From the pathetic mewing sound, I thought it was a cat. But then I saw it was a fox cub, lying half-under the hedge in the front garden. Flies were gathering on a wound in its side and on its face, and its feet were paddling impotently. Its suffering was evident. My first thought was, of course, to phone the RSPCA.
After about three minutes, I was through to an operator who told me to prod the fox with the end of a broom – apparently many wounded animals run off and hours can be wasted trying to find them. When it didn’t move, she took the details and said an inspector would be in touch.
He phoned within minutes, promised to be there in half an hour, and he was - calm, professional, practical, well equipped, well informed: ex-forces was my guess. He lifted the animal into a small cage and put it in his van. Sometimes, he said, a vixen with too many cubs will drive one away to fend for itself, often wounding it in the process. Alternatively, the cub might have been attacked by a dog.
He said he would take it to the animal hospital in Fulham for assessment, and my surmise was that it would probably be put down: if it recovered, after all, what would you do with an orphan urban fox cub in London? But the main thing was that I had not known what best to do and the RSPCA had stepped in to save an animal from many more hours of pain and distress.
For me, the event was unusual enough to merit writing about it. For the charity, of course, it’s part of the daily routine. It’s doing this kind of work all over the country, all the time. Its staff are dedicated, compassionate, animal lovers: I met more of them a few weeks ago when I interviewed its new chief executive at one of its animal centres.
And yet the RSPCA has recently been vilified and pilloried over a tiny part of its activities. It successfully prosecuted the Heythrop hunt in 2012, and those who want to change the law to bring back foxhunting have never forgiven it. Their supporters in the right-wing press have seized on and blown up every misdemeanor; a comparison by an RSPCA council member between the conditions of farm animals and Auschwitz has been endlessly recycled.
The charity has apologised for occasional mistakes and is reviewing its governance: its members, arguably, have too much control and a wider-world perspective needs to be added. But, considered objectively and in the round, it remains a brilliant charity. It makes good much of society’s cruelty and neglect, and does so at no cost to the state. It is the fourth emergency service, and long may it thrive.
Stephen Cook is contributing editor of Third Sector