Ecology and Life
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  Should the RSPCA have pursued the man who ate a live goldfish?
You may remember Louis Cole, the man who eats strange things. He became a YouTube celebrity by munching live scorpions, maggotty turkey legs, giant ragworms and the like. In April this year, he uploaded a video of himself eating a live goldfish (YouTube has since removed the video but, inevitably, it's available elsewhere): he lifted the creature out of its bowl, held it up briefly then bit down on its head, chewing up the animal and swallowing it. Tasteless and crass the act may have been, but the creature was dead in a few seconds. If it suffered, it didn't suffer for long.

At the end of April, Cole received a hand-delivered letter from the RSPCA telling him that he might have broken laws relating to animal cruelty, and threatening that the police would come to arrest him if he didn't reply. Fish, like all animals with a backbone, are covered by legislation in a way that scorpions and tarantulas are not. Faced with an official-looking document and the risk of arrest, Cole got himself a lawyer. He was told he faced a £20,000 fine and up to six months in prison. For eating a goldfish.

Whatever you think of Cole's brand of shock eating, the RSPCA's approach towards him over the course of this year looks heavy-handed. "I felt from the start they wanted to pin me up and make an example of me," he says. He was initially interviewed at a police station. On one occasion, "I was told I needed to see them within a couple of hours or a warrant would be issued for my arrest. They drove to meet me and I sat in their van answering questions. I didn't have my lawyer with me and he felt this behaviour was underhand." The RSPCA confirms these events, though it says he was free to leave at any time.

Cole chose to fight the accusations because he worried "if I'd admitted any guilt it might be taken into court, and I might end up with a hefty fine or a prison sentence". Throughout, he claims, "I was under the impression that they had some level of power, that they could enforce certain things." In fact, the RSPCA is merely a well-funded charity that, among other actions, brings private prosecutions against individuals. It has no special powers whatsoever, although it sometimes looks as if it might. Its inspectors wear uniforms that look very similar to those of the police, and turn up unannounced at people's properties asking to inspect, for example, animals' living conditions. (You have every right to refuse and shut the door if this happens.) Its number ends in 999.

Over various pre-trial hearings, Cole claims the RSPCA's own vet accepted that if he bit down quickly and killed the fish it would have had only minimal time for suffering. He also claims an individual in the RSPCA told him that, in their view, "the whole thing [ie the prosecution] was completely unnecessary" and a "nonsense", but that other people in the charity wanted to make an example of him.

Cole's trial was set for this week, but a couple of weeks ago, the RSPCA accepted an offer to settle from his lawyer. He has now admitted his "guilt" and been officially cautioned, which means he has avoided an expensive trial and the risk of a criminal record. The RSPCA claims it offered him the chance to admit his guilt and accept a caution at its first meeting with him, but this is disputed by Cole and his lawyer.

The RSPCA is the eighth-richest charity in the UK. It recently spent £330,000 prosecuting a fox hunt : it won, and the hunt had to pay a £4,000 fine and £15,000 of the RSPCA's costs. Its spokeswoman points out that the vast majority of the complaints it receives do not result in prosecutions, but the charity equally boasts that only 2% of its defendants have all their charges dismissed. "We're not a group of hippies sitting round in a shed," says the spokeswoman. "We have a team of animal welfare scientists, and in some cases we're the experts on the letter of animal welfare law." A barrister who regularly defends people in prosecutions brought by the RSPCA told the Telegraph: "You will experience more aggression from the RSPCA than almost any other litigant."

For all that, the organisation does important work in food animal welfare. I've written approvingly about its Freedom Food certification, which doubles as a useful guarantee that meat is British. If the charity didn't exist, we would likely invent it.

But it got Louis Cole wrong. In all his videos and over several conversations with him, I've never seen any evidence that he wished to inflict cruelty on any animal. His YouTube channel encourages people to question the cultural bases for their food choices, even as it may disgust them. And yet he spent much of 2012 with the full litigious might of a £130m organisation directed at him. His legal fees mean he's now in debt.

If you accept that it's moral to eat another creature, then killing it is a necessary part of that process. I went on a pheasant shoot a few weeks ago and witnessed far more suffering than Cole inflicted on his goldfish. I asked the RSPCA why it doesn't prosecute every angler who toys with a fish on the end of a line. "We have to look at individual cases presented to us," a spokesperson said, "and ask if unnecessary suffering was caused. If somebody was to phone the RSPCA to say that a person had made a fish struggle on the end of a hook, we would investigate that."

Perhaps it's easier to pursue humane pranksters than to challenge Britain's amateur fishermen.
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