Colin Shaw 11/10/01 Trial finished July 2003

With reference to raid by the R.S.P.C.A., the police and Peter Heathcote of the Reptile Trust on premises run by Colin Shaw of 38, Market Crescent Wingate, Co. Durham.

At 09.30 on the morning of 11.10.01 at police officer, an R.S.P.C.A. inspector and a veterinary surgeon knocked on the door of my home address (as above). The police officer explained that he was there for note-taking, as back-up for the R.S.P.C.A. inspector and to ensure that no breach of the peace occurred. The uniformed R.S.P.C.A. formally cautioned me using what I understand to be the standard police phraseology i.e. “anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence”. I cannot remember the exact wording but it certainly sounded like the police caution one hears on television programmes and in the media. I would say it was designed to worry me and make me feel intimidated, which it certainly did.

I was asked if I had any animals in the house and I replied only my dogs. They asked if they could enter my home to make sure this was the case and, believing myself to be under police caution and anxious to comply with the law, allowed them entry. The R.S.P.C.A. officer asked if he could look round the house to make sure there were no reptiles present and searched all the rooms. His attitude was very intimidating and threatening and I felt confused, shocked and very worried about the situation. I could not comprehend what was happening and why it was happening to me. The R.S.P.C.A. inspector said they had received a complaint and that they wanted to see my reptile collection, which they knew was housed at different premises.

In fact the reptile collection is housed at a secure location at a farm about five minutes from my home address. The collection is run in collaboration with Mr George Bryson, a respected herpetologist of many years standing who is now, unfortunately, forced to play a lesser role due to ill-health. The police car and R.S.P.C.A. van set off for the farm and I followed in my car.

When we arrived I was absolutely shocked and amazed to find that many cars were already outside the premises and police and R.S.P.C.A. officers were swarming around the building. This was truly overwhelming and I could not understand what was going on. Two of the many people present were a vet. and an R.S.P.C.A. Chief Inspector. The asked if they could look around and I agreed. As far as I knew, I was still under caution and I had no idea what my rights were. I didn’t think I had anything to hide and, under the circumstances, thought it best to co-operate in any way I could. Whilst this preliminary inspection was taking place R.S.P.C.A. Inspector Kane took me aside, saying “This is what you get when you don’t play ball with us”.

At this point I feel that I should point out that I have had contact with Inspector Kane before; the circumstances being as follows. Just before last Christmas Mr Peter Heathcote of the Reptile Trust asked if he could bring some of his staff and a Portuguese contact of his to have a look round. I naturally agreed. I regarded Mr Heathcote as a friend and he had regularly used my premises for his media stunts, as his own shop was not suitable for filming large animals such as crocodilians. He has always been quite happy about the condition of the animals and their enclosures and has never voiced any concerns.

During the course of the visit he expressed an interest in some of the animals, in particular the Nile crocodile, which the Portuguese gentleman apparently wanted for his breeding programme, and indicated that he would also like the alligator. Mr Heathcote, the Portuguese gentleman and Mr Bryson, who owns the land the property stands on, discussed transferring some of the animals to Portugal, but Mr Bryson and myself were unwilling. I knew that Mr Heathcote had a history of being involved with animal seizures but did not regard him as a threat to myself, as I had been the recipient of such animals from him in the past. I also knew that the Portuguese gentleman had been involved in receiving animals seized from other collections. During the course of the discussion Mr Bryson did say that I was the main person running the collection, as his increasing ill-health had, reluctantly, forced him into semi-retirement. Most people knew Mr Bryson as the owner of the collection and would have been unaware of my home address.

Not long after this visit, two R.S.P.C.A. inspectors visited by home address with regard to the reptile collection, saying they had received a complaint. As the collection was widely perceived to be owned by Mr Bryson, I feel that they must have been briefed by Mr Heathcote and I started to feel the first seeds of concern. The two officers were named Kane and Petty. They inspected the premises and made some verbal recommendations of improvements I could make. One was that my rodents were too crowded and I immediately rectified this situation. I asked them to put any welfare concerns in writing but they would not do this. I noticed that they were paying particular attention to the animals which I had refused to let go to Mr Heathcote’s contact and I started to feel like they were looking round with a shopping list. The R.S.P.C.A. then went to my local authority to question the validity of my DWA Act licence on the grounds of security.

At around the same period my licence renewal was due and the local authority inspection was scheduled. A vet., police officer, fire brigade representative, the environmental health department and health and safety were all present at the inspection and no problems were found. The licence was re-issued without a problem.

I spoke to the police officer and voiced my concerns about the R.S.P.C.A. visit. He said that the premises had now been inspected by a qualified vet. and further R.S.P.C.A. involvement would not be necessary. I also expressed my own worries that there may be ulterior motives behind the original visit.

Back to the events of 11 October, after Inspector Kane had taken me aside I tried to determine what was happening but the sheer weight of numbers of people were becoming overwhelming. I was very concerned that I was being prevented from my normal routine of livestock maintenance. I normally arrive at about 9.30 and, after turning the lights on and performing a routine inspection, my first job is to fuel the boilers so that I can achieve a suitable daytime temperature, which is, at maximum ninety degrees Fahrenheit. During the night I allow the temperature to drop to eighty degrees, the coolest point being reached in the morning.

Somebody requested that a reticulated python was removed for closer inspection and said they wanted to send for an expert handler – Mr Heathcote. I now felt I was about to be stitched up and I said I did not want him on my premises. I was quite adamant in this; I offered my services, and I would have accepted anyone else, but they insisted on sending for Mr Heathcote in spite of my entreaties. At this stage I knew I was in real trouble and I requested the presence of my own vet. She was unable to come straight away and they were not prepared to wait. Mr Heathcote duly arrived the seizures began.

One or two animals were removed for inspection. The vet commented that one snake had retained slough, but in fact the animal was just about to enter a slough. It was decided that the animal would be removed anyway. Nothing I said was heeded; I could not control the situation; I was overwhelmed, worried, shocked and greatly outnumbered. I also felt threatened and intimidated. I was not allowed to handle my animals or to have any input into events.

At this point Mrs Bryson, the wife of the site-owner arrived and was duly cautioned by an R.S.P.C.A. officer. To say she was shocked and deeply distressed would be a gross understatement. She is a law-abiding citizen and the wife of a registered disabled person and to be treated in this cavalier manner was most upsetting. One of the guys who helps me with the animals, Glen, arrived next (approximately 10.30am). He was allowed to enter the premises but when he opened his mouth to ask what was going on, he was also cautioned. None of us knew what power these officers had – we all genuinely believe that we were about to be arrested. Another helper, Paul, turned up at about 11.30am.

At this point it was decided to remove all the animals from the bottom room (the premises being on two levels). It was explained that they (Heathcote, the vet. and the R.S.P.C.A.) were not happy with the environment, one of the main concerns being the temperature. I tried to explain that I have a day/night differential and that I had not been able to switch to day-time mode due to the fact that I had been under severe pressure with all that had been going on that day. I had told them at the time that they were disrupting my routine and I once again made it clear that I had been prevented from my normal animal maintenance due to excessive interference by the large number of unauthorised persons present in the facility. They ignored me and I was forced to stand powerless whilst the bottom section was stripped of livestock. The R.S.P.C.A. inspector was heard to comment to Mr Heathcote “If you want to take the lot, take the lot”. Myself and Glen both heard him say this. I requested that if the animal had to be removed I would prefer to handle them myself, but my request was denied. I care a great deal for the animals under my care and I felt it would have been better for them to have been handled by someone who was familiar with them.

The party then went upstairs and removed some animals, including an alligator, from the cages. This animal had been growing fast and I had just completed a new enclosure which the animal would have been moved in on that day if I had not been tied up with all the problems caused by the raid. All I had to do was fill the pool and bring it up to temperature. I kept trying to tell them all this but I was ignored. The enclosure the animal was housed in was quite adequate for its current needs and it was to be re-housed with a view to its future requirements. I prefer to err on the side of caution and move animals to larger enclosures before the old ones are outgrown.

Removal of the animals took nearly all day and I felt totally excluded from events. By six o’clock all those present were feeling the heat, and I requested that they re-take the temperatures in the cages as this seemed to be one of the major concerns. This request was refused. They then seized my feeding records.

Their attention then turned to the few remaining animals, including four spectacled caiman. They decided to remove these also as the vet. wanted to examine them in a more suitable place. There was no indication that there was anything wrong with the animals. The enclosure these animals were housed in, like the majority of the cages, had previously been passed by the DWA Act inspection.

By the time they had finished it was 6.30 in the evening and I had been on my feet all day, unlike the police officers who had undergone a shift change. Those involved had been for a lunch break and been relieved by other colleagues; I had been all day with nothing to eat.

The R.S.P.C.A. Chief Inspector gave me a list of the people that had attended and the vet. gave me a handwritten list of the animals removed. I had asked for a detailed list of animals removed and the reasons for their removal. I did not get this. The documents I received were neither signed nor dated.

The R.S.P.C.A. chief inspector provisionally arranged for an interview at Porterlee Police Station. As this was to be recorded, it was advised that I seek legal advice. Throughout the whole day I felt that I had no chance to defend myself, nobody would listen to anything I had to say and I was made to feel like a criminal. I cannot understand why such an overwhelmingly large number of officers, both police and R.S.P.C.A., were needed – I can only assume that it was to intimidate me and this certainly succeeded. 

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