Claws out as animal charity chief quits in row over chairman’s 18 cats

·4-min read
Cats Protection found that the six foster cats in Linda Upson's care were in a separate, clean and well-kept area of her house away from her pet cats - Cats Protection
Cats Protection found that the six foster cats in Linda Upson's care were in a separate, clean and well-kept area of her house away from her pet cats - Cats Protection

The head of the UK's biggest cat charity has stepped down after an extraordinary welfare row with its chairman, whom he learnt was keeping 18 cats in her three-bedroom house.

Charles Darley, who was three months into a 12-month contract as the interim chief executive of Cats Protection, said the number of pets being kept by Linda Upson had long horrified senior staff.

Cats are considered to be solitary animals, and research by Cats Protection has found that insufficient space in a multi-cat household can be a major source of stress.

Mr Darley, who has one cat, claimed Ms Upson's living situation had left colleagues despairing, with many feeling "nervous about using her as a spokesperson for the charity".

When confronted with the concerns, however, she said she "didn't think it was a problem", according to Mr Darley.

The interim chief executive said he reached breaking point after an internal investigation, led by Angela Swarbrick, the vice-chairman of the board, concluded that Ms Upson should retain her role and "simply sought assurances that she would not add more cats" to her house.

He told The Telegraph: "I've been in and out of more than a dozen charities, and I've never encountered a position like this before. To be honest, I think it's the lack of experience among trustees in what good governance is – I would say it is blind to the reputational impact of owning this many cats.

"Many of them are passionate cat lovers, so they may see this behaviour through a different lens from people who love cats but don't love them in quite the same way."

Charles Darley said he reached breaking point after an internal investigation concluded that Linda Upson should retain her role - Cats Protection
Charles Darley said he reached breaking point after an internal investigation concluded that Linda Upson should retain her role - Cats Protection

Official guidelines on welfare from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) state that cats must have "enough space so that they can get away from one another if they want to".

Fears that Ms Upson may be in breach of this guidance led Cats Protection to consult five other animal welfare charities and a cats home charity.

All concluded that keeping 18 cats in a three-bedroom house was something they would not generally be able to defend, Mr Darley said, but the decision to keep Ms Upson in her job was allegedly taken before the responses came back.

Widespread knowledge of the chairman's cats was also said to have caused problems among volunteers. Several staff who had as many as eight to 10 cats cited Ms Upson when challenged on the wisdom of keeping so many pets in a small house, according to Mr Darley.

He said: "The negative impact Linda Upson's behaviour has on maintaining widespread volunteer compliance with Defra welfare standards is potentially very damaging to the charity and disastrous for staff morale."

Suggestions that a code of conduct should be established for trustees were rejected, according to Mr Darley, but the charity said in a statement that its most recent governance review, in 2019, did not recommend one.

A spokesman for Cats Protection said: "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.

"In common with other Cats Protection fosterers, the chair has undergone regular training and is aware of the health and wellbeing requirements for cats in her care.

"Further, a sub-group of trustees carried out a review of the chair's cat ownership and concluded that no legislation in relation to cat welfare had been breached and no Cats Protection policies had been breached."

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