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30 March 2023

Wildcat conservation organisation brings complaint against North Wales Police for seizing animal in rehabilitation

6 mins

Wildcat Haven have launched a complaint against North Wales Police for events surrounding the seizure of an animal called Finlay, who they took in as a suspected wildcat for rehabilitation and eventual release into the wild.

Wildcat Haven is a non-profit organisation centred around protecting the Scottish wildcat in the wild. The complaint is being brought by one of the organisation’s Directors, who was present when Finlay was taken.

Wildcat Haven are alleging numerous acts of misconduct against officers from North Wales Police, including:

  1. They unlawfully seized Finlay from his naturalistic rehabilitation enclosure on 14 February 2022, which unnecessarily damaged his rehabilitation for release back into the wild.
  2. They failed to secure adequate care for Finlay once he was seized.
  3. They failed to instruct a suitably qualified expert to assess whether Finlay was a wildcat.

Finlay came into Wildcat Haven’s care after being found as a three-week-old kitten in the Scottish Highlands. He was dehydrated, soaking wet and close to death. Wildcat Haven suspected he may be a Scottish wildcat and so, after a period of intensive care, they moved Finlay to a purpose-built naturalistic enclosure on a farm in North Wales to rehabilitate him for release back into the wild.

Finlay was on course to be released in the spring of 2022. However, plans were derailed when on 14 February 2022, officers from North Wales Police turned up at the farm where Finlay’s enclosure was based and seized him, claiming he was being held without a license. Wildcat Haven contend that in law no license was required for them to rehabilitate a disabled/orphaned wild animal for release back into the wild. In doing so, they say the police interrupted months of hard work rehabilitating Finlay and disrupted plans to release him back into the wild.

Whilst Finlay was in captivity, North Wales Police had his wildcat status assessed. They obtained a report that concluded Finlay was not a wildcat, but was a domestic tabby cat which may have a low proportion of wildcat genes. In their complaint, Wildcat Haven have called into question the experience and expertise of the author of this report, whose identity has been withheld by the police. They point to the coat marking system used to identify wildcats, whereby seven diagnostic coat markings are scored out of three, giving a maximum score of 21 for a completely pure wildcat. They say this system was misapplied by the report’s author as follows:

  1. The ‘pelage’ score given to Finlay by the police’s expert (14 out of 21) should have been sufficient to consider Finlay as a Scottish wildcat according to the scientific literature.
  2. The pelage scoring system is reflective of the purity of wildcat genes and so even on the expert’s score, two out of three of Finlay’s genes were wildcat.
  3. The pelage score of 14 out of 21 given does not match the photographs of Finlay in the report, which show Finlay with clear head stripes and a completely blunt tail (both of which the report questions and down scores Finlay on).
  4. The assessor says they could not clearly see three out of seven of the identification characteristics during their assessment, and they concede that their findings are tentative. This should have led the assessor to apply the precautionary principle which underpins environmental legislation, rather than just scoring Finlay down on this criteria. Wildcat Haven say that with a score of 14, this should have led to Finlay being treated as a wildcat in the clear absence of any evidence to the contrary.   

Finlay was not returned to Wildcat Haven until 28 June 2022, who now allege he was neglected and mistreated during his four and a half months in police arranged care. They say he was in a very poor state when returned by the police and it has taken over six months of careful care to bring him back to good health.

Despite claims by Police Crime Commissioner Andy Dunbobbin to their supporters that ‘all standards of care were adhered to, with regular monitoring taking place throughout Finlay’s stay at the facility’, Wildcat Haven claim Finlay’s records show he received no vet visits for a period of three months during which time he developed gastrointestinal issues. Wildcat Haven say this constitutes a breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Finally, Wildcat Haven allege that the police have made several false or misleading claims in their public communications around this incident, relating to the standard of Finlay’s care and his wildcat status.

The above matters are now the subject of a formal complaint by Wildcat Haven, represented by Bindmans LLP. A full investigation is underway by an officer from the force’s Professional Standards department, which Wildcat Haven hope will hold the officers involved to full account.

Emily O’Donoghue, Director of Wildcat Haven said:

Finlay was wrongly seized as no license is required for the rehabilitation and release of a Scottish Wildcat. He was kept in police custody in a quarantine cage for four and a half months. He received no vet visits or treatment for three months and became ill. He was returned to us in an emaciated state and has required six months of intensive care to bring him back to health. The police returned him because they said he was a domestic tabby cat even though an assessment of him arranged by the police gave him a score which should have identified him as a Scottish wildcat according to the Scientific literature.

The police handling of this issue has caused Finlay to suffer unnecessarily. This has seriously damaged and delayed his release back into the wild where he rightfully belongs. We will continue to fight for his freedom.

Joseph Morgan, the solicitor at Bindmans representing Wildcat Haven, said:

North Wales Police acted excessively in seizing Finlay from Wildcat Haven’s care and holding onto him for over four months. In doing so, they undermined months of hard work that went into rehabilitating Finlay for release into the wild, meaning that Wildcat Haven has had to start from square one in their journey to see Finlay in the wild again. I hope that their complaint is rigorously and impartially investigated, and that it leads to lessons being learned by North Wales Police. 

Wildcat Haven are represented by solicitor Joseph Morgan of Bindmans LLP. A pictorial and video timeline of Finlay pre and post seizure by the police can be viewed below.

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