The tireless campaigner for dog welfare: Marc Abraham
I’ve been active in dog welfare now for eleven years and in that time met many fellow campaigners. Marc Abraham is one of them. He recently secured a major milestone in welfare reform with his Ban the sale of young puppies & kittens without their mothers being present government e-petition. This received over 100,000 signatures within just six months and triggered a full 3 hour debate in the main chamber of the House of Commons in September 2014.
Marc brilliantly distilled this campaign into a hashtag #wheresmum for a highly effective social media offensive. This is now often misrepresented by some, and caricatured as a “single issue” oversimplified crusade. As that is not the case, I thought you might like to meet the man whose work has so impressed both me and major players in the political arena of animal welfare reform. Last month I managed to grab an hour from his schedule, we sat down over mint tea, fruit smoothies, and talked dogs.
Karlton Index (KI): Marc, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside a number of amazing dog health and welfare campaigners, you are one of them, but I have to say I know few, if any, who work as hard at it as you do. What motivates you to put in such a work rate on behalf of animal welfare?
Marc: Thanks Philippa. Dogs face many welfare problems worldwide but obviously can’t speak for themselves. So we have to solve these problems on their behalf. As a practicing veterinary surgeon not only have I seen the impact of these problems on a daily basis in my clinic, I also understand what needs to be done to overcome them. Sadly, many of the ways dogs are exploited for gain, inevitably monetary gain, i.e. profit, often subjects a significant amount of harm to their welfare. For example breeding puppies at high volume harms both the breeding animals and their litters by exposing them to painful disease, genetic health conditions, inadequate socialisation, the list goes on. If you allow routes to market that are untraceable, for example allowing third party selling of pups which means these poor dogs are passed from one part of the chain to another, indiscriminately, the overwhelming evidence shows the dogs suffer unnecessarily. The injustice of all this is what motivates me to take a stand, and hopefully make a difference.
It may also help to understand that I am driven by my own family background too. As some people are aware my great inspiration is my Grandmother, now in her nineties, but who as a child was forced to leave all that she knew, loved, and held dear behind her in, what was then, Nazi Germany. She survived the persecution of the Jews by having the courage to escape to England on the Kindertransport. Ever since that life-changing experience she has found it difficult to stand by and witness injustice to the most vulnerable whenever and wherever she encounters it. If she could take a stand like that, if she can display such courage at such a young age then I know anything’s possible, and I can hopefully do something for the injustice we see in animal welfare.
KI: Your focus this past twelve months or so is most definitely in the political field – can you tell us why that is such an important part of what you do?
Marc: The PupAid campaign began life as a simple awareness raising fun dog show in Brighton judged by local personalities, a way of making an important message engaging for people. We raised awareness for a few days or so but it was clearly not enough. It was the Brighton MP, Caroline Lucas, who had come along to the events when they were based there, who first suggested I should bring the campaign to Westminster. Now deep down I’m just a geeky, nerdy, science, vet so taking it to that political level felt a little out of my comfort zone which was exciting. Once I started having meetings with various policy makers it quickly became apparent that Caroline’s expert advice to start a government e-petition was the most appropriate route I should take.
It sounds quite straight forward from a distance, but getting a government e-petition off the ground, let alone to a level that triggers a parliamentary debate takes a massive amount of work and a huge amount of collaboration; it’s a real commitment. But it was worth all that effort.
Ironically, despite all that political campaigning taking place in a new and exciting environment, I quickly began to realise that it requires a great deal of strategy, a clever game plan. My Dad taught me at a very young age, and with a great deal of patience, how to be good at chess. Our chess games were a major feature of our close relationship. Having instilled in me a love for strategic match play I’m sure back then we both had no idea how valuable a lesson that was going to become. The political side of PupAid campaigning feels a bit like one gigantic chess game and our opponents need to be clear – as three times school chess champion back in the day – I relish this kind of challenge.
KI: What has campaigning at that level taught you?
Marc: That securing change and welfare reform is a slow process and you have to commit to the long game. Nothing happens overnight. You have to be prepared to build and invest in many relationships across the political spectrum, be patient but persistent. Never give up.
Sadly it has also taught me that not everyone working in animal welfare is in it for the right reasons. There appear to be many vested interests and even hidden agendas. But those don’t play well with the dog loving public, and with the current level of transparency on social media people are not stupid, they know a vested interest when they see one; which is why I believe, with PupAid’s only interest being the welfare of the dogs, we are able to garner so much incredible support from such a broad base of dog lovers.
Happily it has also taught me that there are many real animal-lovers among our body of MPs, from all parties. Meeting them and working alongside so many of them is a real privilege.
KI: The word “stakeholder” grates on us a little, I think you’d agree – but what are your observations about the organisations working in dog welfare today?
Marc: I didn’t even know what a ‘stakeholder’ was until I started campaigning. My fear is that the true meaning of animal welfare is getting lost. Larger welfare organisations with their strategic plans, annual reports, fundraising budgets, trustee meetings, and so many other corporate deals and obligations, seem to encounter pressures that appear to displace their animal welfare agendas. Many have long histories in the field, often hundreds of years, but dog welfare problems still remain, and if anything are getting worse. I think we really need to reflect on this and ask where does true animal welfare fit in all this? Is it truly at the forefront of the sector as the message to their supporters suggests, or has it been allowed to give way to other less welfare minded priorities?
I’m fortunate to work with many ethical small to mid-size charitable organisations and campaigners that seem much more agile allowing them to really recognise, focus, and most importantly act on the key issues. They may be smaller than the big guys, with much smaller budgets to work with, but their specialist knowledge on key issues, evidence-based contributions, compassion, and ethics are often considerable. Going back to being a geeky science vet, it also troubles me that many of the big welfare organisations don’t appear to display track records in science, certainly not animal welfare science. A lot of their campaigns seem to be based on assumptions rather than scientific evidence, and frustratingly on occasions when they’ve received clear animal welfare science messages their policies don’t always reflect it – some even appearing to blatantly ignore them.
From some of my experiences whilst campaigning I fear there is too much ego and vested interests in dog welfare at the moment from certain organisations that the government listen to, and not enough scientific evidence prevailing; and I really hope we see these attitudes change soon. The sooner they come on board the right side of history the better for everyone – especially the dogs.
KI: Pup-aid 2016 is upon us. How is the preparation for that going?
Marc: We try and keep it simple, and we keep it free. It is now a much anticipated fixture in many a dog lovers’ diary, including many celebrities who care passionately about animal welfare. The format remains the same:
- Fun dog show classes
- Celebrity Judges
- Doggy displays e.g. Hearing Dogs
- Boutique doggy shopping village
- Parade of rescued puppy farm breeding dogs
We have fantastic contributions from many valued partners such as Barking Heads dog food and Pettura dog supplements, our two main sponsors. We are grateful for the contributions of all the brands that help us. Whilst people are enjoying it all, including the live acoustic music and healthy vegan food specialities, they are reminded about the importance of getting your dog from an ethical, welfare focused source; either direct from the breeder where you can see mum interacting with pup, or preferably adopting from a rescue.
KI: How can people get involved with the event and with your campaign?
Marc: All are welcome to come along to PupAid at Primrose Hill this Saturday 3rd September. But if you cannot make the event itself please use social media to share the key messages, share #wheresmum and #adopt.
I always recommend anyone looking for a dog chooses a rescue pooch first and foremost if they can. There are so many wonderful dogs, including puppies, available through good rescues; most already microchipped, neutered, treated for fleas and worms, even house-trained. To be honest why would any dog-lover ever buy an expensive pedigree or designer pup when you can save the life of a rescue pet instead?
However, there are circumstances where rescuing isn’t appropriate so I ask people if they’re considering getting a puppy, that they must, must, must ensure they observe their puppy interacting with its mum in the place he or she was born.
It’s also important to contact your local MP and tell them that a ban on third party sales (e.g. pet shops, garden centres, private dwellings posing as breeders) of puppies would prove one of the most effective first steps we could take as a society to reform welfare. There is absolutely no justification to continue allowing puppies and kittens to be sold through third party dealers and pet shops. No justification whatsoever. Even the government’s own website advises prospective dog buyers to “Always see the puppy with its mother” and “Always, if possible, see the puppy in its natural environment”, yet its legislation appears to allow, even encourage the opposite.
KI: Looking ahead to say, the next five years for dogs – what is you biggest wish for them?
Marc: That dogs finally get the respect, the understanding and the care they deserve, but most importantly from the organisations and individuals that claim to care about them, and that they become genuinely concerned about making a difference rather than making a profit. Those egos are put to one side and animal welfare science is brought to the fore. That we are able to work together, to continue educating the public with simple messaging about the horrors of puppy farming and the 3rd party sellers that fuel it, as well as implementing the significant legislative changes around them that will secure their highest welfare. That we all work together to prioritise dog welfare so every dog entering society is a well-adjusted, healthy, happy member of the family. Historically, and for a multitude of reasons, this has proven to be so difficult. PupAid is aiming to help change all that.
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