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

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

It’s a funny old game

It has been a rough few months for us fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. Presently sitting rock bottom of the Premier League, staring relegation in the face, there hasn’t been much to cheer of late.

However, as I sat crestfallen in front of the television in my local pub a few weeks back, watching Fulham put a fifth past a beleaguered Wolves side, a (slightly intoxicated) stranger at the end of the bar passed on some words of wisdom that recently returned to strike a chord with me.

“That’s football,” he said. “There will be good times and bad times but, once you’ve picked your team, you stick with them for life.”

This piece of sporting acumen couldn’t be truer. You may at times admit that your defence is leakier than a rusty colander, or that even Tony Hart would struggle to inject some creativity into your midfield – but you’ll always remain loyal to the club you support.

At this point you may be thinking you’ve mistakenly clicked onto the Sky Sports website or an amateur fanzine.

However, I use this obscure footballing metaphor to demonstrate exactly the principle I found myself sticking to recently, when I waded in to the RSPCA’s defence following some stringing criticism from an old school friend.

She had taken to Facebook to post a vitriolic status update slamming the RSPCA, after a local branch admitted it had no room for a homeless kitten that had been taken into the veterinary practice where she works. Ultimately, she accused us of not caring.

Like a wounded fan who has just heard his team being torn to shreds on a radio phone-in, I took the bait and posted my own passionate argument for the organisation I’ve been proud to represent for the past four years.

Just like my beloved Wolves, I pointed out that while we are far from perfect (I didn’t know the exact details of the matter she referred to in her Facebook status), to claim we don’t care was seriously wide of the mark.

Anyone who visits RSPCA headquarters in West Sussex will be welcomed by people from all backgrounds and professions who share a passion for animal welfare – all the way from our reception team to our chief executive.

I’ll admit, it hurts when people accuse us – an organisation founded on the principal of preventing animal cruelty – of not caring. I would like to think that simply by responding to my friend’s criticism shows that we do care.

It would have been easier to sit back, ignore what I’d seen and let my employers take a beating without defence. However, the same feeling that is stoked in my gut every match day was ignited by my loyalty to the RSPCA.

So if there is one thing that we shouldn’t be accused of at the RSPCA, it is not caring. I don’t know what the future holds and where my career will take me, but I do know that just as I’ll always be a Wolves fan, I’ll always be a supporter of the RSPCA. After seeing with my own eyes so many times the great work we do, I feel like it’ll always be in my veins and I’ll always be proud to tell people I worked here.

And I know I’ll still care about animal welfare in 20 years time, just like I’ll still care if the mighty Wanderers find themselves consigned to relegation and swap the glamour of trips to Man Utd and Liverpool for wet Wednesday nights in Burnley and Barnsley.

Andy Robbins, senior RSPCA press officer