Some months ago on this site we mentioned that Minister Ben Bradshaw was consulting with various parties concerning proposed legislation to make amendments to animal welfare legislation in the United Kingdom. At the time we expressed concerns that this would in fact be drawn into an animal rights direction, with welfare motives being used to camouflage the true underlying philosophy of the legislation.
As of now (July 2004) the draft is being laid on the table, so to speak, with the chief proposals being made public. This page will express our reaction (and that of the general herpetological community) to what is now on offer.
First, the good side. Personally I welcome the ending of fish and other animals being given away as prizes at funfairs. While some people certainly take care of fish they receive in this way (my family did when we were children), many probably do not - in fact one shudders to think what happens to some of the unfortunate fish given away so casually. The fact is that we have also come to realise that the traditional, simple method of keeping goldfish (a bowl with fresh water and a layer of gravel on the bottom) is not the best way to keep these animals, and that to look after them properly requires more attention as well and often a larger tank and an undergravel filter. Although I have been critical of animal rightists who bleat on about "throwaway pets" (usually the ones whose captivity they disapprove of at an ideological level), I think that funfair prize animals do fall into this category. People who really want to keep fish usually visit an aquarist or pet shop: by and large they do not go to funfairs in the earnest hope of bagging enough goldfish to take home and stock their tank.
I am in two minds about the banning of the purchase of animals to under-16s. While some children are doubtlessly irresponsible or liable to impulse buying, I have encountered others who start a dedication to the study of animals quite early in life, and some young keepers are actually a good example to their elders. A cynic might suspect that some of the architects of this particular proposal dislike the idea that children might want to keep animals in captivity and wish to discourage it by any means possible. Then again, children have to live in the same house as their family, so it is obviously better if the whole family is involved in the decision to have an animal in the house, especially one which can arouse strong emotions such as a snake.
For most herpetologists, the promise to regulate legislation relating to one-day events to put them on a proper footing is welcome. For too long unscrupulous animal rights groups have exploited the ambiguity of the current legislation to claim that "reptile fairs" are illegal, although the original legislation was in fact intended to prevent the sale of animals on streets. It is still a disgraceful reproach to the RSPCA that their senior legal officer Mark Love should have connived with Animal Aid on this point.
Where this bill falls down is in two key areas.
Firstly, under English law it has usually been a crowning principle that a person is held to be innocent until proven guilty. Now however the RSPCA are pushing for fresh powers to effectively pre-empt suffering, or to intervene where they think that suffering is "likely". If you think for a minute, would anyone interested in liberty accept such an area in the sphere of human life? Would we accept police arresting a black man on the street just because they thought him more likely to commit a crime? It is unfortunate that at this same point in time, of course, North Africans in the West are often stopped and searched due to the post-9/11 fear and the known terrorism of al-Quaeda, but even then the civil liberties groups are keeping an eye on the situation to make sure that there is no slide to pure discrimination on racial or religious grounds. Yet the RSPCA wish effectively to put themselves in the position of wanting to stop a crime before it has even been committed, rather like the "Precrime" department in the Philip K Dick story (and film) Minority Report.
This would be bad enough, but as we have noted elsewhere on these pages, the RSPCA are firstly not competent in the area of reptiles (or indeed most other pets outside the most commonly kept), and secondly they have a vested interest in restricting and if possible eliminating amateur herpetology from this country and indeed anywhere else they can exert any influence, including Europe. This may not be the view of the rank-and-file of RSPCA inspectors and employees, but it certainly is the view of some of the ruling council, including David Mawson, the vegetarian chef and radical activist who was investigated by the charity before they decided not to expel him. Mr Mawson has made plain on the C-View Media forum (posting as "Potto") his views on ending the reptile trade and indeed the right of any person to keep exotic pets. The incongruity is painful, since he himself is a member of a once-despised minority, the gay community. When I challenged him on whether he would like his own rights in which he has a personal interest to be infringed upon, I received a shrill reply that my remarks had been reported to the police.
Nor is Mr Mawson simply an example of a radical maverick. The RSPCA have still not qualified, moderated or even discussed their lamentable 2002 report, "Far From Home". Instead most if not all RSPCA employees interviewed publicly seem to be compelled that reptiles make "difficult" pets or "are not good pets". Herpetologists would agree that some reptiles are not good pets, certainly not for beginners, and that a few are indeed virtually impossible to keep alive, at least by all but the specialist. However, the charity lumps these few cases in with easy-to-keep and long-lived pets such as leopard geckos, corn snakes, bearded dragons, toads and others, many of which can be kept simply by children. By doing this, the charity gives the impression not only of ignorance but deliberate mendacity. At times it is difficult to know which face of the RSPCA one is talking to. For instance, Inspector Tim Wass has been engaged in dialogue with the reptile trade body and the Federation of British Herpetologists recently. His proposals have included requests that exotic keepers help the RSPCA by getting involved and passing on their knowledge. Yet at the same time he denied that the RSPCA were seeking further powers: so when it became known that in fact the charity was pushing for these, there was some fury on the FBH forum where much of the discussion was being conducted. I am not saying that Tim Wass lied: he seems a decent man. Yet if the charity speaks from both sides of its mouth, how can it be trusted?
Most alarmingly, the RSPCA's proposed new powers would effectively give the power of police to enter premises. Up till now an RSPCA officer has had to be accompanied by a uniformed policeman (preferably with a warrant, although this has not always been observed) to gain entry to premises. Under these new proposals the RSPCA official would have the power to act alone, certainly in respect of commercial premises and possibly private households as well. In essence they would become a quasi-police body, but without any accountability. There is no equivalent of the Police Complaints Authority for the RSPCA: the only possible redress is to the Charities Commissioners, who have to deal with all charities.
Needless to say, openly animal rightist groups such as Animal Aid were quick to say that the proposed legislation did not go far enough. The latter group, who recently parted company with Elaine Toland over a dispute about how to handle the case of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, said that they feared animals would not be removed in time before harm was done. They also reiterated their tired claim that "evidence" (from past experience, that compiled by Clifford Warwick and his confederates) proved that birds and reptiles were impossible to keep alive in captivity, etc.
While I welcome some of the proposals in the bill (see above), the underlying thrust of this legislation is extremely dangerous. If passed as it stands it will make a charitable body (the RSPCA) a quasi- and unaccountable police force with rights over the property of free citizens against which redress will be difficult, since RSPCA are private - not Crown - prosecutions. Herpetology will continue to be harassed by the charity, while the hard-core AR groups will not be content with what they get but will press for the elimination of most pet-keeping as well as other activities involving animals and ordinary people, such as zoological gardens. Unless the proposals to grant the RSPCA such quasi-police powers are struck from the bill during its passage through Parliament, we can only hope that the bill can be delayed, amended and modified as much as possible, or preferably that an early General Election will spell its demise.
In the meantime I strongly urge those who care about the future of herpetology, and liberty, in this country to write to MPs, newspapers and others to make them aware of this threat.
Stuart Derbyshire's argument on the huge breach of civil liberties posed by the bill.
Back to Issues | Back to RSPCA | Back to Herpetology | Back to Animals | Back to Home