October 30, 2020

RSPCA Whistleblower takes her own life


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article-2324203-15B40224000005DC-11_634x567This story appeared in the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail last May. I am sorry I missed it. It is published in iNews Cayman now as it illustrates the risks whistleblowers take when they take on a large organization after seeing a wrong and go public with it.

The subject of whistleblowing is my Editorial today.

What drove RSPCA whistleblower to take her own life? Former inspector had claimed the charity destroys ‘healthy’ animal.

By Guy Adams Daily Mail UKarticle-2324203-15B403A6000005DC-851_634x558

Dawn Aubrey-Ward, 43, blew the whistle in a Mail on Sunday interview

Mother-of-four left final Facebook message which said ‘that’s it, I give up’

She was found hanged in her home in Matlock, Somerset

You had only to cross the threshold of the small rented West Country cottage where Dawn Aubrey-Ward lived with two of her daughters to appreciate the extraordinary extent of her devotion to animals.

Two huge dogs, a Great Dane and a Dogue de Bordeaux, would bound up the hallway to greet visitors. A pair of cats would leap onto anyone who settled down on the living room sofa.

On the fridge, next to photos of her beloved horse, were newsletters for countless pet rescue centres and shelters which the 43-year-old divorcee had donated to — and volunteered at — for her entire adult life.

article-2324203-16AE411B000005DC-21_634x458Elsewhere were photos of Aubrey-Ward fulfilling a long-held ambition by qualifying as an RSPCA inspector in 2008, and a certificate from the charity commending her rescue of an endangered lamb several months later.

Not so long ago, the framed mementoes were among this vivacious animal lover’s most treasured personal possessions.

But then her relationship with the RSPCA soured. Now, following a tragic course of events, they bear witness to an ugly controversy that raises sobering questions about Britain’s best-known animal charity.

Yesterday, it emerged that Aubrey-Ward, who also had two grown-up children, had been found hanged at the home in Matlock, Somerset. She was discovered by a young family member on May 8.

Her death came five months after Aubrey-Ward, who was no longer an RSPCA employee, had stuck her head above the parapet to publicly accuse the charity of unnecessarily killing animals.

In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, published in late December last year, she had described her horror, during her time as an RSPCA inspector, at having to euthanise what she called ‘healthy animals’.

article-2467791-18D956C700000578-181_634x430The interview sparked widespread controversy. But the RSPCA responded by publicly attacking Aubrey-Ward’s character and integrity.

In a statement published on its website in early January, and widely circulated among animal rights extremists, the charity suggested she was a liar primarily motivated by malice.

‘Please be aware that Dawn Aubrey-Ward is a disgruntled former employee of the RSPCA who was subject to a disciplinary investigation for alleged theft of animals. She left the organisation with matters still pending,’ it began.

Over the days that followed, Aubrey-Ward went on to endure a torrent of abuse on Twitter and Facebook, telling friends that she was struggling to cope with the tide of hate mail, death threats, and abusive telephone calls.

article-2467791-18D956D700000578-263_306x423On her own Twitter feed, she claimed that the RSPCA had ‘ruined my life’ and said that its PR statement was ‘evil’.

Weeks before taking her life, she complained of feeling ‘bullied and harassed’ and admitted that she was suffering from ‘severe depression’, describing it as ‘hardly surprising’ given the pressure she had been put under.

In a message on her Facebook page the day before her body was found, she declared: ‘That’s it, I give up, I am unemployed, broke, struggling and allegedly “damaged”.’

Linda Varney, a close friend, believes the ‘damaged’ comment refers to the RSPCA’s depiction of her as a liar. ‘Dawn was going through hell,’ says Varney, who  runs a cat sanctuary.

‘It was  cruelty, plain and simple. It was horrendous. We are totally shocked by her death. In my opinion, the people who drove her to this have blood on their hands.’

Another long-standing friend, Rose Jay, described her victimisation as ‘appalling’, adding: ‘The last time I spoke to her, she was feeling very low. She was short of cash, was close to having to move home, and couldn’t get work, because potential employers Googled her name and found all sorts of nastiness.

‘She was very brave and spoke out for what she believed in, but she confided in me that she had received threatening emails from people who didn’t like what she had said. It really upset her.’

article-2324670-19C6860E000005DC-682_306x423Yesterday, the RSPCA would only say: ‘We are saddened to hear of Dawn Aubrey-Ward’s death. Our thoughts are with her family at this very difficult time.’

Aubrey-Ward had joined the RSPCA as a trainee in 2007, securing what she had always regarded as a dream job. Yet after a brief honeymoon period, she started to find herself at odds with superiors.

‘Dawn was a lovely person, who adored animals,’ says one friend. ‘But she could also be a touch scatty, and sometimes didn’t do things exactly by the book. It started to upset her bosses.’

Aubrey-Ward is understood to have been particularly troubled by the number of animals RSPCA inspectors were required to euthanise.

‘She was desperate to avoid killing animals, particularly healthy ones,’ says the friend. ‘At times, she  re-homed them with other animal welfare organisations, rather than follow strict RSPCA procedures she felt would eventually lead to them being put down.’

That upset superiors, who allegedly began issuing regular complaints about wider aspects of Aubrey-Ward’s conduct. She was disciplined for failing to follow guidelines about storing ammunition for the captive bolt gun used when euthanising animals.

‘I had accidentally put four bullets in my pocket,’ she later claimed.

And she was rebuked for refusing to issue a formal ‘caution’ to a devastated pensioner whose cat had contracted emphysema and was dying in his lap.

‘The RSPCA …  see every case as a chance to prosecute, to generate publicity for themselves,’ she said about the case. Her career came to an end after she was reprimanded for the theft of a tortoise, which she claimed to have taken home for safekeeping.

After a year of negotiations, she resigned. Around the same time, in 2010, her boyfriend, Robert Colclough, was found dead. He also faced redundancy, and was troubled by their financial prospects, although the coroner recorded an open verdict.

Aubrey-Ward discovered Robert’s body at their home.

Friend Vicky Thomas said: ‘She never got over Rob’s death. The problems with the RSPCA came not that long afterwards and she just couldn’t cope any more.’

His death, along with her departure from the RSPCA, is believed to have led to a nervous breakdown.

Aubrey-Ward consulted an employment lawyer and later claimed the charity offered her a pay-off.

But she was required to sign a ‘gagging clause’ to prevent her publicly discussing her time at the charity.

She allegedly declined, hoping to bring what she saw as the organisation’s deficiencies to a wider audience. That process began in December, when she gave the interview to The Mail on Sunday.

Afterwards, the RSPCA published its statement attacking her integrity — and then the abuse began.

‘You sold out!’ read one typical attack on Twitter, along with:

‘How much were you paid?’

When Aubrey-Ward replied that she had neither sought nor received payment for her story from the newspaper, the Twitter user called her ‘foul’.

So began a downward spiral that ended in her death last Wednesday.

Astonishingly, her death is just one of several individuals who have been in conflict with the RSPCA.

In 2010, a Shetland pony breeder from Cumbria called Alan Brough took his life after the charity confiscated his animals. Later that year, a gamekeeper called Graham Key killed himself after being convicted of firearms offences following a raid on his home.

And in 2012 Stephen Brown, a pig farmer being investigated by the RSPCA, shot himself in a field.

In yet another case, which bears an eerie similarity to Aubrey-Ward’s, a female RSPCA inspector called Dimity Crowley was paid £30,000 by the charity after saying she was driven to attempt suicide by ‘bullying’ and ‘sexual harassment’.

Friends of Aubrey-Ward detect a pattern. ‘Dawn was a wonderful woman,’ says Jonathan Rich, a barrister who knew her well.

‘I am proud to have been one of her many friends, and so sad to be saying she is yet another person who has been in conflict with the RSPCA then died by their own hand. I think this charity needs to have a very long hard look at itself.’

A coroner will take evidence on her death in the coming months.

Meanwhile Beverley Cuddy, editor of Dogs Today magazine, a prominent figure in animal welfare circles and a friend of Dawn’s, last night called for a government inquiry into the RSPCA’s behaviour.

‘It takes immense bravery to speak out when you think something is wrong — and while an organisation needs to be able to defend itself, it needs to be very careful it doesn’t overstep the mark and crush genuine people possibly making valid points,’ she said.

‘We will never forget Dawn and I’d like to feel sure she wasn’t bullied by a charity that should be all about prevention of cruelty.

‘Only an independent inquiry can achieve that.’

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