Imagine what would happen if J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the FBI, were running the RSPCA. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But suspend your disbelief for a second, and suppose that a crusading individual convinced of his destiny to conduct a campaign against wrong-doing had turned the nation’s favourite animal charity into a quasi-official investigations unit, targeting those people and institutions he personally disapproved of.

He might then seek to publicise the most dramatic or controversial cases of animal neglect and cruelty in order to generate headlines. He might, for example, use intelligence gleaned from investigators tracking fox hunters in a particularly genteel part of the country in order to make an example of them, perhaps to revel in the opportunity to describe them as ‘common criminals’.

Such class-oriented campaigns, along with shocking and bloody exposés of the farming and meat industry, would earn popular support for a time because, as we know, Britain is a nation of animal-lovers. We cannot bear cruelty. Politicians, public figures and entire industries would be frightened of this organisation and so would every pensioner who owned a slightly feeble dog or cat. As the tentacles of a moral crusade on behalf of animals spread out, a knock on the door from Hoover’s RSPCA inspectors would become a terrifying thing.

A culture of obedience inside such an organisation could discourage any challenge to this vehement mission. There would be no knowing who would get picked on next. After hunting, these anthropomorphist G-men might come for horse racing. The Grand National could disappear.

Unthinkable? Let’s hope so. Nevertheless, something is going on at the RSPCA, and every insider to whom I have spoken to points to the chief executive, Gavin Grant. A lifelong Liberal Democrat and former PR guru who has worked for the Body Shop, Mr Grant took over a year ago, pledging to make RSPCA finances his main priority. Insiders say he has opted for ‘in your face’ campaigns, generating some of the most lurid headlines seen about the RSPCA in its nearly 200-year history.

Indeed, so lurid are some of these headlines, involving claims which the RSPCA bitterly disputes, one has the feeling that the charity’s philanthropic founder William Wilberforce would turn in his grave.

From accusations of involvement in the shooting of a lorry load of ‘lame’ sheep bound for export, to spending £326,000 of their supporters’ money on prosecuting David Cameron’s local hunt, the RSPCA has been involved in so many controversial cases lately that it stands accused of being an animal rights rather than an animal welfare organisation.

The Charity Commission has intervened and a Commons debate was held this week, with MPs questioning the RSPCA’s prosecution policies. There is anxiety about whether its officers should wear uniforms designed to make them look like police, when in truth they have no more power than I have to knock on your door and demand to see whether your pet cat is being treated for its arthritis. Nor does the charity have any special prosecuting powers, though its attitude would lead you to believe it does.

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Dozens of ordinary householders have been convicted, fined and even tagged for offences such as killing squirrels in their gardens, or not arranging adequate veterinary care for a sick pet. Those animal owners who fall foul of the RSPCA include the elderly, sick, bewildered or poor. Some of the prosecutions have been little short of farcical. Householders who kill garden pests have been convicted on the basis that the only humane way to dispatch a squirrel is to take it to the vets for a £70 lethal injection. Worse, there is a growing suspicion that not all RSPCA evidence of cruelty is what it seems. The grisly pictures of dead sheep allegedly put out of their misery at the port of Ramsgate last September have led some veterinary experts to question how the RSPCA and Defra agents managed to get blood spattered up walls when destroying the animals by captive bolt gun which should not have produced much blood at all. Perhaps this is paranoia, but it shows how deeply suspicious some animal experts have become of this once-respected body. Suspicion is rife about its motives in the countryside.

A strong bias against farming and country sports runs through many campaigns, according to the Countryside Alliance. But Mr Grant, a seasoned media operator who was director of campaigns and communication at the RSPCA in the 1980s, may not be put off by the furore.

Buoyed by the success of his prosecution of the Heythrop hunt, I am reliably informed, he has set his sights on the racing industry next. ‘His modus operandi for these big campaigns is to target high-profile events and people,’ a well-placed veterinary expert told me. ‘So you won’t see him having a go at Badminton, where horses also get injured, because it’s not a household event. He will go for the Grand National because the entire country watches it.’

He added: ‘No one dare speak out against him. There is a culture of fear at their headquarters. He’s very evasive on TV and people who know him say he’s convinced he’s right.’

After last year’s National, in which two horses died, Mr Grant was incandescent. He blogged: ‘As the winning owner whooped, a cold fury welled-up [sic] in me. The National has to change or die.’

Racing officials are so worried about being targeted by the RSPCA that they have rebuilt three fences ahead of this year’s event, with plastic rather than timber interiors, which will be more forgiving on the horses’ legs. They are in negotiations with the RSPCA over further possible changes, including making the fences smaller and getting rid of the famous drops and ditches. The unrealistic goal of Mr Grant seems to be that no racehorse should ever be injured. He wants fewer runners and no Becher’s, which would effectively end the race’s distinct character because, of course, the element of danger and courage is what it is all about. It won’t make the race safe anyway, because, as every horse-owner knows, you could not guarantee a thoroughbred would remain uninjured even if you confined it to a paddock, wrapped in cotton wool.

But senior figures in the racing industry say they are so nervous of Mr Grant’s organisation that they will not speak out about what is happening. They hope that if they keep the issue quiet, he will leave them alone. One racing industry insider told me: ‘Gavin Grant is driving all of this, he’s very powerful and nobody dare question him.’ He felt that ‘the comparison to Hoover has some truth in it’.

‘Everyone in the racing industry is just hoping we can work with the RSPCA and preserve racing. It sounds cowardly, but what choice do we have? If we fight them, it looks like the rich boys of racing are picking a fight with the angels.’

This, of course, is the problem. The public have traditionally wholeheartedly supported the RSPCA, regarding them as the good guys. Many people believe they have official powers of arrest and prosecution, not least because they put their officers in uniform with rank names and insignia similar to those of the police. Many people also mistakenly believe the RSPCA can search property. And while they can bring private prosecutions, so can any member of the public.

But if the RSPCA regards itself as a kind of countryside FBI, it is perhaps not surprising that people might believe it. In 2011, it secured convictions in more than 3,000 ‘cruelty’ cases, at a cost of £8.7 million. Barrister Jonathan Rich, who defended some of those accused, reportedly described the charity as ‘an officious, sub-standard, pretend police force’. Unlike the actual police, this is a force over which no elected representative has any control, making it largely unaccountable. It is not entirely uncontrollable, however.

The Charity Commission has now intervened and told Mr Grant in a letter this week that his trustees must review the charity’s prosecution policies, ‘given the amount of adverse publicity and the allegations of political bias’ that resulted from the Heythrop case. There are signs, too, that public opinion is souring, especially after recent reports that the RSPCA now destroys 44 per cent of the animals it rescues, totalling 53,000 a year, and rehouses 10,000 fewer animals a year than it used to. This month, a YouGov ‘buzz’ poll, tracing how well organisations are regarded, found that after the Heythrop prosecution, the charity went from a positive score of 8.7 down to minus 0.1 amid concerns that they are using donors’ money for political campaigns.

People are waking up to the fact that the once-cuddly RSPCA is becoming quite militant. Take RSPCA council member Dr Richard Ryder, for example. He was director of the Political Animal Lobby, which donated £1 million to the Labour party before the 1997 general election in support of a ban on hunting. Dr Ryder has suggested that animals are morally identical to human beings and should never be used for food or clothing, let alone sport. He thinks people who disagree are guilty of ‘speciesism’, which he compares to racism and -sexism.

The real shame of it is that many RSPCA employees on the ground, in rescue centres and horse sanctuaries, do excellent work. Local branches, however, are increasingly cash-strapped and struggling to answer emergency call-outs to cases of real neglect and suffering, which are on the increase in this recession. It is striking that in 2010 the charity had reserves of £48 million, but has since complained its reserves have been eroded.

MPs say if the RSPCA wants to become a radical, campaigning animal rights group, it should go ahead, but it cannot also be the official guardian of animal welfare. Such a group must be impartial and cannot take a position on either side of, for example, the hunting or badger-culling debate. Simon Hart MP, who led a Commons debate this week urging the Attorney General to look at the matter, said: ‘The RSPCA are acting as judge and jury and need to review their prosecution policy. The good animal welfare work they do is being compromised by the animal rights agenda of Gavin Grant and the leadership.’

In a statement, the RSPCA said: ‘Trust in the RSPCA is not low. Indeed we have been overwhelmed with support during the past few weeks when malicious and factually incorrect statements have been made about the Society by those seeking to undermine our work.’

Maybe so. But if Mr Grant does not want to lead a controversial secret police force, perhaps he should get back to re-homing stray cats and dogs.

Gavin Grant in his own words

The Heythrop

— ‘These people are wildlife criminals… The penalties for these offences are too light. I want to see people who organise themselves to go out and abuse animals for pleasure or for profit go to jail… two years? Five years?’

— ‘No different to badger baiters – apart from their accents.’

Hunting in general

— ‘Rightly, those that abuse animals for pleasure and/or for profit will be seen for the common criminals they are.’

The Grand National

— ‘As the winning owner whooped, a cold fury welled- up in me. The National has to change or die. The nation knows and demands it.’

—  ‘Despite safety improvement the Grand National is still too risky for the horses. It’s the unacceptable face of racing.’

The RSPCA — and himself

— ‘We take a zero-tolerance approach to animal cruelty:  mice, hedgehogs, dogs, cats, badgers, cows, sheep, foxes, snakes — we are here to protect all animals.’

— ‘People may seek to intimidate me, and some have… I respect other people’s opinions, but the RSPCA is never going to be intimidated.’

— ‘Anybody who is going out there quite deliberately either for fun or for profit, to break the law and to abuse animals, is clearly an enemy of the animals, and an enemy of the RSPCA, but above all, they’re an enemy of the civilised people of this country.’

For the full RSPCA response, go to www.spectator.co.uk/rspca

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated