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Tim Bonner: Chris Packham, the RSPCA and animal rights

The RSPCA has been through a humbling decade since the chaos that led to the resignation of its outspoken Chief Executive, Gavin Grant, in 2012. However, the appointment of Chris Packham as its President this week seems to run counter to much of the reform that has rebuilt the Society’s reputation in recent years. The RSPCA has clearly made significant strides in terms of its previously dysfunctional governance and at the end of 2020, the Charity Commission announced that the Society was no longer in special measures. Just as its structures were reformed so its policy platform seemed to have changed, with less jumping on the latest animal rights bandwagon and much more consistent focus on the real welfare issues affecting domestic and wild animals. The Countryside Alliance has been happy to work with the RSPCA on issues of shared concern.

So why now would it appoint such an obviously divisive figure as Chris Packham, albeit in an honorary role? The answer probably lies at the bottom line. The RSPCA has a very small membership of just 16,000 people and one of the constitutional issues that is outstanding is the Society’s refusal to run any recruitment campaign for voting members. Instead it relies on fundraising and, crucially, legacies to cover its huge expenditure. In 2021, the RSPCA raised an extraordinary £91 million from legacies against an expenditure of £115 million. 

We know that historically the awful publicity around the RSPCA’s excursion into the animal rights agenda - which culminated with the then Archbishop of Canterbury refusing to become a patron as his predecessors had been for 100 years - had a serious impact on its fundraising. Leaked papers laid out trustees’ concerns and subsequent financial results show those concerns were well grounded. In recent years, however, as controversy around the RSPCA has abated, its legacy income has increased and the RSPCA has undoubtedly taken the view that the price of alienating one part of the community will be offset by the income that Chris Packham’s celebrity will generate. This may be a successful marketing strategy, if it can keep controversy at bay, but is sadly divisive for an organisation that should be able to generate support from every part of the community.

Strangely, it could also be argued that in appointing Chris Packham as President of the RSPCA, it is also taking a more moderate position because his predecessor was extreme in a way that makes Mr Packham look tame. Richard Ryder, the self-styled ‘inventor of the modern animal rights movement’ who was the embodiment of extremist influence in the RSPCA, was a past Chair who served continuously on its council from 1972 – 2019. He was only appointed as President in 2020 and the silence about his departure suggests that in appointing Chris Packham the RSPCA has made a decision that is both commercially savvy and rids them of one of the most extreme elements of the animal rights movement.

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