Roger Ratcliffe hopes
the bark of Lucy’s Law
isn’t worse than its bite

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I’m not a dog owner, but dogs belonging to friends and family have made me a dog lover. This is despite having twice been bitten by seemingly good-natured tail-waggers while on a country ramble.

Farm dogs still make me nervous, and a few years ago one very shaggy sheepdog sprinted towards me as I walked past a farmyard near Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. Frozen to the spot, I feared the worst. But it came to an abrupt halt a few yards in front of me, spat out a tennis ball and crouched expectantly on the ground. Game on.

My auntie’s various black labradors and springer spaniels have been much-loved members of the family, and were mourned when they made that final trip to the vet. So I will never understand how people can mistreat pets. Often, the cruelty is through neglect because of an inability to afford proper food or pay vet bills.

There’s another form of cruelty – selling puppies and kittens like boxes of detergent or cans of beans. The most obvious example of this has long been visible in some large pet shops. But thankfully from next April it will no longer be possible to walk in and ask, in the words of the old Patti Page song, “How much is that doggie in the window?”

The commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens under six months old will be banned under new legislation known as Lucy’s Law, named after a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who died in 2016 because of terrible conditions on a so-called puppy farm in Wales. They can only be legally sold if the vendor has bred the animal.

Puppy farms – often in remote places – house high volume, usually low welfare unlicensed puppy breeders, and it is scandalous that their prohibition has taken so long. Forty years ago I did a newspaper investigation into puppy farms and visited one in Greater Manchester and another in North Lancashire. Both treated their puppies as mere commodities and the breeds’ merits, as described in glossy brochures, were more geared to what was good for the owner rather than the dog’s welfare. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, for example, were said to be an excellent choice because “they do not need a great deal of exercise”, while Yorkshire Terriers were described as “ideal for small houses and apartments.”

Back then the RSPCA, the go-to organisation on animal cruelty matters, commented: “We are appalled that pets are now placed in the same category as direct mail-order catalogue goods.” Sadly the RSPCA’s bark turned out to be worse than its bite, and puppy farms have stayed in business for four decades.

It was left to small animal welfare charities to take up the fight that led to Lucy’s Law. However, one of them – the Naturewatch Foundation – is unconvinced by the new legislation, arguing that puppy farms generate too much cash and provide opportunities for tax evasion. It fears the trade will be driven onto the internet where claims that puppies came from loving family homes will be impossible to check.

I think the RSPCA, which benefits from huge amounts of money through donations and wills, should spend some of its funds making sure this doesn’t happen, and that in Lucy’s Law animal lovers haven’t been sold a pup.

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