A Life With The RSPCA
Above: Michelle meeting a giant tortoise in Mauritius
You may have been following our ‘Interview With…’ series if you are subscribed to our monthly newsletter. (If not, you can subscribe, here)
Well today, we interview Michelle about her vast experience with the Society. From being eager to stand up for animals as a young girl, to volunteering locally as she got older, and eventually working as an inspector, chief inspector and now establishments liaison officer.
Please note – there are references to animal cruelty in the following post.
Tell us about your experience working with the RSPCA?
I started so many years ago as branch volunteer Auxiliary Secretary while I was still at school. It was Mr Jim Davison from Greenside (the regional organiser at the time, now known as branch support specialists), who took the time to meet me and show me what the RSPCA is all about. For that, I am still very grateful. It was during this time that I met my first Chief Inspector, Derek Campbell. Sadly, Derek is no longer with us, but he was a huge influence on my life. I then became a kennel volunteer for Newcastle branch at Kyle Road kennels in Gateshead, in late 70’s early 80’s.
I met lots of inspectors then including Mike Butcher who went on to head up the RSPCA Special Operations unit that deals with organised cruelty such as dog fighting. A very special and dedicated officer.
Photo above: Michelle and the team carried out blood testing on some swans during a suspected lead poisoning incident.
What motivated you to work with the RSPCA?
It was seeing the cruelty and neglect that was around us every day. I remember ranting on about the SELFA (Stop the export of live food animals) campaign at school in 1973 and the Harp seal cull in Norway. Seeing animal cruelty upset me and motivated me to do something to change it. I saw how it could be alleviated and changed by the efforts of the inspectors, and I believed that I could make a difference, as they were.
How long have you been involved the RSPCA?
I would have been 12 years old in 1973, doing my bit by making my feelings known, rescuing baby birds and lost ferrets, stray dogs etc. I would also sell flags on flag week and volunteer to collect in tins.
I then progressed to voluntary work in the kennels before, at the age of 23, I joined the inspectorate.
Training has changed so much since my day, but some of it is similar and it’s a huge life changer in many ways. In a mock TV interview at HQ as part of my training, I was asked, “What are you going to bring to this role?” Apparently, my answer was “glamour.” Clearly at 23 I was confident in my looks and style, or just very cheeky, as anyone who knows me Glamour and Michelle do not sit together in the same sentence.
I was then sent to work in Newcastle a young girl in a team of 5 experienced male officers.
The way we have worked has changed so much over the years, from having to stop and use a phone box to call in for your emergency jobs, then queuing up to use your securicor radio to now having police-style radios, mobile phone, PDA and computers in the van. I loved using an ordnance survey map over concerns about a pony on a remote farm up in wild Northumberland. I found a ‘short-cut’ on which I had to open and close 7 farm gates and wait for the sheep and cattle to move to allow me to drive down the track.
Working with a wide range of animals in such differing circumstances has its challenges. Working with wildlife can be eye-opening, and amazing and I have been able to work with animals that I would never have guessed id get so close too, when I first started the job, including whales dolphins and seals which we have on the coast. I then developed an interest in what lived in the sea.
Above: Michelle attended a call out to some beached whales.
In my early days, there were no call centres. So, from 5pm Friday night until 9am the following Monday, we (inspectors) would take emergency calls from our landline at home. We would hand-write all jobs and messages. Then, if needed, we would occasionally have to call out a colleague who was off duty if an animal needed an emergency response.
In 1999 I became the Chief inspector of the group I grew up in. It had grown from 6 of us to 17 over the years, technology had inevitably changed the way we would work. The NCC (National Control Centre) would take the calls and distribute jobs to the local inspectorate teams. We now had sat nav and PDA’s to help get us get to the job with accurate information.
In 2019 I moved sideways to work on a project with the animals that are in boarding.
So many animals come into our care for many different reasons. In some cases, they may need to be with us for some weeks/months before they can be rehomed.
I hope to make a positive difference to these animals by overseeing their general welfare and promoting behaviours which make their stay with us both as positive and as short as possible. This can be as basic as giving them a cosy bed and toys.
What is a typical day like in your role?
Put simply there isn’t one, as an Inspector your day changes and surprises you in so many ways, and as a chief there were some routine days checking reports, chasing up case documents, sorting vet enquiries, and making sure your team has all it needs to do the job. Then “wham!” You are thrown in at the deep end again because something has cropped up. A phone call saying someone has just discovered a house with 6 big rooms and each one is crammed with cages of mice, rats, chipmunks, chinchillas and other small domestics – “Can I get some help to move them?”
I recall putting a swan in the footwell of my car to take to the vet simply because I was the closest to it, and everyone else was so snowed under. You just never know what’s round the corner. It’s all part of the job.
Above: Meeting some turtles whilst on holiday – ever the animal lover
What are the things that stand out to you as being the most enjoyable about your career so far?
When I was an inspector, the challenge of gathering key evidence, and then the rewards of seeing justice done for animals, and the happy endings when an animal finds its forever home.
Seeing justice done can be an emotional and bumpy process. As an example, one case I worked on involved the death of a dog whose body had then been burned to try to destroy the evidence.
The fire service helped me to prove that an accelerant had been used by bringing their sniffer dog along to the area where the fire had been. Establishing the cause of death which, devastatingly in this case was by strangulation, was not an easy task. I thought what would we do if this was a human, and so I sought advice from a human pathologist, and he offered to attend the postmortem with the vet and they worked together to find out the truth, both giving evidence in court.
The person responsible was sent to prison for the maximum term.
In what ways is your role rewarding?
Making a difference both to animals and to people. When we help a person, it can change their life. For example, Nelson, a collie dog from many years ago, had a nasty skin allergy and his owner lived alone. They were the best of friends, but the owner was unable to get Nelson to the vet regularly. Over the weeks and months I worked with them, I was able to do this, with the support of the local branch, and week by week I saw the hair grow back, and the dog become less agitated and frustrated by the constant itch. Nelson went from being a stressed and very unhappy dog to becoming a loving, soppy and, at times, quite lazy dog. The relationship between Nelson and his owner was one of respect and companionship. It stayed with me.
Even when neglect occurs it’s often due to unforeseen circumstances, and this is where the RSPCA can make a positive contribution. The branches are key to this kind of caring, as they can offer advice, support and positive interventions to act and support to prevent neglect from happening.
What’s your funniest or most memorable experience/memory from your time with the RSPCA?
My days of fostering animals has to feature as a huge positive, too. I recall 2 special dogs, one of which was a yorkie terrier who gave birth to her litter of puppies in my bedroom. I couldn’t bear to be parted overnight as I was sure they were on their way. I didn’t get any sleep and, 7 pups later, I was in awe of the little lady.
Above: lady and her pups
Then there was Smartie, a lovely lad who opened my eyes to the joys of Staffies. We are still friends now and his parents are the most amazing people.
Smartie came for a weekend after having been scalded. The poor thing was covered in white paste which he needed for a couple of weeks to heal his skin. My sofa still has a sheen on it to this day.
6 months later, once the case was concluded, he left me crying in my office at Felledge Animal Centre, as he went off to his new home. I saw him from my window sitting proud as a king in his new 4X4, off to his house, family and garden (only an acre in size) with trees and squirrels he never will catch.
Above: Smartie loved the smell of fresh laundry
Do you have a favourite animal/breed?
No, not at all. As a family we normally had Labradors, but now we have a springer spaniel. I fell in love with Staffies after seeing the remarkable nature of Smartie. When I was younger, I had ferrets (only one at a time), but now I believe they are better in pairs, as they love the company and to play together (neutered of course). They are great fun.
What do you hope for the future in your role?
I hope that the role I am currently doing, which is part of a project, has demonstrated its value and so the society will consider expanding it across the country.
At the moment, working from home during this Covid-19 emergency, I am concerned for the animals and the long-term future of the RSPCA. Being a charity, we rely upon funding from the kind people who support us and, for many, spare cash is not going to be available.
I can’t imagine a world without the RSPCA, and I don’t think we will need to, however I do think we may need to change what we do, or how we do it, and for those who can’t spare money, I ask can you spare the time or your skills to do something else that will help the animals? If you can use any old “stuff” you have to make a bed or a toy, or offer your time to cuddle a cat or walk a dog, paint a picture that you can raffle for us, do a positive post on Facebook or write to your MP about something we want to change then please get in touch, and do your bit, however small, it all helps, small steps will get us there on the long walk which is caring and compassion.
Is there anything more you would like to add?
The branches are the backbone of the RSPCA and together as one we can overcome deliberate cruelty and promote kindness to all.