Yesterday Harvey’s Law was debated in Parliament. For the uninitiated Harvey’s Law was a petition largely directed at the Highways Agency, compelling them to scan canine remains for microchips. The Transport Minister, John Hayes, announced that he has told the Highways Agency that he “expects” them to do all that is practical to identify pets killed on the road.
The campaign was started after a poodle named Harvey went missing. His owners spent £8,000 in their desperate bid to find him, including relentless leafleting and temporarily living in a caravan to live closer to the area they thought he could be in.
The following year, Harvey’s distraught owners received a Facebook message from a ‘highway patrol officer’ to say that Harvey had been struck down by a vehicle just 21 minutes after escaping.
The Highways Agency’s code of practice indicates that all canine remains should, where possible, be scanned for a microchip and that staff must have access to a microchip scanner and be trained in its use. This would indicate that employees of the Highways Agency should routinely scan remains, and with this in mind owners might think that they would at least be informed if their pet had been involved in a road traffic accident.
However, a Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that these measures were being ‘phased out’ in several areas and would have been entirely outmoded by this July. Given that mandatory microchipping is being brought in next year it seemed like a huge step backwards to suddenly abolish a policy such as this. It forces us to wonder why we bother microchipping our pets at all.
Pet owners get their pets chipped in the hope that it will never need to be scanned. I have six rescued rabbits and a dog, all of whom are microchipped. If it were up to me, they would never need to be used. But pets escape, they go missing and, increasingly, they are stolen. I would like to think that, were one of my animals to be lost or stolen, I would eventually have them returned to me courtesy of the microchip. I update my details on the database as necessary and get the chips checked whenever I visit the vet, just to make sure they are in full working order. So why shouldn’t they work when I need them to?
The problem isn’t helped by the fact that vets and rescue centres don’t always conduct a thorough check for a microchip. There have been numerous instances of bereft owners becoming locked in battles over ownership when their missing pet is rehomed to unwitting adopters, despite the pet being microchipped. These clashes can get incredibly messy, especially when the new owners refuse to surrender the pet.
In one case the owners of a Pomeranian, missing since 2011, were called by their microchip database asking for permission to change the microchip details to accommodate the new owners, who have adopted the dog from a rehoming centre. Because of the restrictions of the Data Protection Act, the database could not disclose the location of their dog, and the new owners have rejected any claims of prior ownership. The case is going to the small claims court, as the police have deemed it a ‘civil matter’. The whole sticky scenario could have been neatly avoided if the rescue centre had scanned the dog for a chip and contacted the owners.
Situations like this are horrible for pet owners to contemplate, from both sides.
Imagine your much-loved pet runs away from home. You launch a military-style operation to try and retrieve your furry family member to no avail. After a few months, or even a few years, you give up searching, but you never give up hope. Then, out of the blue, you get a call from your pet’s microchip database asking for your permission to change the details for your pet’s “new owners”. The mix of emotions would be a lot to handle. On the one hand you’d be overjoyed that your pet is alive and well, but on the other you’d be so concerned, upset and probably rather outraged that someone else has quite evidently scanned your pet’s microchip and still not chosen to return them to you.
Now, instead, imagine going to a rescue centre and immediately falling in love with an animal and bringing them home. They become a part of your family, and you come to a point where you can’t picture your life without this pet. Then, while responsibly attempting to update your new addition’s microchip details, you suddenly find yourself embroiled in a legal dispute with someone you’ve never met, claiming that they are the pet’s “real” owners and demanding the return of “their” pet. What would you do? Would you just hand your pet over?
Microchips have uses beyond the identification (and, hopefully, subsequent return) of lost pets. For instance Pets at Home sells rabbits implanted with microchips which state that, should the pet be abandoned or surrendered to a shelter, they should be returned to a store, where they will be cared for and rehomed.
On the occasions where they are utilised effectively this technology is brilliant, and I will continue to microchip any pet I ever own that can possibly be microchipped (and you’ll be amazed just how many different species can be). We can only hope that mandatory microchipping law will also be the advent of more stringent checks at all stages to help reduce pet theft, abandonment and “accidental adoption”.
But, back to Harvey’s Law. It was patently unacceptable to outmode a practice that takes minutes to perform and can prevent years of heartache, so it’s great that this has been prevented. I’d argue that you never fully stop grieving for the death of a pet, but not knowing is far harder to bear.