Pet owners and the RSPCA have united to call for a rethink on the UK’s firework laws. But will their campaign get anywhere?
Head poking from the door of the washing machine, it seems at first glance that Jess the dog is enjoying a mischievous game of hide and seek.
But owner Claire Ewers tells a very different story. She took the photographs as her terrified pet cowered from the noise of fireworks exploding near her home.
Bonfire Night is one thing, but more and more dog owners are calling for a clampdown on the increasing use of fireworks at other times of the year because of the trauma it inflicts on their animals.
“When fireworks are not set off on normal dates, it is impossible to plan ahead,” said Claire, whose other dog, Roxie, is just as badly affected.
“I could be at work worrying that my girls are home alone and scared, which is heartbreaking. They will often be sick, and mess themselves too.”
This week, the bid to restrict the use of fireworks reached Parliament on the back of a petition supported by more than 100,000 dog lovers and the RSPCA.
The campaign wants to see the use of fireworks and their sale restricted to just four days a year; Bonfire Night, New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year, which falls in late January or early February, and Diwali, which takes place in October or November.
“If it was one week of fireworks, or if they were let off just on normal celebratory nights like New Year’s Eve, or November 5, we could plan ahead and handle it,” adds Claire. “But not three or four months.”
Jess and Roxie aren’t alone. It’s estimated that nearly half of all dogs are fearful of fireworks. And they’re not the only animals that are suffering. Amanda Thorne lost her horse, Beemer, following an unexpected private fireworks display near to where he was being stabled. Beemer, who was 11 at the time, suffered severe colic – something he had never experienced before – following the fireworks party in the days after Bonfire Night five years ago.
Amanda was called by the stable owner who said Beemer was “going mad”. She immediately travelled to the stables while calling an emergency vet.
“He wasn’t going mad,” she recalls, “he was colicking, he was trying to tear the walls down he was thrashing around so much.
“We got him straight to hospital where he had to have two surgeries within 36 hours. In one week I spent £9,500 on vet bills.”
During his first operation Beemer had to have six metres of small intestine removed. Just hours later vets had to open him up again to untwist his guts. Amanda, who runs a small stud farm and used to work as a veterinary equine nurse, got Beemer through these early days although it took a year for him to be free from infections.
She then moved to a rural area in Cornwall but in 2014 the horse suffered from colic twice more and eventually had to be put to sleep after prolapsing.
“We got through November 5 because I knew it was coming so I was able to get sedatives for Beemer, and to make sure lights were on and the radio was on and I could check him regularly,” said Amanda.
“It’s the days after when you aren’t expecting it that you can’t prepare for, the most upsetting thing is that this didn’t need to happen.”
And the problem appears to be growing. In 2011 the RSPCA received 255 calls which rose to a peak of 386 in 2015 – an increase of more than 50 per cent. In the last five years this added up to 1,482 calls.
Farm animals are also susceptible to loud noises and sudden flashes of bright light, which can startle them to the extent that they injure themselves on fencing or farm equipment. Wildlife such as hedgehogs can be burnt alive after making their home in bonfires.
As well as the restriction on the sale and use of fireworks, the RSPCA would like to see the maximum permitted noise level of those offered for public sale reduced from 120 decibels – equivalent to a jet aircraft taking off at 100 metres – to 96 decibels. This is likely to further reduce the stress to animals.
However, despite this evening’s debate in Westminster Hall hearing evidence of the impact on animals, the Government has responded to the e-petition which triggered it by saying that restrictions on the general public’s use of fireworks, and permitted noise levels, already exist and ministers have no plans to extend them.
This comes as a disappointment to RSPCA Campaign manager Ari Winfield, who says the organisation feels existing legislation in the form of the Fireworks Act 2003 and further fireworks regulation that followed a year later simply doesn’t go far enough.
“Clearly there is widespread public concern about this issue as can be shown by the petition that led to this parliamentary debate reaching 104,000 signatures,” she said.
“We want to see the government take advantage of this by strengthening the existing acts and restricting the use of fireworks to traditional dates of the year like bonfire night.”
And there is unlikely to be any let-up in calls from owners and animal lovers for some sort of action.
Sue Malcolm, from Wakefield, set up Baxter’s Campaign two years ago after hearing the sound of fireworks every night from mid-October to well past Bonfire Night, leaving her rescue dog Baxter petrified.
The idea was to encourage other owners to share their experiences of how fireworks affected their own pets – and some of their accounts are extremely harrowing.
“A lot of people are in desperate straits, not knowing how to help their dogs,” said Sue. “I have tried the different products you can buy such as plug-in diffusers but they don’t seem to work for Baxter.
“Across the country there are dogs throwing themselves at the door when fireworks go off unexpectedly.
“If they are in the garden they will jump over fences and are hit by cars or their owners never see them again.”
She says what many people don’t take into account is the fact that a dog’s hearing is 10 times more sensitive than a human’s.
“Animals hear these noises to a much greater extent than we do. It’s amplified quite significantly and they can be left severely agitated.”
One potential solution she has discovered comes from Italy, where the town of Collecchio has passed legislation which forces its residents to use silent fireworks.
The aim of the regulation is to protect local wildlife and ensure that the stress experienced by animals is substantially reduced. A local company which manufactures fireworks that produce a spectacular light show without the deafening sounds is reaping the benefits.
Sue Malcolm now hopes a similar idea could be tested in Yorkshire if a suitable manufacturer is found.
However, with the Government unwilling to change its stance it seems likely Jess and other dogs will be diving for cover for some time yet.