Campaigns confusing community
ANIMAL rights activists are harming the hard-earned reputation of the RSPCA by clouding community perception, says the organisation's NSW chief executive officer Steve Coleman.
"What the RSPCA stands for has absolutely been muddied by the efforts of other organisations that have a different agenda," he said.
Mr Coleman's comments come hot on the heels of the NSW Farmers' push to remove the organisation's policing powers (administered under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act), with its delegates claiming to have lost faith in its ability to carry out welfare compliance without being swayed by activists or to suit its branding.
Mr Coleman was angered by the NSW Farmers' decision.
"I don't think there's any doubt - the waters have been muddied between welfare and rights," he said.
Mr Coleman laid part of the blame on extreme animal rights activists. As far as RSPCA was aware, the group had been working effectively and co-operatively to date with farmers, he said.
Farmers losing trust
"We've been invited to all sorts of things with NSW Farmers - we're the first to say that farmers, by and large, have (animal) welfare as a major priority in their businesses.
“We’re the first to publicly support the vast majority of the farming community, who do the right thing.”
Chair of the NSW Farmers sheep advisory committee James Jackson moved the motion for the RSPCA's constable status to be removed in regards to commercial livestock. He said the RSPCA was using its brand to drive an agenda.
"This is an organisation that's moving seriously towards the dark side," he said.
"They think they hold a complete monopoly in terms of welfare issues and that's not the case. Farmers have got a legitimate role in this space - we're the champions of best practice of animal health here."
He said the RSPCA had the right to advocate an agenda, but shouldn't be able to prosecute that agenda on the community.
Mr Coleman said the motion (which was supported) was "just disappointing". The RSPCA receives thousands of complaints each year, he said, and only 1 per cent of those are taken to court: "and of that 1pc the vast majority of those are companion animal-related or are hobby farmers".
"Anyone can have a look at our policy and our position, it is absolutely not anti-farmer or anti-meat eating," he said.
Mr Coleman challenged NSW Farmers to "show us the numbers where we've been over the top with prosecution" or to demonstrate where the group had taken an action that had been thrown out of court due to insufficient evidence - "and that's never happened".
NSW Farmers chief executive officer Matt Brand said the association looked forward to working with the RSPCA on the issue.
"Both the RSPCA and NSW Farmers have important roles to play in ensuring our animals are humanely treated and well cared for and it is important that our dialogue continues with them," he said.
During the conference Mr Jackson said the RSPCA had repositioned itself as a brand in the community, with a growing focus on endorsing products as being RSPCA-approved.
"Their brand is reinforced by the fact they've got this special constable status," he said.
Mr Coleman was aware of criticism of the RSPCA's approved farming scheme as a profit-generating exercise, but said the facts did not support this.
"That business program itself costs our organisation, we don't make any money out of that - but what we manage to do, at a cost to our organisation, is bring about a higher animal welfare standard for millions of animals," he said.
Activists' agenda questioned
Recent campaigns by activist groups such as the PETA anti-shearing campaign had undermined the RSPCA's welfare work, Mr Coleman said.
It was understandable, he said, that people would be upset by the kind of footage released to the media by PETA purportedly showing Australian shearers mistreating sheep.
"We agree, it's disgraceful – (but) the challenge always is: how is the RSPCA supposed to deal with that?"
While PETA made a formal complaint to the RSPCA regarding the footage, Mr Coleman said no extra detail was provided that could assist an effective prosecution.
"We have nothing more than what the public has seen."
He questioned PETA's motives in withholding the "evidence" for so long, and then releasing the footage first to the media and second to the regulator.
"The other concern - despite the disgraceful acts depicted in the video - if an individual or an organisation was serious about bringing to the court's attention alleged illegal activity then you certainly wouldn't wait months before you brought that to the notice of the regulator."
He said Animals Australia had followed a similar pattern of behaviour, "where the information (provided with a complaint) is not as fresh as it could have been".
"It just dilutes the value or the strength in being able to bring about a balanced and objective - and most importantly a lawful - investigation.
Primary Industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson said the NSW government was confident in the enforcement mechanisms already in place in NSW and that existing enforcement agencies had a strong track record in protecting animal welfare in NSW.
"NSW Department of Primary Industries' Animal Welfare Branch is in constant contact with enforcement agencies, including the RSPCA, regarding animal welfare issues and compliance matters," she said.
Ms Hodgkinson said prior to their appointment, RSPCA inspectors underwent extensive training and the DPI has run training for inspectors specifically in assessment of livestock.
Live ex still a stumbling block
Mr Coleman concurred that the RSPCA's official stance opposing live export was still a barrier to dialogue with farmers, but said the organisation was always willing to sit down and talk.
"And we will always go in the front door, not the back door."
He said any form of trespass or emotive campaigns designed to elicit reaction rather than positive outcomes were detrimental to the welfare cause.
"The elephant in the room is: what is the objective behind these sorts of activities? Is it really about prosecution? Is it really about bringing about some sort of justice for alleged cruel behaviour towards animals, or is it an attempt to change the hearts and minds of the public about that particular industry?
"(And) the bigger frustration for us is the confusion that is either accidentally or purposely brought into the argument between animal welfare and animal rights."
Taking powers away from the RSPCA could open the doors to more extreme groups, he warned.
"If ever you wanted to increase the level of activism, get rid of the RSPCA."