International Womens’ Day: 200-years of pioneering women standing up for animals and championing welfare

RSPCA

South East inspector and scientist are just some of the inspiring women at the RSPCA. Over the last 200 years, pioneering women have stood up for animals and have often been at the forefront of the animal welfare movement.

The RSPCA has seen some incredible examples of female strength, determination and compassion throughout its 200-year history. From Queen Victoria bestowing her patronage on the RSPCA due to her love of cats, to Ada Cole fiercely campaigning against the live transport of animals in the early 1900s. And from the 50s when the very first female officers began rescuing animals, to the present day when over 60% of frontline officers are now female.

This International Women’s Day (today), as the RSPCA marks its 200th anniversary, the charity reflects on the pioneering women throughout its history, from the Victorian age right up to the present day and the many role models the charity has to be proud of.

Many people know that Queen Victoria bestowed a Royal Patronage on ‘SPCA’ in 1837 – whilst she was still Princess Victoria – and in 1840 gave the charity its Royal Warrant. She also played an active role in the charity including writing letters through her private secretary expressing concern for the ‘protection and safety’ of cats and her ‘horror’ at animal suffering.

But it wasn’t just Queen Victoria who played a vital role in shaping the RSPCA into what we know it is today. Angela Burdett-Coutts became Vice Patron of the RSPCA in 1839 and 1870. Later, along with Catherine Smithies, she founded the Ladies Committee at the RSPCA too. The committee set out to improve the welfare of animals by encouraging children and young people to sign up to a group known as the ‘Band of Mercy’. Burdett-Coutts realised that education was key to improving the lives of animals, and she wanted schools to teach children about humanity towards animals – something the RSPCA still campaigns for today and continues through its education work. In 1871 she became the first woman to be a baroness in her own right and in the same year she was the first woman freeman of London. She died in 1906, having dedicated her life to philanthropy, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

In 1914, trailblazer Ada Cole – who later founded World Horse Welfare – set the precedent for undercover investigations when she went to Belgium to investigate the live horse trade. This tradition continued and sparked the charity’s Special Operations Unit (SOU), initially focusing on live export investigations. Now more than 100 years later – live exports will finally be banned in the UK thanks to passionate campaigners like Ada Cole and the thousands of others who have joined us to end these gruelling and unnecessary journeys for animals since then.

The year 1952 saw the RSPCA appoint its two first female ‘patrol officers’ Ninette Gold and Pat Jones. Ninette Gold, aged 19 had been a ballet dancer before joining the RSPCA and Pat Jones aged 32 had no previous occupation. These women blazed a trail at the RSPCA and our inspectorate is now 64% female with 274 female officers on the frontline rescuing animals every single day.

One of those officers is Liz Wheeler who joined the RSPCA in 1988. She was the only female officer in her area at that time. With a background in vet nursing, when she left training, she went to the seal unit in Norfolk during the seal crisis and spent three months there. Her first inspector role was in Reading where she spent 13 dedicated years rescuing animals, including spending a week seconded as part of a team saving birds during the Sea Empress oil spill in Pembrokeshire in February 1996. Since then she has worked across Sussex, South London and Surrey and is now working in a group where 80% of officers are female.

Liz said: “I really love what I do. It’s incredibly rewarding to help animals but also helping people too. When I joined the RSPCA, most of the inspectors were former military or police officers and it hadn’t been long since we’d had an all-male inspectorate. Not long before I started, it was a requirement for the wives of inspectors to answer phone calls for the RSPCA to let them know what their next job would be whilst the husbands carried out the rescues, so it was a very different world when I first started. From being told ‘but you’re just a girl’ by members of the public in my early days to more than half of the inspectorate being female has been a fantastic change to see.”

Herchy Boal, has worked for the charity for over 20 years, and is one of the leading frontline experts on the puppy trade, as well as a performing animals inspector advising TV and film crews on how to care for animals on-set – including recently assisting Coronation Street with an important storyline on the puppy trade. She is also well-known for starring in Channel 5’s Dog Rescuers – a documentary series following the charity’s frontline officers as they rescue dogs in need.

Herchy said: “There have of course been big career highlights, from winning medals for large-scale puppy farming investigations to working on TV programmes and being recognised in the street, but for me, it’s the everyday differences to the lives of animals and people that we make each shift that will always be the highlight. We get to change lives, we save lives and that will always be the most important part of my job.”

Herchy started her animal welfare career as the first Asian female officer and through her dedication to animal welfare and her TV work, she has now arguably become the face of the RSPCA.

Herchy added: “It’s incredibly important that the RSPCA reflects the society it serves and we live in a diverse society. I want children to look at me and see someone that looks like them and think ‘I could do that, I could work for the RSPCA in future’.

“It can be hard sometimes – I’m small, I’m a woman and I’m Asian so I tick all the ‘vulnerability’ boxes. I’ve had sexist and racist abuse from members of the public or been dismissed as a ‘young girl’ by men who think I don’t know what I’m talking about despite working for the RSPCA for 24 years. But despite these challenges, I believe women are powerful beings and we can use our perceived weaknesses as strengths. In my job this means being a peacemaker and calming a situation which really works in my favour when dealing with tricky situations.”

Dr Samantha Gaines joined the RSPCA in 2009 after working for the Ministry of Defence as a research scientist specialising in the performance and welfare of military working dogs and has a PhD in exploring the effects of kennelling on the welfare of working dogs.

She has been at the forefront of welfare issues including racing greyhound welfare, breed specific legislation – where she recently gave vital evidence to the EFRA select committee on XL Bullies – and has even travelled overseas for three-years running to countries in Africa to offer her expertise.

Sam, who lives in Sussex, said: “My work in Africa has been a real career highlight – delivering workshops and raising the standards of welfare for dogs used to disrupt the illegal wildlife trade. Working with the Government to help influence policy and legislation has also been hugely important to me.”

From featuring on Newsnight, to BBC Radio 1 Breakfast show with Greg James and the Jeremy Vine show, Sam’s media work has been an unexpected career highlight.

She added: “I remember feeling so daunted knowing I’d have to speak on behalf of the RSPCA when I first started! Now it’s hugely exciting to have a presence in the media but most importantly it allows me to speak about vital issues reaching large audiences and ultimately making a difference to animal welfare and it’s this that gets me out of bed every morning!”

Despite women making up just 24% of STEM roles in the UK workforce, as a female scientist working for the animal welfare charity, Sam has found a very different picture there. As the head of the companion animal department, a position she has held since 2015, Sam oversees a team of experts specialising in dogs, cats, horses, rabbits and small furries and works in a department where a whopping 83% of staff are female.

She said: “I was lucky to have lots of inspirational female role models to lead the way for me. I’m sure they had to push through some barriers to get there!

“The animal welfare sector has always had a strong female presence ever since I first started but senior roles were still predominantly held by men. The head of my department was male before I took over in 2015 and what we’ve seen over the past five years or so is a real shift in women coming into leadership roles and a more diverse RSPCA in general.”

As the RSPCA celebrates its 200th birthday this year, the charity has also launched a new video showcasing a glimpse of its unique history over the past two centuries – and why they now want to create a million-strong movement to help even more animals.

To find out how you can join our million-strong movement for animals visit www.rspca.org.uk/200.

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