poor dog called Stumpy, a Yorkshire terrier with such a matted coat that it was impossible to tell one end of the dog from the other:(http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/2086329/Poor-Stumpy-gets-a-haircut.html) and the horrific case of the puppies left to die in a suitcase: (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/sussex/8367412.stm)

Throughout the day we drove around Sussex, taking case cats to new boarding facilities, arranging vaccinations, filing meticulous paperwork at the RSPCA headquarters and following up on a number of cruelty complaints.

Most of the time is spent on the road

While I cannot talk about the particulars of what I saw that day, let me tell you – at all times Gemma was calm, polite and went out of her way to help.
To give you just one example - we visited a young man whose pet ferret was suffering from terrible diarrhoea. The accommodation he was living in was covered in faeces. While he obviously loved his pet, he was finding it hard to cope.

Rather than lecture or castigate, Gemma set about getting him new litter trays and water bottles, as well as phoning round RSPCA centres to help him get a new cage (his was on its last legs) and organising a vet visit for the next day. She arranged to visit again in a few days.

Being there when an animal most needs it

What I saw throughout the day was someone doing a professional and compassionate job under sometimes difficult circumstances. Neither was this glamorous work! I finished my day smelly, cold and slightly shocked by some of the things I had seen and heard.

I want to thank Gemma and all the other inspectors who work day in, day out, to protect and serve animals in England and Wales. They are one of many reasons that I am very proud to work for the RSPCA.

If you would like to know more about the work of our inspectors, why not visit our website: http://www.rspca.org.uk/in-action/aboutus/careers/profiles/inspector

By Calie Rydings

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Flappy New Year!

 You might not have realised but something monumental happened at the stroke of midnight on December 31 2011.

There was no big countdown, no deafening fireworks display and no street parties but for hundreds of millions of hens across Europe life is looking a little brighter.

A barren battery cage

The modest sounding ‘Council Directive laying down minimum standards for the protection of laying hens’ means that farmers can no longer keep hens in cruel barren battery cages.

It’s certainly news to celebrate, it’s a step forward for animal welfare, but sadly the new legislation doesn’t ban all cages – farmers can still use so-called ‘enriched’ battery cages which give the hens a little bit more space, a perching area, a piece of Astroturf to scratch about on and a shared nesting area.

An 'enriched' battery cage - can you spot the difference?!
But it is still a metal battery cage and the hens still have less usable space per bird than an A4 sheet of paper – not nearly enough room to dash about, to rest without being jostled by other birds, or enjoy a good dustbath like barn or free-range hens.

I’ve got a soft spot for hens – my family used to have two gorgeous girls called Sam and Ella who laid the most delicious free-range eggs.

Before I joined the RSPCA I had heard about the ban and wrongly thought that it meant all cages would be outlawed, it appears I was not alone in being mistaken. A recent poll by the RSPCA revealed that 69 per cent of the public didn’t know what the new law meant, in fact 88 per cent hadn’t even heard about it.

Some, like me, guessed all cages were being banned, others thought hens would have to let out of their cages for four hours a day and some even believed that farmers would have to play music to their flocks.

Another sad fact about the new legislation is that a huge number of producers elsewhere in Europe are ignoring it and will still be using old barren battery cages.

A barmy loophole means those farmers can still sell their ‘illegal’ eggs to be used as ingredients despite the hens that laid them being kept in conditions below legal welfare standards.
Worryingly some of these illegal eggs could find their way into some of your favourite products like ice-cream, pasta and cakes.

To be completely sure you are not unwittingly buying illegal eggs, and at the same time doing your bit for the welfare of millions of hens, it’s never been more important to buy cage-free eggs, or food containing cage-free eggs as ingredients.

With Big Ben’s chimes still ringing in your ears there’s one very worthwhile resolution to make in 2012 ‘I will only buy cage-free eggs’.

For your free shopping guide log onto www.rspca.org.uk/eggs

Catherine Peerless, RSPCA Press Officer