The chief executive of the UK’s largest cat protection charity has stepped down after a row over the welfare of 18 cats being kept in his colleague’s three-bedroom house.
Concerned about cat welfare and the charity’s reputation, Charles Darley, 59, said Cats Protection should not support the chair of trustees, Linda Upson, in keeping the pets on welfare grounds.
“To have a chair that apparently isn’t adhering to best practice is very damaging to the charity, and disastrous for staff morale,” Darley told the Guardian. “Defra guidelines say cats should be given sufficient space to hide from other cats and from people. Every cat should have its own food bowl, its own water bowl, its own scratching post … to think you can get 18 of those in one house would be stretching credibility.”
He added: “I’ve spoken to five other charity chief executives, and they also said they couldn’t defend this number of cats in that house.”
Upson, a GP practice manager, lives in Essex with a “large family of cats, all of whom have been adopted from Cats Protection”, according to the charity’s website.
Darley ordered the board to investigate whether Upson was breaching the Animal Welfare Act, which says cats must be able “to exhibit normal behaviour patterns and be housed with, or apart from, other animals”. He suggested a behavioural scientist should inspect her home to identify signs of stress in her pets.
He said the case was only partially investigated by a subcommittee led by the Cats Protection vice-chair, Angela Swarbrick, and that they instead sought promises that Upson would not take in any more cats.
“The most senior trustees must set the right example … No leader deserves to be followed if they are advocating one set of standards and living by another,” Darley wrote on social media.
Upson has been approached for comment.
Darley, who joined Cats Protection in October, said trustees were not properly briefed on animal welfare guidelines. He said two audit firms shared his view that the charity should have a code of conduct for trustees and an animal welfare audit of cat fosterers, which he said the “board has blocked for several years”.
“I have never in my career, working for 14 different charities, found trustees unwilling to sign up to a code of conduct,” Darley said.
After failing to get the company’s backing for a new code of conduct, including welfare standards, he concluded he could not change the culture and stepped down.
“My view is that if trustees’ duties in supporting the charity’s objectives ever conflict with their own private position, they should always put the charity first,” he said.
Upson, who joined the company as a regional coordinator 30 years ago, wrote in a company report: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that our feline friends are more important to us than ever, providing much-needed company and light relief in a time of great anxiety.
“Thanks to our wonderful supporters, volunteers and employees we can continue to be there for them too, ensuring that thousands of cats and kittens have a better life now and in the years ahead.”
The group’s 10,000 volunteers and 1,000 employees help care for about 126,000 cats and kittens, and the charity receives £75m in donations each year.
Darley said his predecessor, James Yeates, had also unsuccessfully raised the need for a code of conduct.
A Cats Protection spokesperson said: “Cats Protection’s top priorities are the welfare of all cats, and the wellbeing of our 11,000 volunteers and staff, who work tirelessly to help cats in need.
“In the case of our chair of trustees, herself a volunteer fosterer, we found the six foster cats in her care were kept in a separate, clean and well-kept area of her house, away from her pet cats. All were happy, healthy and had sufficient resources for them to express their natural behaviour, such as separate food and water bowls, scratching posts, hiding places and so on. Such conditions are in line with Cats Protection’s guidance and therefore there are no welfare issues of concern.”