Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 313-319)



  Q313 Chairman: Welcome, Mr Best, Chairman of the British Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. Thank you very much for your written evidence. We have asked all our witnesses to date a simple opening point: what do you like about the Bill and what is the key issue that concerns you about it that, amongst the enormous amount of information which the Committee is digesting, you would not wish us to forget?

  Mr Best: Thank you for the invitation to come here this afternoon. This is not just my opinion of the draft Bill as I see it but the opinion of the council that I am representing. We are also in contact with 150 rehabilitation units around the country and our submission has been circulated amongst them, so I think I have a reasonable consensus. Most people seem to be in favour of some form of regulation and registration, although it does seem, when you ask in detail, that they are in favour of it for other people but not for themselves. The first point in the Bill is the duty of care, which is important. It clarifies an important point that anybody who has care of an animal has that duty of care to ensure and safeguard its welfare. With regard to regulation and registration, if this is going to be possible to carry out under the new Bill once it is enacted, I can see that registration of rehabilitation units is going to apply to a network of units that are working to a code of practice, which is an agreed code of practice. This can only have a positive effect on the welfare of the animals that they are handling. The other real advantage of it is that the regulations, I presume, are going to be backed by a legislative framework. That means that people who are handling wildlife casualties and neglecting their welfare will lay themselves open to prosecution. The one thing that seems to worry most people, and certainly worries me, with the Bill is the effect that increased bureaucracy, paperwork and costs that might be involved in a registration process would have on the running of many of rehabilitation units. A lot of these units in this country are quite small affairs that are run by individuals part-time. They are not well financed. Any increase in their financial burden would have a serious effect on their function. That would mean then that the number of units in the country that are prepared to accept and look after in a reasonable way wildlife casualties would be reduced. That would obviously have an effect on the welfare of these animals. Perhaps also it means that people are encouraged to do it themselves. The majority of casualties are found by members of the general public and most people who find casualties want to do the right thing by them. They need to be able to find easily units equipped and staffed to receive these casualties. If the number of these units is reduced, then the welfare of these casualties is going to be compromised. That is my main worry with compulsory registration.

  Q314 Chairman: We move now into an area in terms of wildlife, the name in the title of your organisation, from previous discussions during last week which very much centred on what I might call animals that had been domesticated. As I read it, clause 53 of the Bill does not make a distinction in defining an animal, which is the generic term covered by the Bill, between animals that are in the care of man on a permanent basis where there is a dependency relationship between man and the animal and in this case wildlife, which is the subject of the work of rehabilitation—wild animals where a problem occurs and where man then intervenes to provide an element of welfare to help rehabilitate the animal. Is it necessary, given that there is a benevolent purpose by the rehabilitation centre to look after an animal, to have that area of animal stewardship covered by the Bill or is it a question of changing the definition of "animal" to incorporate or differentiate these two relationships between man and the dependent animal, like the farmer and the cow as opposed to man, the benevolent person looking after the fallen seagull whose feathers are covered with oil?

  Mr Best: I have always regarded it, and I do not know how correct I am, that once a wild animal has been brought into captivity, then it is under the ownership of whoever is looking after it temporarily. Although it is not a domesticated animal, it would therefore have the same protection that a domesticated animal would have. I do not know that this has been tested by law but I think this is how we have regarded it up to now under the Protection of Animals Act, and wildlife casualties would have that same degree of protection against unnecessary suffering.

  Q315 Chairman: If we have some law that applies in this area, do we need the terms of the Bill to be applied? In other words, what is the gain from the Bill in applying the terms of this proposed Act to the area of rehabilitation centres that is not covered by the current legislation?

  Mr Best: That would be the incorporation of regulation of these units. Admittedly, at the moment with the Protection of Animals Act and the Abandonment of Animals Act, wildlife casualties fall into that group. As I understand it, the new Act would include these provisions: protection against suffering.

  Q316 Chairman: Would one of the benefits be, therefore, in your judgment, that centres that operate under a regulated regime would, by definition, therefore be of a higher standard than what might be there now, to differentiate between the well-meaning who go out to pick up fallen animals and look after them as opposed to those who have some degree of professional input, real understanding of particular species and expertise, and who would provide the rehabilitation work? I think it is because this is an act of "mercy to an animal" that I just want to be convinced that we have to upgrade the law in this area.

  Mr Best: I see there are great opportunities for abuse of wildlife casualties and their welfare and they are animals just as much as domesticated stock are animals. When they are in care with humans, I think they deserve that protection from the abuses of their welfare: things like inappropriate treatments that would be given by people who have not trained and have no experience in handling these animals; animals that are kept in captivity for extended periods of time when they either should have been released back into the wild or euthanased; and animals that are returned to the wild in a condition in which they are clearly not able to survive in the wild. There is a lot of room for abuses of welfare. This is where I think regulation would make a lot of difference. Units that have registered would then: be registered with a declaration that they would be working under a code of practice and open to inspection; declare the numbers and types of animals that they would have the facilities to handle; and show they have a veterinary practice that will attend and assist them with advice and care of the animals. They must keep proper records and they would undertake to attend courses and further education. It would be a much more structured organisation than it is at the moment. It is a very grey area and this would make things more black and white.

  Q317 Ms Atherton: We have drifted partly into the question I was going to ask when you are talking about some of the very good animal sanctuaries that we all know, perhaps like the Screech Owl Sanctuary in Cornwall, which basically people visit and recognise and understand, but you are also talking about the little old lady who used to live down the lane I lived in who had more than a hundred cats. She acted as a cat refuge centre. She had a two-bed roomed terrace cottage and never saw a vet at the property from one year's end to the next. Clearly, the cats were in some distraint, as were the neighbours because it had an impact upon the whole community. You are talking about the whole gamut between an "animal sanctuary" that is run by the well-intentioned amateur who perhaps does not understand the full nature of what he or she is taking on to the very-well organised sanctuary perhaps run by the RSPCA. There is a difference between those two extremes. Surely, if there is some cost in terms of paperwork and time and perhaps some financial cost, that forces people to sit up and think about what they are doing? Details of an animal sanctuary came to my desk and I had real concerns about the welfare of the animals; very little could be done through normal channels. Perhaps now it would be easier with this Bill to take action in those areas.

  Mr Best: That is exactly what I would hope would happen.

  Ms Atherton: You have some concerns about the cost of the licences. I think the smaller sanctuaries are often the ones that perhaps have to cut corners.

  Q318 Chairman: To add to that, in paragraph 2.3 of your evidence you do make some differentiation between the larger and smaller units.

  Mr Best: That was a point that we hoped might be taken up by the Committee, that there are distinctions between the very few large wild animal hospitals, for want of a better term, throughout the country, and I can count those on one hand, and the larger number of smaller units.

  Q319 Ms Atherton: Surely, those are the ones about which concerns have been expressed and therefore for animal welfare reasons they should be the ones encompassed by the Bill?

  Mr Best: What I am not sure about, and nobody has given us any indication, is what sort of costs would be involved. I am sure that a well organised, smaller unit would see that they could raise a small amount to cover the costs of registration, but if a large sum has to be taken into account, the costs of regular inspections and inspections not only by local authority inspectors but also maybe by veterinary surgeons, then the amounts are going to be comparable to zoo licensing fees, and that would put registration way beyond the means of a lot of these units.

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