Scared to death: Why we're campaigning for change

Scared to death: Why we're campaigning for change

A guest blog by Carrie Stones, our Campaign Manager (Behaviour Change).

For over 20 years the RSPCA has campaigned to make fireworks less frightening for animals. We know that many people enjoy the spectacle of lights and colours that fireworks create, and we aren't trying to spoil anyone's fun. We appreciate that they mark celebrations and are a great part of our history, enjoyed by so many.

We simply want to ensure the general public take a safer and more considerate approach to fireworks. We also want to work with English and Welsh councils to help to instil a change at a local level.

The nostalgia many people feel about fireworks displays is undeniable. I have fond memories of being six years old, tucking my jeans into my Wellington boots, in preparation for the muddy November nights.

My mum would wrap my sister and me up warm and ready to head off into the night to watch a display. It was one of the highlights of our year, but little did I know then the wider implications of the night's events at that time.

People with PTSD, as well as pets, farm animals and wildlife are at risk

As children, we were usually educated on the human dangers of fireworks. Most of us remember the advert which showed a young girl picking up her spent sparkler or the young boy who held a lit firework in his hand, often ending in disaster.

These campaigns often showed in schools, and often got the job done as they shocked kids rigid and made them alert to the perilous nature of fireworks. Even many years on, the scenes from years before have stuck with me when I've attended organised displays with my family.

Now, put aside for a moment the "oohs", "aaahs" and jaw-dropping booms and bangs, there is also a darker side of fireworks, those I witnessed as a child through awareness-raising campaigns and what I see now as an adult working with the RSPCA.

Somewhere along the line, it has become clear that fireworks are not just for fun and entertainment. Sadly, they can create problems for people with long term conditions such as PTSD and can be used to frighten, hurt and maim people and animals.

Some firework incidents sadly aren't an accident

We're always shocked that misuse of fireworks is sometimes intentional, as our staff and animals at the Harmsworth animal hospital found out when fireworks were hurled near to their building by gangs, frightening the animals in their care.

There was also a horrible incident for the owners of a horse whose ear and hearing was severely damaged due to a firework being placed within it, in a devastating act, deliberate in nature.

Then there are the unintentional consequences, like the zebra at Noah's Ark Farm Park who died last year after being 'spooked' by neighbouring fireworks. We estimate that hundreds of domesticated animals are cowering in their beds and shaking uncontrollably as fireworks are set off in surrounding neighbourhoods.

Sadly, the unpredictable nature of fireworks and the varied times of displays cause so much fear and distress for many pets, farm animals and wildlife. This is why we encourage a positive change that would limit the use of fireworks to celebratory dates, and times within them - to reduce the damage they do.

Meet the animals affected by firework displays

Eight-year-old rescue Staffie Harley spends hours hiding and trembling during fireworks season. His owner, Claire McParland, from Worthing in West Sussex, said:

My husband and I adopted Harley when he was just 15 months old. He's always been a nervous little dog and is very noise sensitive but this worsened when my husband and, then, our other dog died.

We've been working with our vet and behaviourists to help Harley but fireworks continue to reduce him to a nervous wreck. He shakes like a leaf. This year is actually an improvement on how he's reacted in previous years thankfully but it's so upsetting to see him in such a state even for one evening.

But this isn't just for one night, it goes on for days as people around us set off fireworks at different times on different days.

Harley is not alone in his struggles. During fireworks season there are high levels of fear in animals and frustration for owners just wanting the bangs to stop and their animals to revert to their normal behaviours and be calm and happy once again.

45% of dogs show signs of fear when they hear fireworks

When watching firework displays, it's saddening that just 49% of UK adults say they think about the impact they can have on pets, horses and other animals in the surrounding area. And whilst there is more awareness, it's time we all began to think more broadly about how our actions impact others.

Studies have found fireworks to be the most common cause for fear responses in dogs, and it is estimated that 45% of dogs show signs of fear when they hear fireworks.

We must also consider that fireworks noise doesn't only affect people and domesticated animals, but it also has effects on wildlife, livestock and equines. Consider this, it's more alarming still that only two in five UK adults say they are confident that they could care for a pet, horse or another animal that was distressed due to fireworks.

It's difficult to imagine being an owner of a horse, so frightened that they are darting and bolting around their paddocks as they potentially cause themselves injury. There is undeniable stress for an owner doing their best to keep their pet calm, trying to reverse the damage of this fear response. The combination of fear, loss of control and having to keep a safe distance from their pet, is incredibly difficult for owners.

The sad truth about how fireworks can affect horses

In New Zealand, running was the most frequent response to fireworks reported, and 35% of respondents reported horses breaking through fences. 26% of respondents reported their horses had received injuries due to fireworks, ranging from lacerations, strains and sprains to most serious of all, broken limbs (7%), an injury which most usually results in euthanasia.

These are just some of the experiences found through our research, as well as from members of the public and the organisations caring for animals who write to us every year asking for change.

Our #BangOutOfOrder campaign

Our statistical information is the result of primary and secondary research we've undertaken to inform our campaign work and to provide evidence to government departments to encourage change. And a change is what we and several other charities and independent groups across the UK are trying to achieve. 

Over the last four years, we've received 1,543 calls about fireworks affecting animals. That's why, in 2019, we launched our #BangOutOfOrder campaign calling for:

  1. Raised awareness about the impact of fireworks on animals to the public to encourage them to be more considerate of pets, horses and livestock as well as local wildlife.
  2. The sale of fireworks for Bonfire night should be limited from 29th October to 5th November. In addition, we believe that there should be restrictions introduced limiting the days that fireworks can be let off thereby restricting the period (similar to what is proposed in Scotland).
  3. The maximum permitted noise level of fireworks for public sale reduced from 120 dB to 90 dB and the introduction of a labelling system identifying the noise level of fireworks (e.g. 'loud' or 'low noise') to allow consumers to make an informed decision. 
  4. All public firework displays licensed by the relevant licensing authority, with information about the proposed display provided in the local area several weeks in advance (allowing mitigating measures to be put in place) and a process for local residents to appeal against the granting of the licence. This process should also apply to people seeking to hold private displays at special events (such as weddings).

25 out of 175 councils have listened - thank you for caring

With our #BangOutOfOrder campaign, we aim to provide information and advice to the public, work in partnership with government departments and begin to bridge the gaps between legislation and usage. To date, we have had some success with 25 out of 175 unitary councils leading the way by listening, hearing and adopting our motion for change. And it is these councils which we must recognise and most importantly thank for their actions. To those councils, thank you for listening and for being the positive change that our animals need.

Positive developments in Scotland 2021

In England and Wales there remains a steep hill to climb, but, we are encouraged to see the recent developments in Scotland.

On 15th January 2021, the Scottish Government published its business and regulatory impact assessment (BRIA) on the safe and considerate use of fireworks. Following a public consultation in February 2019 and the publication of a Fireworks Action Plan in October 2019, the Scottish Government has decided to bring forward non-legislative actions as well as secondary legislation, to allow legislative change to be in place for some recommendations for bonfire season 2021.

These recommendations will amend:

  1. The times of day that fireworks can be sold.
  2. The volume of fireworks that can be sold.
  3. The time of day that fireworks can be set off.

Scottish SPCA head of education, policy and research, Gilly Mendes Ferreira, said:

Tightening the times that fireworks can be used will allow owners to prepare and put safeguarding measures in place to protect their animals against the negative effects of fireworks. These changes are a great step forward in tackling the impact that private displays, in particular, can have on pets, farm animals and wildlife.

The next steps for our #BangOutOfOrder campaigning

It's clear that more research on the impact of firework noise is required on all species, including wild animals, horses and pet animals. However, there is sufficient evidence to support the view that fireworks have a negative impact on animals and that legislative steps should be taken to reduce this impact.

While our campaign has continued success, we have more work to do. We will continue to campaign across England and Wales for changes that mitigate the risks of fireworks to animals and vulnerable people. Educating the public and advising pet owners is also at the top of our agenda, as we continue to increase awareness across both nations.

If you want to do something to help immediately, you can take the action to make fireworks less frightening for animals. As always we count on your support.

As always we count on your support and will be relaunching our new #BangOutOfOrder campaign on the 15th of October this year.

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