‘Secret agents’ for Scottish SPCA reveal animal horrors

“When we arrived at the rundown farm the first thing to hit us was the nauseating smell – the overpowering ammonia stench of urine.

A dog cowering after being found at a property. Picture: Scottish SCPA
A dog cowering after being found at a property. Picture: Scottish SCPA

“On entering the Portakabins we found rows and rows of bitches with puppies, locked up and abandoned, being kept in horrific conditions – more than 100 animals in total, cowering in barren pens and caked in their own waste.

“Outside we found burnt-out trucks used as crematoriums for incinerating dead dogs.

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“These animals were living in absolute misery. It was a hellish scene that remains with me today.”

Kirsteen Campbell, chief executive at Scottish SCPA. Picture: Peter Devlin

Such a grim scene is not entirely uncommon for the Scottish SPCA’s special investigations unit (SIU).

Working closely with the police, the team is tasked with bringing people who commit the worst animal welfare abuses to justice, with offences ranging from puppy farming, badger baiting and animal fighting, to illegal snaring and trapping, persecution of birds of prey and other wildlife crimes.

They use the latest techniques and cutting-edge forensic science to aid their investigations.

Officers work undercover and so cannot be identified. Hayley (not her real name), is deputy chief inspector with the SIU.

She was there that day in Fyvie, Aberdeenshire, and despite the horror of the situation also feels a huge sense of pride. The discovery led to the shutting down of what turned out to be the UK’s largest known puppy farm and a jail term for the owner – Frank James.

The rescued dogs were nursed back to health, rehabilitated, socialised with people and moved on to caring new homes.

Another successful but harrowing case she worked on involved a “whole new level of cruelty”.

It centred on a man who used Patterdale Terriers for badger baiting and fighting with foxes.

To train them to kill he used “free to good home” cats and kittens as live bait.

Officers found the dogs with parts of their noses bitten off and chunks of flesh missing around their jaws – injuries consistent with video evidence of fights was also recovered as well as interactions with sellers of cats, which helped put the perpetrator – Mark Cuthbert – behind bars.

Like all of the SIU team, Hayley has an investigative background, having previously worked with the police and in the armed forces.

Many investigations are sparked by tip-offs from members of the public, but the team also has to be ahead of developing trends. They are currently on high alert for a rise in cases linked to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lockdown has prompted a huge spike in the number of people looking to take on a pet. Many of the most sought-after designer dogs are going for as much as £3,000 or more.

It’s a lucrative market, and one that is attracting the darker elements of society – puppy farms in particular have links with organised crime gangs.

There has also been an increase in domestic cruelty to animals while the majority of people have been stuck at home.

Officers have been responding to more than 140 reports of animals in need each day throughout the pandemic.

Scottish SPCA chief executive Kirsteen Campbell (inset) said: “We are so proud of the work of our special investigations unit, who work undercover and on intelligence to expose the most serious crimes against animals and help bring those guilty to justice.”

To find out more about the charity’s important work or make a donation, visit www.scottishspca.org.

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