As it celebrates its 200th birthday, the RSPCA has lost its way – and is helping endorse indefensible abuse in factory farms.

How does it happen? How does an organisation end up doing the opposite of what it was established to do? This month marks the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: the world’s oldest animal welfare organisation. I wonder what there is to celebrate.

If you mistreat your dog or cat or horse or rabbit, you can expect an investigation by the RSPCA. If the case is serious enough, it could lead to prosecution. If you abuse animals on an industrial scale, you might face not investigation and prosecution, but active support and a public relations campaign to help you sell your products.

This is the conclusion of the deepest and most wide-ranging report yet conducted into something called RSPCA Assured. When you see meat or fish or eggs in the supermarket, you might find the RSPCA’s stamp of approval on the packaging, telling you that the animals they came from benefited from “high welfare” farming. It might seem odd that an organisation devoted to animals is promoting their exploitation and killing. It seems odder still when you discover that this “high welfare” farming includes massive factory farms, indistinguishable from the norm, in which animals live short, distressing lives before being trucked away to be stunned and slaughtered.

The new report, by the organisation Animal Rising, is by no means the first exposure of shocking standards on farms assured by the RSPCA. But while most previous investigations have revealed specific instances of abuse, and have been treated by the RSPCA as isolated cases, this is the first whose scale appears to suggest that the problem is systemic. Animal Rising reporters conducted 60 investigations across 45 Assured farms. Expert assessors concluded that in many cases the farms not only failed to meet the RSPCA criteria, but didn’t even achieve the legal standard for animal welfare. Altogether, they alleged 280 legal breaches.

I worked for a few months as a teenager on an intensive pig farm, and thought I had seen the worst. But I found the photo and video evidence the investigators compiled so distressing that they were almost unwatchable. They show pigs crammed together in filthy and squalid conditions, highly stressed, attacking each other, severe wounds and diseases untreated, some animals in extreme pain, others left to die slowly, in one case in a pool of excrement, tails cut off by farmhands, an absence of either bedding or “enrichment” materials to relieve boredom and distress.

They record chickens packed so tightly that they could scarcely move, pecking each other almost bald as a result of the stressful and crowded conditions, living birds left in a morass of faeces and decomposing bodies, chicks dying of dehydration and starvation, chickens picked up by their legs and hurled into crates when they are caught for slaughter. They record salmon missing their eyes and other body parts as they are rubbed raw in their cages by overcrowding or are eaten by sea lice. In some cases the fish appear to have been cooked alive by the drastic heat treatment used for louse removal.

The RSPCA has now ceased taking animal abusers to court directly, but the last report of its private prosecutions, for the year 2019, documents its pursuit of people whose pets have been left in filthy, squalid conditions, their wounds or illnesses untreated, without sufficient access to food, water or clean bedding. In other words, it pursues exactly the abuses that have been reported from its own Assured farms, but on a much smaller scale. Just as the RSPCA noisily rescues pets from neglectful owners, the Animal Rising investigators felt obliged to rescue pigs from the RSPCA’s Assured farms.

The only farms mentioned in that 2019 prosecution report are two tiny smallholdings: it says nothing about investigating or prosecuting large commercial livestock operations. While crimes against animals are never justifiable, several of the people it took to court seem vulnerable and chaotic, perhaps facing mental health crises. Mistreat animals because you can’t cope and the result is media outrage and a severe penalty. Do it for meat and profit, on an industrial scale, and you’ll be left to get on with it. What is the RSPCA for if, instead of challenging the astonishing double standards that govern our relationships with animals, it reinforces them?

It gets worse. Until the new report was published at the weekend, at which point it deleted them, the RSPCA’s website carried recipes for meat and fish, showing how you could cook cuts of the animals that receive its stamp of approval. Of 159 recipes on its site, only four were plant-based. Stand back and marvel at the perversity. It’s as if a children’s welfare charity had published a directory showing where you can hire child labour.

When I asked the RSPCA about the new report, it told me it is looking into the allegations. It claimed that: “If we stepped back from RSPCA Assured, we risk leaving millions of farmed animals with even less protection.” I believe that’s the opposite of the truth. Animal Rising, correctly in my view, describes the Assured scheme as “a marketing arm of the intensive animal agriculture industry”. The RSPCA’s advertisements show animals leading blissful outdoor lives, while being cuddled and petted by the farmer. It invites primary schoolchildren to “thank a farmer” for raising pigs for slaughter. What is this, if not promoting the meat industry? I see the RSPCA as normalising and legitimising animal suffering on an industrial scale.

The reputational cost is enormous. The RSPCA’s own president, Chris Packham, tells me, “It’s indefensible, we’ve got to change, and we should just get on with it … My standards of animal welfare and the Assured schemes are very wide apart. There is nothing other to do at this point but to suspend those schemes. They’re not working.” The RSPCA, he says, should instead be leading the transition to plant-based and alternative proteins. But are the executives listening?

How did the RSPCA get so lost? It has been confronted with this question for years and has yet to provide a persuasive answer. It makes a small amount of money from the scheme, but I don’t believe this is the reason. I think a more likely explanation is appeasement. By kicking down and kissing up, pursuing small abusers and endorsing large ones, it avoids conflict with powerful interests: the animal farming industry, the billionaire press and the lobby groups and junktanks that help discipline anyone who steps out of line. So extreme and outrageous are the RSPCA’s failures that I suspect animals would be better off without it.

George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist.

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com/

Animal rights activists target King Charles portrait in RSPCA protest