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(Updated 25/5/01)

Breeders' helpline plans to give sound advice

FOR OVER thirty years I have acted as a veterinary expert in cases of alleged cruelty involving pet animals, both dogs and cats. In that time I have appeared both for the prosecution and the defence. Over the last few years I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the number of high profile breeders, both dogs and cats, and sometimes both, who have for whatever reason found themselves the subject of charges under the 1911 Cruelty to Animals Act.

In some cases conditions were so appalling that it was obvious the animals had to be taken into care immediately. With that I have no particular problem. My concern centred on the fact that in most cases criminal charges appeared to follow inexorably. Photographs, videos and witness statements were then presented which built up a scene of indescribable horror.

Little wonder that the average Bench of Magistrates, seldom experienced in dog or cat matters, returned a guilty verdict. The animals were turned over to the prosecutors, almost invariably the RSPCA (in Scotland the SPCA - an independent organisation) who under the terms of their rehoming police neutered them before they were found new homes, which in the majority of cases was not a difficult task following the sensational publicity that followed these high profile cases. This was also I suspect a useful fund raising exercise.

Overwhelmed

My experience was somewhat different. Discussing the problems with the defendants I invariably found that these were not bad people, often they had a lifetime of animal experience behind them. They just became overwhelmed and then became reluctant to disclose their problems even to their closest friends. Closely bonded with their animals they often relaised they had too many but just could not face being parted from them.

Another aspect of this situation which concerned me was the situation whereby upon investigation, usually as the result of a complaint from a member of the public, and unknown to the defendant, a visiting RSPCA inspector if confronted with serious problems of animal welfare, would ask that the animals be 'signed over'. I have personal experience of many cases where this occurred when, in my view, a little experienced advice prior to the owner being confronted with the grim reality that their short comings were open to scrutiny may well have prevented the destruction of a carefully and painstakingly constructed bloodline and a feeling of shame and moral degredation for the ultimate defendant. Signing over, in my experience, is seldom considered 'mitigation' and proceedings still continue.

Realising these problems appeared to be on in the increase, in the summer of 1999 I approached all the small animal charities, suggesting that it would be worthwhile considering setting up a 'befriender service' so that before the situation got out of hand and prosecution became inevitable there was an opportunity for us to 'help our own' so to speak, for dog people to help dog people with moral support in the form of a listening ear or more practically with maintenance, clean ups and stock reduction if necessary.

All the animal charities, without exception, were supportive of the concept of the idea.

As a member of the Kennel Club I discussed the matter with other members and again response was favourable. Therefore a discussion group, or working party, was set up as a result of which the Breeder Helpline has been launched with initial funding for the pilot scheme being generously donated by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust.

The Helpline is totally independent and entirely voluntary. Kennel Club influence has merely been administrative and support from the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, for which I am very grateful. In April 2000 a press release requesting the views of readers resulted in some 50 people offering help. I am personally grateful for all the help and support I have received during this development stage.

Initially dog breeders are targeted but I realise that there are equal if not larger problems involving some of the smaller rehoming centres and rescue groups who simply become overwhelmed and unable to cope due to lack of resource, while at the same time feeling unable to turn away a dog or cat in need. These same people in an emergency situation would be only too willing to open their doors and help in any way they could if I called them. However in order to ensure that animals that have to be rehoused, however temporarily, do not result in similar problems we are insisting that if the help of breed rescue and welfare groups is needed, it will be a requirement that they are members of the Association of British Dog and Cat Homes which will ensure that they have been inspected and are approved.

Support

With the launch of the Helpline I foresee that initially help will be mainly in the form of support for people facing prosecution. I have already had two cases where trial dates have already been set. Clearly it will take time for the existence of the Breeders Helpline to beocme known but what we aim for is a situation where those in need can turn to a confidential voluntary service where advice and practical help from people experienced in the field will avert further deterioration in conditions which ultimately lead to inevitable prosecution.

Please let us have your comments, criticism and, above all, offers to help. Provided we have sufficient helpers on the ground these problems should not get out of hand. Once we have a nationwide database of persons prepared to help perhaps these all too frequent prosecutions will become a thing of the past.

Finally, above all, help to publicise the existence of the service.