Exclusive: SSAA interviews RSPCA Australia - searching for common ground

Following the SSAA-backed 2016 Conservation through Sustainable Use of Wildlife Conference where RSPCA Australia chief scientist Dr Bidda Jones presented to a generally pro-hunting delegation, SSAA National President Geoff Jones and CEO Tim Bannister took the opportunity to organise a meeting with the RSPCA Australia office. The meeting provided the opportunity to examine potential areas of commonality as well as clear the air concerning myths and misinformation about both organisations.

A positive outcome from the meeting was that RSPCA Australia agreed to respond to a series of questions explaining various aspects of its organisation to share with our members. While we may not agree with all of the RSPCA’s doctrines and comments, we thank the organisation for its openness and will continue to search for common ground around animal welfare issues. The SSAA will respond to key points of the RSPCA’s answers in the near future.

 

Firstly, what do you perceive are the common misconceptions about RSPCA Australia?

There are a few misconceptions around so it’s great to have the opportunity to put the record straight. Firstly, many people assume that the RSPCA is funded by the government when, in fact, 95 per cent of our national operational income comes from the community via donations, bequests and fundraising activities.

Another misconception is that we’re an animal rights organisation that’s seeking to end the use of animals by humans altogether. It’s usually something we’re accused of when someone doesn’t agree with our position. In fact, we’re (very proudly) an animal welfare organisation that places great emphasis on evidence-based policy and positions. We accept that humans will make use of other animals, but exist to ensure that, when this occurs, animals are treated humanely. We do this in many overlapping ways: through education, engagement with animal industries and government, public awareness campaigns and campaigns aimed at improving the legal protection of animals and through RSPCA inspectorates, enforcing existing animal welfare legislation.

We also run the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme as part of our efforts to improve the lives of Australia’s farm animals. This is a not-for-profit program that provides guidance to farmers and a choice to consumers wanting to purchase chicken, turkey, pork and eggs from higher welfare farming systems. The fact that the RSPCA logo appears on packets of meat in the supermarket should fairly and squarely debunk the myth that we are opposed to farming!

Finally, it’s worth explaining that RSPCA Australia is a federation made up of eight autonomous state and territory RSPCA ‘Societies’, with a relatively small national office in Canberra. The RSPCA Australia board has a similar state-based structure to that of the SSAA, with representatives from each member RSPCA Society as well as three appointed members.

 

How does RSPCA Australia make decisions on its policies and are these policies consistent throughout the state and territory RSPCAs?

At the heart of all our policies is our Animals Charter, which sets out how the founders of the RSPCA in Australia believed animals should be treated. We also have a raft of specific policies covering companion animals, farm animals, wildlife and animals in research, sport, work and entertainment. These are developed by a national committee on which all state and territory member Societies are represented. Policies are adopted unanimously by the members of RSPCA Australia (the eight state/territory RSPCA Societies) and are binding on all members.

All our policies and information about related animal welfare topics are available via the RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase.

 

Where does RSPCA Australia and its state and territory RSPCAs receive its funding from? Can you give us an over- view on how this is expended?

As mentioned earlier, the RSPCA is funded predominantly by the community via donations, events, bequests, adoption fees and fees for other services such as dog training and veterinary services. Nationally, less than five per cent of our operational income comes from governments and this is used to part fund enforcement and education activities. At the state level, the vast majority of funds are to run our 40 animal shelters and clinics, inspectorate and education services. It costs more than $100 million each year to deliver RSPCA services.

The RSPCA Australia national office is funded by subscriptions from our members. We receive one small federal government grant, which provides support for the RSPCA Animal Welfare Seminar and the RSPCA Animal Welfare Science Update, a free animal welfare science publication. Our main activities include producing evidence-based animal welfare advice (we have a team of six science and policy officers, each an expert in their field), liaising with government and animal industries, national communications and awareness raising campaigns, running the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme and supporting the RSPCA federation.

 

Animal welfare is at the forefront of every hunter’s mind when participating in hunting or culling activities. We strive for a one-shot kill and a just and fair hunt. Why does the RSPCA oppose recreational hunting?

Let’s deal with the hunting part of this question first. The RSPCA opposes recreational hunting for two main reasons. First, because of the inevitable pain and suffering to animals caused by hunting and secondly, because we do not believe that there is an ethical justification for killing animals for recreation.

Our concern is that, even when hunters have the skills, knowledge and motivation to minimise the suffering of their prey, it is inevitable that some animals will endure pain and distress. And sadly, while animal welfare may be at the forefront of some hunters’ minds, it is stretching the truth to claim that it is important to every hunter. Where hunters do not consider animal welfare a priority, or where they lack technical skill or use inappropriate equipment, the potential for significant suffering is extremely high. Suffering also occurs where animals are injured but are not retrieved or quickly despatched, where dogs are used and not controlled properly and attack prey, where killing methods do not cause rapid death, or where dependent young are left abandoned. Unfortunately, current regulations and enforcement regimes do not prevent these things from happening. The SSAA needs to acknowledge that while, in principle, hunters should strive for a clean kill, there are huge variations in the skills, knowledge and attitudes of your members and consequently a range in outcomes for the animals being shot.

Your question also asks about culling (lethal control of wildlife). We see this as different from recreational hunting in terms of justification for the activity and risk of animal suffering. While we prefer humane non-lethal methods of control, the RSPCA accepts that in some circumstances culling is necessary in order to reduce the adverse impacts of wild animals. Indeed, we have worked for many years to help improve the humaneness of wildlife management in Australia, particularly in the pest animal control area. We do not oppose trained and competent shooters participating in culling programs as part of an integrated animal management program carried out in consultation with government.

It is very encouraging that the SSAA has developed its own accreditation programs that sets and assesses requirements for shooting accuracy and best practice, such as the SSAA Farmer Assist and Conservation & Wildlife Management branches accreditation programs. Ensuring hunters have the necessary skills to achieve a clean kill is fundamental to improving animal welfare.

You can find more details and explanations of our position on recreational hunting on the RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase.

 

Nature itself can be cruel, with wild animals exposed to drought, preyed upon by other animals and overpopulations resulting in increased competition for resources. The RSPCA is tasked with monitoring human interactions with animals and refers to the ‘Five freedoms for animals’ as baseline animal welfare principles. Does the RSPCA accept that nature in itself can be cruel and these five freedoms may be unrealistic?

Of course, nature can be cruel - but humans don’t have to be. We have the capacity to make ethical decisions and have a responsibility to minimise the harm we cause to other animals. That’s at the heart of the RSPCA philosophy.

The Five Freedoms paradigm was the first widely accepted framework for considering animal welfare and it has played a crucial role around the world over the past 30 years in shaping evidence-based animal welfare thinking, particularly in terms of farm animals. Adopting the Five Freedoms in 1993 demonstrated that the RSPCA was embracing contemporary scientific thinking and highlighted the need for animal welfare standards to meet both the psychological and physical needs of animals. Built into the framework is the idea that freedom from all negative experiences is an ideal or aspiration, so it is realistic in acknowledging that there are some negative states that can never be completely avoided.

With regard to competition for resources, we understand that some wild animals, especially introduced species, have adverse environmental, agricultural or social impacts that need to be addressed. Our view is that wild animal management should be carefully considered, evidence-based, and should use the most humane methods possible. Whether an animal is regarded as a pest or an asset does not change its capacity to feel pain and suffering even though we as humans might feel more or less positive about its presence.

 

In the RSPCA’s Policies compendium, the hunting of wild animals is deemed as only acceptable when the wild animal is hunted for “subsistence” and the hunt “conducted humanely...with regard for the conservation status of the species involved”. Can you further explain the RSPCA’s position on this?

There are some circumstances in Australia where animals are still hunted for subsistence - that is to provide food where other similar food is not available. We acknowledge that this occurs but our policy makes it clear that this does not absolve the hunter from their responsibility to treat animals humanely or to protect threatened or endangered species. For example, we have concerns about the traditional hunting of turtles and dugongs in indigenous communities. Hunting practices differ among different communities and the methods used for killing dugongs and turtles can also vary in humaneness, especially as turtles and dugongs are difficult to stun or kill. While traditional hunters may want to preserve the practices used by their predecessors, this may exclude using the most humane method (which in the case of dugongs and turtles is a head shot using a firearm).

You can find further explanation of this policy, particularly as it relates to legal hunting by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, on the RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase.

 

The humanising of animals where animals are giving human tendencies, as portrayed in films such as Bambi,  is often used by animal liberationists who believe all lives are equal. Does the RSPCA distance itself from this belief as well as the animal liberation ideology?

At the RSPCA we know that understanding animal welfare means thinking in terms of the needs and wants of a particular animal, not through human eyes. That’s why we invest so much time and effort in keeping up-to-date with the latest animal welfare science and using that to support our work in improving the lives of animals. As I’ve already pointed out, the RSPCA does not oppose the use of animals by humans - but we do believe that we have an obligation to protect their interests.

 

Many of our members participate in the legitimate activity of duck hunting to source free-range food for the table. The duck hunting seasons are decided independently and based on the sustainability of the waterfowl. Hunters do not shoot ducks while on the water and adhere to a one-shot kill. Why do you oppose the hunting of ducks for food?

The basis of our opposition to duck hunting is the same as for other forms of recreational hunting. However, we have particular concerns about the difficulty of accurately identifying and humanely killing waterfowl in motion and the high risk of wounding ducks and non-target birds that are associated with duck hunting. The ideal of a one-shot kill is difficult to attain when shotguns are used to shoot water- fowl flying in groups or when accurate placement is difficult and it is inevitable that ducks will be injured in the process. I know this is not a popular position with duck hunters, but it is well supported by the majority of the public who consistently tell us that they do not support recreational hunting.

While duck hunting is still legal in some states, that does not mean the RSPCA cannot oppose it - in the same way that we oppose the use of battery cages for layer hens or the live export of animals for slaughter. As I explained earlier, where we feel that there is a strong animal welfare case to be made, part of our mission is to work to change existing laws to better protect animals.

 

Some of the language used by the RSPCA in campaigns against recreational hunting is offensive to SSAA members, such as using the term “slaughter” to describe hunting activities or referring to hunting as a “sport”. The RSPCA WA even ran a campaign labelling hunters who shoot rabbits and hares (pest animals) as “trophy hunters”. Does the RSPCA concede some public campaigns have been misguided?

Sadly, we’ve found some of the language used by the SSAA and its members towards the RSPCA in the past to be inaccurate and offensive to the RSPCA and its volunteers, staff and supporters. That’s one of the key reasons why it’s good to meet and gain a better understanding of our respective organisations - so we can work to ensure that future communications are accurate and properly considered. We both need to acknowledge that we are very different organisations with different aims, but we do have some common ground and our hope is that we can focus on that wherever possible.

 

In contrast to the RSPCA WA and RSPCA SA, RSPCA Victoria has pledged to stop attacking duck hunting after an independent review into the organisation found the “tone and emotion” of such campaigns had negatively infringed on  the  work  of its inspectors. RSPCA Victoria CEO Liz Walker told the ABC that: “We certainly understand that over the past few years there have been issues which we have campaigned on, and their tone and the way we have done that definitely impacted on trust with our stakeholders and we apologise for that.” Does RSPCA Australia agree with this view and will it be adopting this on a national level?

It’s the nature of working to protect the interests of animals that from time to time we will bump up against other groups who strongly oppose our position, and that at times this will make it difficult to work with those stakeholders. There are issues when we can work constructively with other groups to achieve change and others where we have to use public campaigning to raise awareness and harness support for change. What’s important for us is that we maintain our focus on improving the lives of animals using an evidence-based approach.

In the context of recent reviews, RSPCA Victoria has made several statements about the ways in which it has campaigned in the past and will campaign into the future - but RSPCA Victoria maintains its opposition to duck hunting and will continue to voice its concerns to government and the community.

 

As mentioned, the RSPCA commonly refers to hunting as a “sport” or “for sport”. The SSAA does not refer to hunting as a sport; we hunt to put food on the table, for the environ- ment or for conservation and pest management reasons, or for trophies. Would the RSPCA consider changing the language used on this and other matters, such as duck hunting?

We refer to hunting as a ‘sport’ because it is an optional activity that people engage in for recreation; that is, people who engage in recreational hunting choose to do so because they enjoy it. But we know there are differences in the way people define the terms ‘sport’ and ‘recreation’ and sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint an individual’s motivation for participating in a particular activity. Whatever the motivation, we still believe that killing wildlife requires significant justification and a humane approach, and in our view duck hunting has neither of these.

 

Many hunters are motivated to go fishing for similar reasons. What are your views on recreational fishing?

You can find the RSPCA’s policy on recreational fishing on the RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase. In short, our view is that the available scientific evidence demonstrates that fish are sentient animals capable of experiencing pain and suffering. Anglers should therefore treat fish humanely and avoid practices that have the potential to cause pain, injury or suffering during capture, handling, killing or release.

 

Many SSAA members, often in partnership with environmental groups and state governments, have worked steadfastly to remove feral cats from Australia’s landscape. Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews has said that: “Feral cats are a major problem in Australia and licensed shooting is an important part of the solution in tackling them humanely, effectively and justifiably.” What is the RSPCA’s view on feral cats and how to manage these?

RSPCA Australia has been closely involved in the roll-out of the Threatened Species Strategy and the work of the Threatened Species Commissioner’s Feral Cat Taskforce. We acknowledge that feral cats are a serious threat to many native species and support their control where it is justified, effective and humane. We are also developing a discussion paper on best practice domestic cat management, which advocates for an integrated approach to managing of feral and domestic cats and their impacts on wildlife.

We also acknowledge that shooting, when carried out according to best practice, is one of the most humane methods of killing feral cats. We do not object to SSAA members who have demonstrated a high level of competency in shooting feral cats taking part in government-supervised control activities. But we do not support the ad-hoc killing of cats or any other animal unless as part of government control activities as there is no evidence that this contributes to long-term conservation outcomes.

 

Working Gundogs is one discipline of the SSAA that promotes the use of trained gundogs for retrieving in the field. These animals are doted on, exercised regularly, trained to properly retrieve the hunted or culled animal, and appear to thoroughly enjoy participating in this activity. What is the RSPCA’s position on utilising dogs for this purpose?

We have concerns about the use of dogs for hunting where injury, pain, suffering or distress is likely to be caused. So, for example, we’re strongly opposed to the use of dogs in hunting pigs because of the risks to the welfare of both the dogs and the pigs. Pig dogs can be severely injured, sometimes fatally, in the course of bailing up a pig as well as sometimes escaping and adding to the wild dog population.

Notwithstanding the RSPCA’s policy on hunting, and where hunting is in line with legal requirements, gundogs used only for retrievals of downed birds would be at far less risk, so if they are well cared for and not placed in harm’s way, we are not opposed to their use in principle.

You can read more about our policy on working animals on the RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase.

 

Some RSPCA Societies have been criticised for politicising or lobbying activities, rather than concentrating on the primary role of animal welfare. How do you respond to these criticisms?

The mission of the RSPCA is to prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection. We have always had the complementary roles of working to enforce existing laws while working to

promote policies and amend legislation that improves animal welfare. We also play a role in engaging with and educating the community on animal welfare matters. Advocating for positive improvements to, for example, poor animal welfare practices or inadequate animal protection legislation, are just as important to our mission as our work in operating animal shelters and investigating cruelty complaints and we have widespread public support for all these activities.

 

There have been government inquiries into the RSPCA in WA and Victoria due to public concerns with their operations. Do you concede this indicates that there are things the RSPCA could be doing differently, so that the public can trust and continue to support the RSPCA?

The RSPCA is Australia’s most recognised animal welfare organisation and one of Australia’s most trusted and oldest charities. The majority of the Australian community wants the RSPCA to be more, rather than less, active in seeking improvements to animal welfare. The concerns that led to the WA and Victorian inquiries generally derived from those who are opposed to some of our policies (on hunting and live exports, for example) or otherwise disagree philosophically with what we stand for.

As the RSPCA provides such a significant service to the community in caring for thousands of animals every year and enforcing state legislation, it is appropriate that parliaments inquire into our activities and performance from time to time. We welcome this scrutiny as it gives us further opportunity to inform politicians and the community about the important and valuable work we do.

The WA inquiry did not find anything that warranted fundamentally altering the way in which the RSPCA operates in WA. In fact, the parliamentary committee recommended that RSPCA WA be provided with further powers and funding to enable the employment of more inspectorate services in remote areas of the state.

We now look forward to participating in the Victorian inquiry and again demonstrating the vital work we do on behalf of the Victorian community.

 

Finally, as mentioned previously, the SSAA shares concerns with the RSPCA surrounding animal welfare. Is there further common ground where our two organisations can meet?

Absolutely. Despite our differing positions on some issues, we are always open to having a conversation and trying to find common ground. The RSPCA has such conversations with many animal industries, and even when there may be practices we oppose we are still able to discuss ways to improve the humaneness of these practices and help ensure animal welfare is at the forefront.

As a start, we are looking forward to learning more about the SSAA’s Farmer Assist program and the work of the Conservation & Wildlife Management branches.

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