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Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) is a charity operating in England and Wales that promotes animal welfare. The RSPCA is funded primarily by voluntary donations. Its patron is Queen Elizabeth II. Founded in 1824, it is the oldest and largest animal welfare organisation in the world and is one of the largest charities in the UK. The organisation also does international outreach work across Europe, Africa and Asia.

The charity's work has inspired the creation of similar groups in other jurisdictions, starting with the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (founded in 1836), and including the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1839), the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1840), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1866), the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1882), the Singapore Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1959) and various groups which eventually came together as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Australia (1981), the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Hong Kong) (1997) — formerly known as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Hong Kong) (1903–1997).

The emergence of the RSPCA has its roots in the intellectual climate of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain where opposing views were exchanged in print concerning the use of animals. The harsh use and maltreatment of animals in hauling carriages, scientific experiments (including vivisection), and cultural amusements of fox-hunting, bull-baiting and cock fighting were among some of the matters that were debated by social reformers, clergy, and parliamentarians. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was an unsuccessful attempt by Sir William Pulteney on 18 April 1800 to pass legislation through the British Parliament to ban the practice of bull-baiting. In 1809 Lord Erskine (1750–1823) introduced an anti-cruelty bill which was passed in the House of Lords but was defeated in a vote in the House of Commons. Erskine in his parliamentary speech combined the vocabulary of animal rights and trusteeship with a theological appeal to biblical passages opposing cruelty. A later attempt to pass anti-cruelty legislation was spearheaded by the Irish parliamentarian Richard Martin and in 1822 an anti-cruelty to cattle bill (sometimes called Martin's Act) became law.

Martin's Act was supported by various social reformers who were not parliamentarians, and the efforts of the Reverend Arthur Broome (1779–1837) to create a voluntary organisation to promote kindness toward animals resulted in the founding of an informal network. Broome canvassed opinions in letters that were published or summarised in various periodicals in 1821. Broome organised a meeting and extended invitations to various reformers that included parliamentarians, clergy and lawyers. The meeting was held on Wednesday 16 June 1824 in Old Slaughter's Coffee House, London. The meeting was chaired by Thomas Fowell Buxton MP (1786–1845) and the resolution to establish the society was voted on. Among the others who were present as founding members were Sir James Mackintosh MP, Richard Martin, William Wilberforce, Basil Montagu, John Ashley Warre, Rev. George Bonner, Rev. George Avery Hatch, Sir James Graham, John Gilbert Meymott, William Mudford, and Lewis Gompertz. The organisation was founded as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Broome was appointed as the society's first honorary secretary. The foundation is marked by a plaque on the modern day building at 77–78 St Martin's Lane.

The society was the first animal welfare charity to be founded in the world. In 1824 it brought sixty three offenders before the courts.Princess Victoria became the society's patron in 1835, and, as Queen, granted its royal status in 1840 to become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as it is today. The origins of the role of the RSPCA inspector stem from Broome's efforts in 1822 to personally bring to court some individuals against whom charges of cruelty were heard. Broome employed and personally paid the salary for an inspector to monitor the abuse of animals at the Smithfield Market. The inspector hired by Broome, Charles Wheeler, served in the capacity of an inspector from 1824 to 1826 but his services were terminated when the society's revenue was exceeded by its debts. The accrued debts led to a suspension of operations when Broome as the society's guarantor for debts was imprisoned. When operations resumed there was some divided opinions in the Committees that steered the society about employing inspectors, which resulted in a resolution in 1832 to discontinue employing an inspector. The permanent appointment of a salaried inspector was settled in 1838, and the inspector is the image best known of the organisation today.

Broome's experience of bankruptcy and prison created difficulties for him afterwards and he stood aside as the society's first secretary in 1828 and was succeeded by the co-founding member Lewis Gompertz. Unlike the other founder members who were Christians, Gompertz was a Jew and despite his abilities in campaigning against cruelty, fund-raising and administrative skills, tensions emerged between him and other committee members, due to Gompertz's approach, considered very radical at the time, in opposition to hunting and other forms of using animals he regarded as abusive. The tensions led to the convening of a meeting in early 1832 which led to Gompertz resigning. His resignation coincided with a resolution adopted in 1832 that "the proceedings of the Society were entirely based on the Christian faith and Christian principles."

Alongside the society's early efforts to prosecute offenders who maltreated animals, there were efforts made to promote kindly attitudes toward animals through the publication of books and tracts as well as the fostering of annual sermons preached against cruelty on behalf of the society. The first annual anti-cruelty sermon that was preached on behalf of the society was delivered by Rev Dr Rudge in March 1827 at the Whitechapel Church. In 1865 the RSPCA looked for a way to consolidate and further influence public opinion on animal welfare by encouraging an annual "Animal Sunday" church service where clergy would preach sermons on anti-cruelty themes and the very first sermon was delivered in London on 9 July 1865 by Rev. Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (1815–1881), the Dean of Westminster. The "Animal Sunday" service became an annual event in different church gatherings in England, which was later adopted by churches in Australia and New Zealand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and it was the forerunner of the "pet blessing" services that emerged in the 1970s. In the twentieth century the RSPCA widened the horizons in the public domain by promoting an annual "animal welfare week."

The RSPCA also had annual accounts published in newspapers, like The Londoner, where the secretary would discuss improvements, report cases, and remind the public to watch over their animals' health.

During the second half of 1837 the society sponsored an essay-writing competition with a benefactor offering a prize of one hundred pounds for the winning entry. The terms of the competition stipulated:

"The Essay required is one which shall morally illustrate, and religiously enforce, the obligation of man towards the inferior and dependent creatures--their protection and security from abuse, more especially as regards those engaged in service, and for the use and benefit of mankind-on the sin of cruelty--the infliction of wanton or unnecessary pain, taking the subject under its various denominations-exposing the specious defence of vivisection on the ground of its being for the interests of science--the supplying the infinite demands on the poor animal in aid of human speculations by exacting extreme labour, and thereby causing excessive suffering--humanity to the brute as harmonious with the spirit and doctrines of Christianity, and the duty of man as a rational and accountable creature."

There were thirty-four essays submitted and in December 1838 the prize was awarded to the Congregational minister Rev John Styles. Styles published his book-length work, The Animal Creation; its claims on our humanity stated and enforced, and all proceeds of sale were donated to the society. Other contestants, such as David Mushet and William Youatt, the society's veterinarian, also published their essays. One entrant whose work was submitted a few days after the competition deadline, and which was excluded from the competition was written by the Unitarian minister William Hamilton Drummond and he published his text in 1838, The Rights of Animals: And Man's Obligation to Treat Them with Humanity. This competition set a precedent for subsequent RSPCA prize-winning competitions.

The role of women in the society began shortly after the organisation was founded. At the society's first annual meeting in 1825, which was held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on 29 June 1825, the public notice that announced the gathering specifically included appropriate accommodation for the presence of women members. Several women of social standing were listed as patronesses of the society, such as the Duchess of Buccleuch, Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury, Dowager Countess Harcourt, Lady Emily Pusey, Lady Eyre and Lady Mackintosh. In 1837 the novelist Catherine Grace Godwin (1798–1845) described in her novel Louisa Seymour an incident where two leading female characters were aghast at the behaviour of a driver abusing a horse pulling a carriage that they subsequently discussed the problem of cruelty with other characters one of whom, called Sir Arthur Beauchamp, disclosed that he was a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1839 another female supporter of the society, Sarah Burdett, a relative of the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts and a poet, published her theological understanding of the rights of animals. However it was not until 12 July 1870 that the RSPCA Ladies' Committee was established. Through the Ladies Committee various activities were sponsored including essay-prize competitions among children, and the formation of the Band of Mercy as a movement to encourage children to act kindly toward animals.

In the nineteenth century the RSPCA fostered international relations on the problem of cruelty through the sponsoring of conferences and in providing basic advice on the establishment of similar welfare bodies in North America and in the colonies of the British Empire. The RSPCA celebrated its jubilee in June 1874 by holding an International Congress on Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Queen Victoria delivered a letter of congratulations to the RSPCA on its anniversary. Although the society was founded by people who were mostly Christian social reformers, and in 1832 presented itself as a Christian charity concerned with welfare as well as moral reform, the RSPCA gradually developed into a non-religious, non-sectarian animal welfare charity.

The RSPCA lobbied Parliament throughout the nineteenth century, resulting in a number of new laws. The Cruelty to Animals Act 1835 amended Martin's Act and outlawed baiting. There was a public groundswell of opinions that were divided into opposing factions concerning vivisection, where Charles Darwin (1809–1882) campaigned on behalf of scientists to conduct experiments on animals while others, such as Frances Power Cobbe (1822–1904) formed an anti-vivisection lobby. The stance adopted by the RSPCA was one of qualified support for legislation. This qualified support for experiments on animals was at odds with the stance taken by Society's founder Broome who had in 1825 sought medical opinions about vivisection and he published their anti-vivisection sentiments. It was also a departure from the 1837 essay-competition (discussed above) where the essayists were obliged to expose "the specious defence of vivisection on the ground of its being for the interests of science." In 1876 the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed to control animal experimentation. In 1911 Parliament passed Sir George Greenwood's Animal Protection Act. Since that time the RSPCA has continued to play an active role, both in the creation of animal welfare legislation and in its enforcement. An important recent new law has been the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

During the First World War the RSPCA provided support for the Army Veterinary Corps in treating animals such as donkeys, horses, dogs and birds that were co-opted into military service as beasts of burden, messengers and so forth. However, the RSPCA estimates that 484,143 horses, mules, camels and bullocks were killed in British service during the war.

The RSPCA's centenary in 1924 and its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 1974 were accompanied by books telling the society's story. Since the end of the Second World War the development of intense agricultural farming practices has raised many questions for public debate concerning animal welfare legislation and the role of the RSPCA. This development has included debates both inside the RSPCA (e.g. the RSPCA Reform Group) as well as among ethicists, social activists and supporters of claims for animal rights outside of it concerning the society's role in ethical and legal issues involving the use of animals.

Animal welfare establishments

RSPCA centres, hospitals and branches operate throughout England and Wales. In 2012 RSPCA centres and branches assisted and rehomed 55,459 animals.


In 2013 the society owned four animal hospitals, Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Putney (south London) and the Harmsworth Memorial Hospital in Finsbury Park (north London), and a number of clinics which provide treatments to those who could not otherwise afford it, neuter animals and accept animals from the RSPCA inspectorate.


RSPCA animal centres deal with a wide range of injured and rescued animals, working alongside its inspectorate, volunteers, and others to ensure that each animal is found a new home. There are currently 17 RSPCA animal centres across the UK and a further 42 centres ran independently by Branches.

In 2013 the society had four wildlife centres at East Winch (Norfolk), West Hatch (Somerset), Stapeley Grange (Cheshire) and Mallydams Wood (East Sussex), which provide treatment to sick, injured and orphaned wild animals to maximise their chances of a successful return to the wild.

National organisation

At the national level, there is a 'National Control Centre', which receives all calls from members of the public, and tasks local Inspectors, some information AWOs or ACOs to respond to urgent calls.

Additionally the £16 million 'National Headquarters' located at Southwater in West Sussex houses several general 'Departments', each with a departmental head, consistent with the needs of any major organisation. The current Chief Executive Officer is Chris Sherwood.


There are five 'Regions' (North, East, Wales & West, South & South West, South East), each headed by a Regional Manager (responsible for all staff and RSPCA HQ facilities) assisted by a Regional Superintendent who has responsibility for the Chief Inspectors, Inspectors, AWOs and ACOs. The Regional Managers are expected to have a broad understanding of operations throughout their regions.

RSPCA branches operate locally across England and Wales. Branches are separately registered charities operating at a local level and are run by volunteers. Some RSPCA branches are self-funding and raise money locally to support the animal welfare work they do. They find homes for about three-quarters of all animals taken in by the RSPCA. RSPCA branches also offer advice, microchipping, neutering and subsidised animal treatments. In 2013 there were also about 1000 RSPCA shops.


Each Region of the RSPCA contains 'Groups' of Inspectorate staff. A Group is headed by a Chief Inspector. Each Chief Inspector might typically be responsible for around 8 or more Inspectors, 3 Animals Welfare Officers (AWOs) and 2 Animal Collection Officers (ACOs), working with several local Branches. There are also a small number of Market Inspectors across the country.

Mission statement and charitable status

The RSPCA is a registered charity (no. 219099) that relies on donations from the public. The RSPCA states that its mission as a charity is, by all lawful means, to prevent cruelty, promote kindness and to alleviate the suffering of animals.

RSPCA inspectors respond to calls from the public to investigate alleged mistreatment of animals. They offer advice and assistance to improve animal welfare, and in some cases prosecute under laws such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Animals rescued by the RSPCA are treated, rehabilitated and rehomed or released wherever possible.

The RSPCA brings private prosecution (a right available to any civilian) against those it believes, based on independent veterinary opinion, have caused neglect to an animal under laws such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The society has its own legal department and veterinary surgeons amongst the resources which facilitate such private prosecutions. All prosecutions are brought via independent solicitors acting for the RSPCA, as the association has no legal enforcement powers or authority in its own right.

In May 2012 the RSPCA launched their own mobile virtual network operator service, RSPCA Mobile in partnership with MVNO whitelabel service Shebang. RSPCA Mobile claimed to be the first charity mobile phone network in the UK. The agreement included provisions such that the RSPCA would receive up to 15% of top-ups made on the network and it was expected the network would raise £50,000 in the first year of operations.RSPCA Mobile ceased service in October 2014.

Legal standing

In 1829 when the first recognisable police force was established in England, they adopted a similar uniform to that of RSPCA inspectors who had been wearing uniforms since the charity's beginning in 1824. This adoption has led to similarities in the RSPCA rank names and rank insignia with British police ranks, which has led some critics (such as Chris Newman, chairman of the Federation of Companion Animal Societies) to suggest an attempt to "adopt" police powers in the public imagination.

An RSPCA inspector may also verbally caution a member of the public, similar to that used by the police, i.e. "You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence"; this may strengthen the perception that the RSPCA has statutory powers. When Richard Girling of The Times asked about their lack of powers, a spokesman for the RSPCA said "We would prefer you didn’t publish that, but of course it's up to you". Chris Newman claimed that the RSPCA "impersonate police officers and commit trespass. People do believe they have powers of entry"; however, he did not produce any evidence of such impersonation of police officers, and the society strongly deny the charge of impersonation.

Sally Case, former head of prosecutions, insisted that RSPCA inspectors are trained specifically to make clear to pet-owners that they have no such right. They act without an owner's permission, she says, "only if an animal is suffering in a dire emergency. If the court feels evidence has been wrongly obtained, it can refuse to admit it".

In 2012, a trial was halted and charges relating to nine dogs were thrown out of court after District Judge Elsey ruled that they had been wrongly seized, stating that the police and RSPCA acted unlawfully when they seized the animals without a warrant or a vet present to establish any suffering.

While the Protection of Animals Act 1911 provided a power of arrest for police, the British courts determined that Parliament did not intend any other organisation, such as the RSPCA, to be empowered under the Act and that the RSPCA therefore does not possess police-like powers of arrest, of entry or of search (Line v RSPCA, 1902). Like any other person or organisation that the law deems to have a duty to investigate — such as HM Revenue and Customs and Local Authority Trading Standards — the RSPCA is expected to conform to the rules in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 so far as they relate to matters of investigation. RSPCA officers are trained to state, following giving the caution, that the person is "not under arrest and can leave at any time".

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 has now replaced the Protection of Animals Act 1911, and it empowers the police and an inspector appointed by a local authority. Such inspectors are not to be confused with RSPCA Inspectors who are not appointed by local authorities. In cases where, for example, access to premises without the owner's consent is sought, a local authority or Animal Health inspector or police officer may be accompanied by an RSPCA inspector if he or she is invited to do so, as was the case in previous law.

Following a series of Freedom of Information requests in 2011, to police constabularies throughout England and Wales it was revealed that the RSPCA has developed local information sharing protocols with a number of constabularies, allowing designated RSPCA workers access to confidential information held on the Police National Computer (PNC). Although RSPCA workers do not have direct access to the PNC, information is shared with them by the various police constabularies which would reveal any convictions, cautions, warnings, reprimands and impending prosecutions. Information regarding motor vehicles can also be accessed. The Association of Chief Police Officers released a statement clarifying that the RSPCA had no direct access to the PNC, and that in common with other prosecuting bodies, it may make a request for disclosure of records. This indirect access does not include any information that the RSPCA does not need in order to prosecute a case at court.

Fund-raising in Scotland

The RSPCA has been criticised by the Scottish SPCA for fund-raising in Scotland and thereby "stealing food from the mouths of animals north of the border by taking donations intended for Scotland." The RSPCA insists that it does not deliberately advertise in Scotland but that many satellite channels only enabled the organisation to purchase UK-wide advertising. In a statement, the RSPCA said it went "to great lengths" to ensure wherever possible that adverts were not distributed outside England and Wales, and "Every piece of printed literature, television advertising and internet banner advertising always features the wording 'The RSPCA is a charity registered in England and Wales'". "All Scottish donors, who contact us via RSPCA fundraising campaigns, are directed to the Scottish SPCA so that they can donate to them if they so wish." The Scottish SPCA changed its logo in 2005 to make a clearer distinction between itself and the RSPCA in an attempt to prevent legacies being left to its English equivalent by mistake when the Scottish charity was intended.

Political lobbying

The RSPCA is an opponent of badger culling; in 2006 there was controversy about a "political" campaign against culling, with the Charity Commission being asked to consider claims that the charity had breached guidelines by being too overtly 'political'. The charity responded saying that it took "careful account of charity law and the guidance issued by the Charity Commission". Years later, an advertisement published by the RSPCA in the Metro newspaper said: "The UK Government wants to shoot England's badgers. We want to vaccinate them – and save their lives." However, more than 100 people complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), saying the use of the term "exterminate" was misleading. The advertising standards watchdog judged that the advert was likely to mislead the general public who had not taken an active interest in the badger cull saying, "The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told the RSPCA not to use language that implied the whole badger population in the cull areas would be culled in future advertising." An RSPCA spokesman said it "welcomed" the judgement of the ASA to dismiss three of the areas of complaint about their advert but "respectfully disagreed" with the complaint which had been upheld.

In September 2013 the RSPCA deputy chairman Paul Draycott said that 'too political' campaigns threatened the charity's future and could deter donors. Draycott said that the RSPCA could go insolvent "We have spent months discussing where we want to be in 10 years time, but unless we develop a strategy for now we won't be here then". In response the chairman Mike Tomlinson said "The trustee body continues to place its full support behind the RSPCA's chief executive, management and all our people who do such outstanding work". The accusations of politicization remain unsubstantiated.

Paul Draycott also warned that the RSPCA fears an exodus of "disillusioned staff" with "poor or even non-existent management training and career paths" for employees. In response the RSPCA's chief executive, Gavin Grant denied suggestions in the memo that there was "no strategy" in some areas, stating that there was no difficulty in attracting trustees or serious internal concerns about management.

In June 2014 RSPCA campaigner Peta Watson-Smith compared the conditions livestock are brought up in across the country to that of the Jews during the Holocaust. The comments were condemned by countryside campaigners and Jewish groups. In 2015 Peta Watson-Smith was elected to the RSPCA ruling council. At the same election the RSPCA members also voted to give a seat on the ruling council to Dan Lyons.

In 2016 the new head of the RSPCA, Jeremy Cooper, made a dramatic, public apology for the charity's past mistakes and vowed to be less political and bring fewer prosecutions in the future. The new Chief Executive admitted that RSPCA had become "too adversarial" and will now be "a lot less political". Mr Cooper said that the charity had alienated farmers in its aggressive campaign against the Government's badger cull and disclosed that it would be "very unlikely" to ever bring another prosecution against a hunt. CEO Jeremy Cooper later resigned after just on year in charge.

In April 2019 the RSPCA has faced a new fraud investigation held at south-east London branch over the alleged mishandling of funds by two men, who were arrested on suspicion of fraud. The suspected fraud was exposed during a financial audit of the south-east London branch.

Euthanasia controversies

The RSPCA also state that whilst a few of their own branches operate "no kill" policies themselves, its policy on euthanasia is:

The RSPCA is working for a world in which no rehomable animal is put to sleep. Currently the RSPCA accepts, with great reluctance that in certain circumstances euthanasia may be necessary, when the animal is not rehomable, because it is sick or injured, for behavioural reasons or occasionally because there are no appropriate homes available and the animal would therefore endure long-term suffering through deprivation of basic needs.

There have been incidents where the RSPCA has apologised for decisions to euthanise animals. In 2008, the RSPCA was sued by Hindu monks over the killing of a sacred cow at the Bhaktivedanta Manor Hindu temple in Hertfordshire and 200 people protested at the RSPCA headquarters. On 13 December 2008, the RSPCA admitted culpability, apologised for the euthanising of the cow, and donated a pregnant cow to the temple as a symbol of reconciliation.

The RSPCA admitted that in 2014 it had euthanised 205 healthy horses. In one particular case 12 horses from a Lancashire farm that had been assessed by vets as being "bright, alert and responsive" and suffering no life-threatening issues were killed by the RSPCA.


In May 2013 former RSPCA employee Dawn Aubrey-Ward was found hanged at her home when suffering from depression after leaving the animal charity. Aubrey-Ward was described by The Daily Telegraph as a whistleblower for the RSPCA's prosecution practices. The RSPCA subsequently had a meeting with the Charity Commission over its approach to prosecutions.

On 7 August 2013 the BBC Radio 4 Face the Facts radio programme broadcast an episode called "The RSPCA – A law unto itself?" The programme presented a number of cases of where the RSPCA has sought to hound vets and expert witnesses who had appeared in court for the defence in RSPCA prosecutions. In one case it sought to discredit the author of the RSPCA Complete Horse Care Manual (Vogel) after he appeared as an expert witness for the defence team in an RSPCA prosecution. The RSPCA later released a statement saying that this is untrue and that they do not persecute vets and lawyers who appear for the defence and as defence experts. There have been thousands of lawyers taking defence cases against the RSPCA and they have only ever made a complaint about one.

In November 2013 the RSPCA was accused of instigating police raids on small animal shelters with insufficient evidence that animals were being mistreated. The owners claimed that they were being persecuted because of their "no kill" policy of only putting animals down if they cannot be effectively treated. The RSPCA stated that their inspectors will offer advice and guidance to help people improve conditions for their animals, and it only seeks the help of the police where it considers there is no reasonable alternative to safeguard animal welfare.


The RSPCA has long been criticised for its governance with the Charity Commission describing its governance as below the standard expected of a large charity and in August 2018 issued the Society with an official warning. The RSPCA made significant changes to its governance in 2019 reducing the size of its council from 28 trustees to a new board of trustees of 12 trustees with nine elected by the membership and three co-opted. The RSPCA also introduced term limits of nine years for its trustees and appointed its first independent Chair, Rene Olivieri, in its 196 years of history.

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