The SSAA sat down with the RSPCA Australia earlier this year to discuss any similar views and areas of differences between our two associations. This resulted in an extensive Q&A article. While it is clear that our views differ on a number of issues, the SSAA again thanks the RSPCA Chief Scientist Dr Bidda Jones and CEO Heather Neil for their time and input.
We invited members to send in any feedback and share their own experiences with the RSPCA, which has helped the SSAA formulate a detailed article of response. It was obvious early on that the RSPCA’s comments surrounding hunting struck a nerve with many members. A selection of member comments are featured below.
But first, it is evident that there is an issue with how elements of the RSPCA spend its taxpayers’ cheques and donors’ dollars. While members of the community generously contribute coins to the RSPCA at fundraising events or through bequeaths, there is an expectation that this money is then spent on animal welfare initiatives. However, many hold the view that some funds have been misused for other purposes, such as political campaigning, to sway public opinions or lobbying.
While the national body of the RSPCA declared it only receives five per cent of its operational income from governments, annual reports show that most, if not all, RSPCA member societies receive substantial yearly funding from state governments: the RSPCA Victoria receives a whopping $3 million, the RSPCA New South Wales a cool $1.7 million and the RSPCA South Australia a total of $1 million.
A series of government inquiries into some RSPCA member societies looked at this very issue of funding. Our SSAA Western Australia Branch urged for greater transparency, particularly in regards to questionable campaigning by the RSPCA WA, while SSAA Victoria called for the RSPCA Victoria to be stripped of all government funding and removed from its role as animal welfare inspectors.
Of course, the SSAA recognises that the RSPCA can offer expertise on animal welfare and should be consulted on relevant government policy, as should the SSAA. However, we contend that the use of public funds and donations by segments of the RSPCA is an area that needs further clarification and greater regulation. If we, as taxpayers or individuals, openly donate money to the RSPCA for animal welfare outcomes, it can come as a shock to see that this money is instead spent on campaigns opposing farming practices or promoting radical animal rights.
A valid concern raised and shared by the SSAA was the infiltration of the RSPCA, at all levels, by individuals wanting to push an extreme animal rights view. This pressure is evident in RSPCA board elections, with some position holders hounded out by radical elements. Fake blood was even thrown on the letterbox of a former RSPCA branch CEO in protest about his ownership of a hobby farm. Admittedly, the SSAA has a minority who wish to push an extreme view within our own organisation, but we proudly remain a moderate and respected force that relies on evidence rather than emotion to support our cause.
In the past, some RSPCAs have teamed up with animal liberation groups, such as Animals Australia. We are pleased to see that some, such as RSPCA Victoria, have admitted that this was an unwise decision in hindsight and acknowledged relationships with extreme groups have eroded the public and government’s trust in the RSPCA. The promotion of vegetarianism has also been pushed by some within the RSPCA, again blurring the lines between their role as animal welfare experts and apparent promoters of fad diets.
Although the national RSPCA body was quick to distance itself from the actions of some member societies, we found it very interesting that the RSPCA attempts to keep to common policies overall. On various occasions, we have witnessed spokespeople make outlandish and insulting claims about issues such as duck hunting or trophy hunting. As we pointed out directly to the RSPCA, rather than evidence-based commentary, it has been highly emotive and offensive.
Not dissimilar to the SSAA, each state-based RSPCA is independent. No doubt personalities and values play a role in the function of each organisation, at a state or national level, but it does not appear that there are any repercussions for those who do not stick to the party line. We understand this is an issue for many state-based organisations, despite the presence of a national body.
The big sticking point between our two associations remains hunting. While we appreciate the RSPCA’s bluntness, it is clear that they do not accept recreational hunting is part of the Australian culture, history or way of life. Hunting is in fact one of Australia’s oldest land uses. We, as hunters, see this legitimate activity as ethical, green and natural human interaction with the world. Humans cannot remove the natural pain and suffering animals experience in the wild, but we can conduct our activities ethically and responsibly.
The SSAA found it contradictory that the RSPCA places some level of respect on indigenous hunting activities, but for a different race, appears to dismiss it entirely. The question has to be asked: is this inverse racism? As we have explained to the RSPCA, hunting is part of our culture, our history and our way of life - but it is more than just a one-dimensional activity. It allows Australian families to enjoy the great outdoors together, to travel and to connect with the land. The trigger pull is often the least and sometimes rarest part of the activity.
It does appear that we hold similar views on culling, although we urge the RSPCA to reconsider putting its undue faith in government culls that see taxpayer money often wasted on paid shooters. In many instances, landowners and licensed volunteer shooters can be just as effective with far less bureaucracy. The fact is that paid shooters do not guarantee any increase in accuracy or humaneness.
Duck hunting is a contentious issue and, going by the answers in our interview, will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Even so, we are pleased that as of late, the RSPCA has changed semantics to accurately reflect the activity and call it what it is: duck hunting, not the killing of ducks for sport. This comes amid deliberate attempts by certain groups to misinform the media and general public that we hunt ducks for ‘sport’, or rarely retrieve our prey as food for the table.
It is also important to note that wounding rates espoused by anti-duck hunting groups are based on outdated data rarely gathered in Australia. Furthermore, the activity is not conducted with the same tools used by Australian hunters, such as a shotgun and shotshells. The fact that duck hunters must pass waterfowl identification tests is always ignored.
The SSAA accepts that animals feel pain. However, the SSAA and other likeminded organisations openly promote clean kills and competency in the field to minimise the potential of causing pain. We also question the premise that animals feel human-like pain. Of course they may experience a fight-or-flight response, as humans do. But nature itself is exceptionally cruel and exposes animals to drought, competition for resources and seasonal ebbs and flows of populations. This is part of life.
The SSAA also cautions against the ‘humanisation’ of animals. This can lead to a misunderstanding that a smiling monkey is happy, when it is in fact a sign of aggression; or that a dog with droopy eyes is sad when it is simply its genetics; or that a dog panting means it is happy when it is really due to the nature of its physiology. The same can be true regarding the RSPCA’s stance on fish as sentient beings, which we will explore in a future article after consulting recreational fishing groups.
Our work with the RSPCA has shown there are many issues the SSAA and RSPCA actually agree on, but it also highlights key areas of difference. We will continue to keep the lines of communication open, but we will also hold true to our hunting principles: to source free-range food for the table; environmental and conservation aims; sustainable trophy hunting that offers diversity to the gene pool; and to protect landholders’ livelihoods.
The SSAA has and always will object to the efforts of any organisation to try and discount our historical ties to hunting.
The RSPCA’s response to hunting does not seem logical. They can accept sustainable hunting that provides food for the table yet a recreational hunter who also puts food on his family’s and friends’ tables cannot be ethically justified?
I find the RSPCA’s attitude to hunting, and hunters, to be misguided at best. The premise under which they operate is fluffy-headed and impractical. They seem to think that the government can take care of all problems and there’s no need for my humble efforts at wildlife control.
In my professional life I served on two animal welfare committees at a major university for some 13-plus years. I had an excellent relationship with the RSPCA representatives although we at times differed in our opinions. As outlined, the problem the RSPCA faces is that it depends on funds donated by individual donors. No doubt some would have extreme views and thus have some influence. This extreme influence became apparent to me in the late 1990s at which point I ceased donating to the organisation.
They continue to be anti-hunting. There are just too many infiltrators in the RSPCA!
As a shooter that runs a boarding facility for domesticated animals, I have to work with the RSPCA and follow duty of care that they and the council regulate. The RSPCA guarded themselves very well on some points and made them generically valid, but they danced around many questions. I scoffed about the question regarding how they get funded.
Unfortunately the overpopulation of ducks are reluctant to become kamikaze ducks and feral pigs won’t volunteer to line up and receive a needle to get put to sleep.
Why wasn’t there any mention of the RSPCA-approved tick income? Where does that money go?
I applaud the cooperative communication between the RSPCA and the SSAA. I hope further common ground can be found.
The SSAA interview with RSPCA Australia is informative reading. It is important for us both to meet on common ground and discuss our opinions openly. We may (will) continue to have some disagreements, but we should consider their stance and then ours, for both our mutual benefits.
But there is at least one aspect of their beliefs which is, in my belief, untenable. This does not relate to hunting and shooting, but to recreational fishing - probably the most favoured recreational activity nationwide, one which many of our members, including me, enjoy immensely.
The RSPCA spokesperson is not named but he/she states that “available scientific evidence demonstrates that fish are sentient animals capable of experiencing pain and suffering”. This is only partially true - they have ‘cherry picked’ their ‘scientific’ evidence or are unaware of the facts.
I can comment on this because for 20 years of my working life, I was a tenured university academic and held the position of Senior Lecturer in Physiology when I left the university. I try to write this letter in easily understandable language.
Before I discuss pain and suffering, let us consider the word ‘sentient’. Its strict definition means simply the ability to experience sensations. These are things such as touch, pressure, light, sounds, taste, smell and a number of other stimuli that both plants and animals can ‘sense’. So, is a mimosa tree, which folds its leaves when touched, ‘sentient’? Are algae and plankton, which rise to the surface of the sea in response to moonlight, ‘sentient’? Is a worm, which responds to touch, ‘sentient’? Well, according to the strict definition, they all are! But, in fact, the modern interpretation of ‘sentient’ refers to the ability to respond to a sensation by cerebrally considering the received input from our senses and producing a subsequent appropriate action. This is not what happens in plants or animals, which do not have a cerebral cortex.
Now let us consider that sensation of ‘pain’. This is one of our most basic sensations. It warns us of a problem, a danger, to our bodies - even our very lives. But in the evolution of life, it is a very primitive sensation. It is, neuro-physiologically, a simple, automatic, electrical message.
We all know the ‘knee jerk’, where pressure on the prepatellar tendon causes the lower leg to twitch so that the foot is kicked outwards and downwards. The ‘tap’ stretches the tendon and in order to prevent its disruption, muscles contract to produce reverse relaxation of the tendon to protect it. This also causes us to kick away, or jump away from a noxious stimulus - a danger. This is completely ‘reflex’ action. The nerve pathways controlling it are found entirely in the spinal cord. We do not control it and are not initially aware of it. The brain is not initially involved in this reflex at all. At our very high stage of human evolutionary development, however, we have additional nerve pathways going from the spinal cord up to the brain, to ‘tell us’ what is happening lower down in our bodies. There are a number of regions in our brains that are sent this information.
Firstly, some ‘lower brain centres’, which are responsible for maintaining the normal functions of the body. All lower animals have these too, and they may, for example, cause an increase in our heart rate, or cause us to catch our breath. Then the message passes to ‘higher brain centres’, which can consider what is happening and can affect the overall reaction of the body to control our final response. Not that immediate reflexive response, but subsequent controlled reactions. These ‘higher centres’ are found in the ‘neocortex’ (new cortex) of the brain. We may not have heard of this term, but it refers to the hugely increased part of the brain found in mammals, the major bulb of the cerebral hemispheres lying above the brain stem and especially the frontal lobes. It is here where the centres for ‘higher’ functions such as memory, integration of sensory inputs, intelligence, etc, are found. This is where the signals coming from the body are combined, assessed and finally acted upon.
Now, let us consider the neocortex. On the evolutionary scale, fish are very primitive animals and do not have a neocortex. Thus, they do not have this integrating function of higher centres. Some of these higher centres are memory centres through which we can consider previous experiences. Some of these centres involve things such as interpretation of previous memories with what is likely to happen subsequent to the pain stimulus. Thus, some of these can result in anticipation and suffering.
When we get hooked while casting a line, we do not continue to fight against it, wriggle incessantly and suffer. Our higher centres tell us to stop, reassess the situation and simply remove the hook. We feel some pain at the time we get hooked, but it does not continue and we do not suffer. Our higher centres control this.
When a fish gets hooked, having no such higher centres, it cannot stop and safely consider its situation. The electrical pain impulses to it spinal cord continue because of the repeated stimulation of its pain receptors by the hook in its mouth. With this repeated stimulation, the local reflexes keep it wriggling on the hook. It seems to be ‘trying’ to throw the hook but it is not; it is simply unconscious and uncontrolled reflex activity. It is not struggling. It is not suffering. It is reacting in a completely unconscious series of movements generated by its spinal cord. It has no higher centres to come into play to control its actions.
Humans tend to anthropomorphise, to think other animals behave as we do because they ‘feel’ suffering as we might be. But this is not so. Even the worm we put on a hook wriggles. Is it suffering? No, it is not. It is simply responding by completely reflex activity, just as is the fish.
So, do fish ‘feel’ pain when caught on a hook? The answer must surely be that they feel something, but what? It is likely to be sharper than simple ‘touch’, but we simply cannot know. We can extrapolate but we cannot anthropomorphise. We should not think that they feel the same sensations that we do, but we can properly conclude that they do not feel ‘suffering’. They simply do not have the neuroanatomical or neurophysiological capabilities.
On the other hand, all the animals we hunt do have a neocortex. Thus, suffering is a real consideration, from a human point of view, in hunting. We must be very careful and do our best to achieve one-shot kills when hunting game, in order to prevent suffering in these animals. Furthermore, we must prevent suffering inflicted on our game animals such as pigs and birds by our companion hunting animals (dogs) and also suffering that can be inflicted by game such as pigs onto our dogs.