Blog by Billie-Jade Thomas

As Wales emerges from Covid-19 restrictions, RSPCA public affairs adviser Billie-Jade Thomas explains why the regulation of Wales’ animal sanctuaries and rescues is needed now more than ever…

sanctuary codeOn the 18th of September 2020, the Welsh Government published its voluntary Code of Practice for animal welfare establishments such as rescue centres and sanctuaries. While this was a really important step forward – and a document that should be on the radar of all sanctuary owners – one year on, RSPCA Cymru is renewing its calls for the regulation of these establishments in Wales to offer legal protection to the animals inside Wales’ estimated 90 sanctuaries.

Unlike establishments such as riding schools, dog breeders and cat boarders, sanctuaries and rescues are not subject to regulation, which essentially means that anyone can set one up, regardless as to whether they have the skills or resources needed to care for animals. As it stands, there is a real gap regarding public expectations about the regulation of sanctuaries – and the reality. While sanctuaries often do invaluable work to rehabilitate and rehome animals, a lack of safeguards exist to protect the welfare of animals in these establishments, which can be set up with no inspection or a legal requirement for strong welfare standards and contingency plans to be put in place.

Inevitably, it is the RSPCA that has to pick up the pieces when things go wrong, rehabilitate animals in need of care and find homes for animals as varied as polecats, jackdaws and quails in addition to the usual cats, dogs and horses.  In the past decade we have taken over ten prosecutions due to inadequate care in sanctuaries.  Well-meaning people can quickly find themselves out of their depth, highlighted by some sanctuary failures in Wales over the last year.

Naturally, many of the animals who find themselves in need of sanctuary or rescue require specialist care and an acute understanding of their complex needs. As well as having staff who meet this criteria, expertise is needed to ensure that these establishments are financially sound and tick all of the boxes with regards to ensuring the health and safety of the animals within them and the people who visit them. Solid governance arrangements, and having contingency plans for when things go wrong, can be so important in the running of a successful sanctuary.

On the 10th of September, the Licencing of Activities Involving Animals (Wales) Regulations (LAIAR) 2021, came into effect, banning the third-party puppy and kitten sales inNO CAPTION #SaferSanctuaries Wales, and regulating all pet sales alongside strict animal welfare criteria for the first time. While RSPCA Cymru welcomes this move, we are concerned that rescues could soon become an unregulated loophole for many of the activities that LAIAR aim to protect animals from – if the relevant legislation remains absent in the longer term. So while LAIAR was not the right vehicle to regulate animal rescues and sanctuaries, it is clear that we need further legislation in the years ahead to protect animals and offer the public the assurances they need.

Like many other establishments, animal sanctuaries and rescue centres were significantly impacted by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic at its height, with some experiencing an eye-watering 90% drop in income. RSPCA was one of the major rescues who budgeted for a 33% drop in income in 2020 due to lack of opportunities for public fundraising such as events, street and door-to-door-activities.

As well as impacting the day-to-day income and running of establishments with visitors unable to attend during lockdowns and staff needing to isolate if they contracted the virus, it is possible the ongoing effects of the pandemic could lead to a rise in animal abandonments, if owners find themselves struggling to find the time and/or the money their pets need. This would inevitably put even more pressure on rescue centres, with many already struggling for space and resources as it is.

As the long-term impacts of the pandemic remain to be seen, it is more important than ever that sanctuaries have robust contingency plans in place to ensure that the welfare of the animals within their care is not compromised. Making this a legal requirement – as part of a regulatory approach – could go a long way towards ensuring this, while the need for inspection could help make sure that high-profile cases we have seen in Wales in recent years do not happen again.

Many rescue centers request an adoption fee from budding animal owners, to help ensure that their decision to adopt a pet has been well thought-out, as well as proof that they are able to care for the animal financially. While this is entirely sensible, surely requiring proof from potential sanctuaries and rescues that their establishment has been well-thought out and is able to meet the long-term financial needs of its animals is a worthy consideration too – and the time has come for this to be reflected in Welsh law.

As part of our recent #LawsforPaws campaign, we suggested Senedd Members could propose the introduction of a Regulation of Animal Sanctuaries Bill for Wales from the backbenches – as one of ten possible new laws for animals. This would offer specific legal protection to the animals based in these settings through a licencing system and outline legal benchmarks and conditions which sanctuary owners must meet – and could be a strong proposal for this or future ballots. But in the absence of that, we urge the Welsh Government to prioritise its own secondary legislation on this as a matter of urgency this Senedd term to regulate sanctuaries and plug the current gap; ensuring that high standards of animal welfare are compulsory, rather than voluntary, within Wales’ many rescues and sanctuaries.