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Facts and passion - not emotion - support animal welfare
03 July 2014
For Dr Bidda Jones (above), it all began with monkeys.
Truth be known, what this animal-welfare Chief Scientist and one of our Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence from 2013 would actually say about her 21-year RSPCA career and leadership journey, is that its beginnings were “serendipitous” and more to do with “primates”.
“I was doing my PhD, working with laboratory primates, studying the behaviour of marmosets and recording their vocalisations,” explains Bidda.
“Suddenly, I was immersed in this world of laboratory animals - experiencing primates in captivity in a way I hadn’t before - and I became heavily involved in the welfare issues that surrounded this,” says Bidda.
“My work with the primates wasn’t invasive. However, I was working alongside people whose work in the laboratories on the animals was [invasive],” she continues.
“The more I saw the more concerned I became because I quickly realised these people didn’t know anything about the biology of the primates with which they were working. They were just using them as models for humans.
“My first thought was I could carry on doing research, and then work within that to make a difference to animal welfare,” she admits.
That was until she spied a job for a ‘specialist in laboratory primate welfare’ with the UK RSPCA.
Bidda was the successful applicant from 300 candidates, and in the first 18 months of the job achieved a major coup through her work.
“At the time companies were taking primates from the wild and bringing them into laboratories in the UK. Nothing was known about the animals’ disease history and in the end this was one of the big reasons why we were able to get a ban in the UK on the import of wild primates into captivity for research.
“Animal welfare itself often isn’t enough to achieve an outcome. Some of the best outcomes for animal welfare are achieved through other means because they have greater leverage. The ban was one of the easiest wins I’ve ever had,” explains Bidda, who worked in the UK for three years until she “fell in love with an Australian”, and moved here.
Woman of Influence leads live export ban
Working at RSPCA Australia, one of the long running campaigns into which Bidda has poured much of her energy is to end live exports in favour of a meat-only trade.
“I certainly couldn’t say our campaign against live exports has been effective in reducing the numbers of animals exported live from Australia, but it has raised awareness about the cruelty issues associated with the trade and it’s made sure the issue is on the national agenda. It’s a mainstream media issue rather than a fringe issue now.
“We’re also doing a lot of behind the scenes work putting pressure on industry and government to introduce and maintain standards. That can be a very difficult part of the job. Often the RSPCA is the only group around the table with its primary interest being animal welfare,” Bidda explains of the particular communication and negotiation issues she’s had to face in her career, which in her early days also included being young and often the only women.
Negotiation tips from a woman leader
The RSPCA is Australia’s oldest, largest animal welfare organisation. The animal welfare movement began in the UK in 1824 as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Many of the Society’s original members had been involved in the abolitionist - anti-slave trade - movement. With that sort of history, it’s easy to see why the RSPCA and the philosophies which underpin it inspire passionate, often emotional, debate and discussion.
“There’s this expectation,” says Bidda about her negotiations and communication with other organisations and government, “that you’re going to be emotional about animal cruelty and animal welfare issues. That’s not how I communicate, and I don’t think it’s necessary in the things I deal with because the facts actually speak for themselves.
“As a scientist you’re trained not to be emotional in your response to things. You’re trained to talk about things objectively and to rely on the facts. That strategy makes it difficult for people to dismiss the sorts of things you have to say.”
Very few people would have an issue around the prevention of cruelty to animals, and legislative requirements exist at state and territory level. The RSPCA goes further, believing there is a need to be “compassionate” in the way we treat and use animals.
The argument is that because an animal doesn’t communicate in the same manner we do, or may not be able to exercise the same sort of cognitive processing abilities we do, “that doesn’t mean that things don’t hurt them in the same way they hurt us”.
Prey animals, for example, says Bidda, don’t respond in an overt way when they are injured or treated badly. To assume from this observation that they can cope is a “really bad idea”, because internally, she says, they are responding, but “as a prey animal it’s just not in their interest to tell you that they are in trouble.”
In 2012-13 the RSPCA received 126,673 animals in its 39 animal shelters, across the country. A major proportion of these are dogs and cats, including puppies and kittens. Significant inroads have been made in reducing these numbers: adoption and reclaim rates nationally have been steadily climbing over the past few years. From these sorts of statistics and the information many of us have about the work of the RSPCA you’d be forgiven for thinking the welfare of companion animals is the RSPCA’s only area of work.
The organisation has a much broader mandate.
Nowadays, especially if you are the organisation people think of when they have a question, you would be missing a business opportunity if you did not compile and share your information and use your online presence to promote your campaigns, services, products. The RSPCA’s companion website, RSPCA Australian Knowledgebase, covering Q&As about animal welfare issues in general is one such move championed by Bidda.
The site has around 500 articles on it and in 2013, it had 2.6 million views, according to Bidda.
“We receive correspondence and calls all the time from people. Questions like: How do I toilet train my puppy, as well as quirky things like: I have a blue tongue lizard in my garden what should I do? Or, I have cane toads and I want to kill them but I don’t know how to do it humanely.
“We’ve spent (and spend) a lot of time responding to these, so why not have the answers easily accessible for everyone?
“The site,” Bidda continues, “allows this and also affords us an avenue to post articles explaining things like halal slaughter, or asking users what side they are on when it comes to kangaroo shooting, or pieces that support our campaigns, such as what can I do about stopping the use of caged hen eggs in food manufacturing.”
Careful task delegation, flat hierarchies, team work, mentoring both within and outside the organisation, high level strategy, research, policy and campaign development, communication and negotiation with industry and government, it’s all in a day’s work for this woman of influence.
It leaves you wondering; what would Bidda look like if she was her job?
“At various times within team-building days and seminars we’ve had to identify as an animal. In the past I’ve picked an octopus, but I’m not sure I want to be an octopus anymore having just read Rolf Harris described as one. Perhaps, I’ll be a marmoset from now on,” finishes Bidda.
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