We shouldn’t eat our goldfish but the RSPCA was wrong to prosecute Gavin Hope for doing so

Not content with prosecuting lonely old cat lovers, the mentally ill and innocent huntsmen the RSPCA has now turned its attention to young drinkers participating in the craze of “Neknomination.” Its first target was 22 year old salesman Gavin Hope who was prosecuted for drinking a pint of lager mixed with chilli, tequilla, egg and (this is meant to be the the funny bit) fish food, followed by his live pet goldfish. Mr Hope, whose talents perhaps lie more in sales than in public relations, unwisely posted his hilarious escapade on Facebook, whence it was brought to the attention of the RSPCA.

Although some of those prosecuted by the RSPCA deserve our sympathy it is hard to feel a great deal for Mr Hope. As a joke his stunt falls rather flat, and as performance art it is not quite as edgy as the German artist Milo Moiré who has achieved critical acclaim for publicly ejecting paint-filled eggs from her vagina onto a canvas.

But it is not a crime to be unfunny or even to be gross and boorish: when all is said and done Mr Hope was prosecuted for eating a fish.

There may still be some people who think that the RSPCA is a sensible organisation protecting animal welfare.

There are also plenty who are happy to ignore it, believing that what it does is none of their business.

But in fact what the RSPCA does is all of our business because, like it or loathe it, we all subsidise it. Unlike an ordinary company the RSPCA is a registered charity which means that it is exempt from most income and capital gains taxes. Moreover, people who die and wish to leave their money to a charity can thereby reduce the amount of tax that their estate would otherwise have to pay. It is granted these generous tax advantages because an essential element of being a charity is that its purpose is for public benefit.

The price it pays for this privileged status is that the rest of us are entitled to take a view on whether its activities are indeed for public benefit. An organisation that took in public donations, enjoyed its tax advantages and then frittered away its money in frivolous gestures would not be acting for public benefit.

And frivolous is the word that springs to mind to describe this prosecution. Eating your pet goldfish constitutes the crime under S.9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 of “not taking such steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure that the needs of an animal for which [you are] responsible are met to the extent required by good practice.” And I suppose one can’t really disagree that if you eat your goldfish you fail to meet its needs. But why was the RSPCA – which often kills healthy animals because it cannot care for them properly – wasting its precious resources on this case?

I suppose it is not very pleasant for a gold-fish to be eaten alive by a drunken salesman like Mr Hope, although I can’t imagine it is any worse than being eaten by one of the stone-cold-sober herons that regularly eat the goldfish out of ponds all over the country. You might have thought that the mere fact that the fish had been eaten would demonstrate that its “needs” had not been adequately met. However, the RSPCA wanted to be quite sure their quarry did not escape, so they instructed a veterinary surgeon who solemnly concluded that “the stomach would be a completely unsuitable place for a goldfish.” I wonder how much the vet concerned charged for that piece of expertise.

Now I am not advocating that we should routinely eat goldfish. I’m with Joyce Grenfell‘s nursery-school teacher on that one:

… Edgar and Neville, why are you standing on those chairs?
You can see into the fish-tank perfectly well from the floor. Get down, please.
No, Neville, you can’t hold a fish in your hand.
Because fishes don’t like being held in people’s hands. They don’t like coming out of the water, you see. Their home is in the water.
Well, they do have to come out of the water when we eat them, but these aren’t eating fishes. These are friend fishes. It’s Phyllis and Fred. We wouldn’t want to eat Phyllis and Fred.
No, Sidney, you wouldn’t.
I don’t think they’d be better than sausages.
Come back, please. You don’t have to go and see Phyllis and Fred….”

But it is one thing to disapprove of eating “friend fishes”; it is quite another to prosecute a booby like Mr Hope, especially when “eating fishes” like cod are being hunted to near extinction, and farm animals are “processed” into meat in ghastly slaughter-houses to which many turn a blind eye. This may not have been the most egregious of RSPCA prosecutions but it still reeks of sentimentality and humbug.

To its credit the RSPCA still does much good work. It has run sensible campaigns, for example calling for CCTV to be installed in all slaughterhouses. Yet every penny squandered on trivial prosecutions is money which could have spent on a serious issue.

Perhaps the organisation is not entirely beyond redemption. Its highly politicised former chief executive Gavin Grant has now resigned and it has hired Stephen Wooller, a former Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service to review its prosecutions policy.

One hopes that Mr Woller will bring some sense to an organisation that otherwise will thoroughly deserve to lose both its charitable status and its Royal warrant.

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

4 thoughts on “We shouldn’t eat our goldfish but the RSPCA was wrong to prosecute Gavin Hope for doing so”

  1. “the RSPCA wanted to be quite sure their quarry would not escape” – I was worried for a moment there that officers had attempted to rescue the goldfish from Mr Hope’s “unsuitable” stomach/digestive system/pile of vomit.

    1. If it were still alive and blessed with an uncommonly good goldfish memory, perhaps it could provide some testimony on its ordeal

  2. Interestingly Mr Hope was not prosecuted for the more serious offence of cruelty, presumably because the RSPCA had their doubts as to whether they could prove such a charge.

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