Derek Wilkins chats to us about his work as an RSPCA Inspector
Derek Wilkins chats to us about his 37 years as an RSPCA Inspector . . .
SINCE 1824, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been at the forefront of the fight for animal welfare, both for domestic and agricultural animals.
With a focus originally on working animals, they’ve since had to adapt to everything from working on the front lines in the World Wars to the rise after the Fifties of the number of animals travelling through airports.
Inspector Derek Wilkins has been with the charity for 37 years and has seen a massive shift in the the charity’s work in his time, and big changes in the way the job is done – although it wasn’t his first choice of career . . .
“It suddenly dawned on me at about sixteen that if I wanted to get anywhere in life I’d have to pull my finger out, so I went to college.
“At that time the safest job around was a bank or building society, so when I passed my exams I went straight into the first one I came across.
“I asked for a job and got it, but I always wanted to be doing something where you’re not making money for someone else.
“It might surprise you, but I’m not an out-and-out animal lover – I like animals, and just believe that every creature deserves respect and the right to a good life.”
So Derek moved from his desk job to the challenging work of the Society.
“Sometimes I think if you’re a real animal lover, some of the things you see in this job would bring you down.”
Derek’s early training involved how to put animals down kindly. Sadly, that was a big part of their jobs for a long time.
“In the 1970s the training was really hard. The legal side and the paperwork side I coped with really well because I was only a few years out of college.”
“It was old-fashioned in those days. When you trained you went to college and were expected to live with your tutor inspector. Training then was two lots of six weeks, so you would spend six weeks with a strange family.
“I was lucky. I had a lady who went on to become a superintendent, and I made a lifelong friend. She got me into a habit that I still have to this day – when she cooked dinner she gave me a glass of lemon squash, so every day since then I have my dinner with a glass of lemon squash.
“I have a lot of good memories from then, and I’m now a tutor inspector and have trained about forty-five student inspectors in my career.”
In many ways, Derek gives the impression that the RSPCA has much in common with other emergency services. It’s hard to leave your work at the front door when you’re home.
“To a certain degree the RSPCA took over my life! You sometimes go home and think, ‘Did I do that properly?’ about jobs during the day.
“To help with this I took up running in the last six years and I do a lot of marathons.”
The work was taking a toll on Derek, and he wasn’t at his healthiest. His wife booked him in to do the London Marathon, and Derek decided to turn things around with that as a goal.
“I still wonder how I managed to go from where I was to doing the London marathon. After that I joined a running club and that is what changed my life.”
Derek’s running isn’t the only thing that keeps him going – his wife is an animal lover, too.
They met through the RSPCA, and he thinks it’s important to have someone at home who understands the job.
Derek’s wife was in India when he spoke to us, working with local charity Tree of Life for Animals, who help working animals and sterilise and care for street dogs.
Travel isn’t a strange concept for Derek, either –
in the early days of his career he was moved every five years. The idea was to expose inspectors to the differing challenges of their work in the country and the city.
“They sent me to Darlington, north Devon, then I ended up in southeast London. They wanted you to experience some nice areas and some rougher areas.
“I found that difficult, but they then changed that in the 1980s – purely due to costs. It must have been expensive moving everyone around all the time!”
In the country they were able to help more animals at once, as they visited cattle markets and farms.
“Your number one priority as an RSPCA inspector to this day is farm animals. Although you can go to one house and deal with one dog, if you go to a cattle or livestock market you can be talking about six hundred sheep.”
Though those jobs can end up taking a lot of Derek’s time. One case with a farmer and his pigs meant that he never made it home for a Valentine’s Day meal. Not the first or last time that that happened!
“When I went to London and was covering areas such as Lewisham and Peckham it was more about individual people and their cases.
“I had a dog hit on the railway line and I managed to rescue it. The owner of that dog was never found and the bloke that reported it to us took it on.”
True to the old cliché, Derek’s most regular cases in the city were cats up trees or on roofs.
“I’d say I’ve rescued three to five hundred cats! In the old days I used to go up ladders with poles to get them down, but these days you call the Fire Brigade because you have to be health and safety conscious.
“Once a woman called to say a fox was caught in a washing line. When I got there I couldn’t see it – it turned out to be a woman’s wig washed and hung out on the line!”
Naturally, the job has changed over the years, but one of the biggest shifts came after the 2006 introduction of the Animal Welfare Act. Before that, the RSPCA had been working with legislation that dated back to 1911.
“It made a huge difference. The 1911 Protection of Animals Act was starting to get antiquated because you actually had to prove that the animal had suffered. I couldn’t action anything for an animal if it was in fair body condition, as the conditions it lived in weren’t really covered by the legislation.
“The legislation changed in 2006 for the needs of the animal.”
So now if Derek sees an animal in unsuitable conditions or unpleasant surroundings, he’s able to intervene.
Do these changes and the general better awareness amongst people about animal welfare lead him to feel optimistic about the future?
“When I joined the job there were lots of dogs outside and emaciated – starved dogs were fairly normal. You’d get two a month. Those days are gone. I hardly ever get a starved dog.
“Now it is normally people who can’t afford veterinary treatment, so I would say that with fewer puppies and kittens being born, there has been a vast improvement with animal welfare. The standard of knowledge and care amongst the general public is so much better.
“The thing that I always had a go at was the big pet shops. They used to sell tiny hutches and, prior to the Animal Welfare Act, I used to go in there and try to persuade the managers not to sell the tiny hutches and only sell the big hutches.
“One manager switched to only selling bigger hutches and wouldn’t stock small ones any more.
“The RSPCA is not about prosecuting people, it’s about educating people and making sure animals get a good deal.” n
Animals large and small need the Society’s help.
Rescuing sheep during heavy floods.
Derek’s got no regrets about his career choice.
The RSPCA rehomes nearly 50,000 animals a year.