London, United Kingdom – Chunky, a bulldog, became an unlikely celebrity after relieving himself on a poster of Jacob Rees-Mogg – an MP and strident champion of Brexit, during a march in London.
And as the country’s parliamentarians continue to scrap like cats and dogs over the terms of Britain’s exit – or indeed whether to leave the European Union at all – Chunky’s owner Siobhan Goodchild believes the signal sent by her pet could not have been clearer.
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The press pounced on images of Chunky’s mischief; bulldogs are a national icon in the United Kingdom, synonymous with a stubborn, independent spirit.
“The photographers loved it when Chunky relieved himself on Rees-Mogg’s poster because he’s a bulldog, and it sort of subverts the image of bulldogs being only for Britain – they can be for Europe too,” said Goodchild.
Chunky was also photographed relieving himself on an image of another leading Brexiteer, Boris Johnson. His moment of fame came during a march organised by the “Wooferendum”.
This imaginative anti-Brexit campaign attracted 3,000 people in London with nearly 1,000 dogs in October.
“We voted in the referendum and are strongly against Brexit,” Goodchild said. “The Wooferendum march seemed like a quintessentially British way to make a statement because we are dog lovers.”
Organiser Daniel Elkan dreamed up the campaign to get dogs “barking out against Brexit” after talking to pet owners who voted to remain in the EU during a referendum on membership in June 2016.
He became convinced that leaving the EU would be a “dog’s dinner” in this animal-loving country – Britain has more than 54 million pets and a quarter of the population owns a dog.
Elkan said: “The reaction from dog owners was incredible: Brexit is a tough dry subject and not a great party conversation, but when I asked them whether their dog would like to join the Wooferendum because dogs were never consulted about it their eyes would light up.”
As parliament finally nears a decision on the UK’s future relationship with Europe after two years of divisive wrangling, Elkan is now considering repeating this successful event.
Conservative governments, in particular, have a woeful record on animal welfare: after Brexit, they will simply discard the additional protections for animals that the EU gives as soon as they can.
A key reason many informed pet owners oppose Brexit is the new difficulties it will create for those who wish to travel abroad with their animals.
Long-standing fears in the UK of rabies meant that prior to the creation of Pet passports in 2000 – the official Pet Travel Scheme – animals had to be quarantined for six months when returning from the continent.
Mary Fretwell led a lengthy campaign to secure passports for pets, enabling them to avoid quarantine, and she is bitterly disappointed at the prospect of Brexit.
“Not only was quarantine expensive, it was a big question of animal welfare,” she said.
Under the pet passport scheme more than two million pets have since entered the UK and Lady Fretwell, who travels regularly to France with her greyhound border collie Roxy, noted on a recent trip that border staff were expecting 900 animals in just one day.
“I devoted seven years of my life to secure passports for pets and to see that now just discarded for this folly is mind-boggling,” she said.
Pet owners heading abroad will now have to consult their vet three months before they travel, but if there is a hard Brexit, by which the UK would leave the EU without a negotiated settlement, pet owners fear quarantine could be reintroduced.
“The frustration, sadness and anger that the removal of this freedom to travel with a dog or cat would cause, after 18 years of doing so successfully, would be seen as a mean gesture by those purporting to implement the will of the people,” said Lady Fretwell.
While the Wooferendum was considered fun, it also highlighted serious concerns about the effect of Brexit on animal welfare in the UK.
Prominent animal rights campaigner Dominic Dyer points out that professionals from other EU member states make up over 25 percent of the workforce in British veterinary surgeries.
Dyer said: “We are very reliant on vets from Europe who care for our dogs, cats and other companion animals up and down the country – if we suddenly start shutting those people out of our labour market we will have a shortage of vets at a critical time.”
European vets also make up 90 percent of those working in abattoirs carrying out vital animal welfare and public health checks – a concern raised by the profession with Prime Minister Theresa May – and Brexit could result in shortages of animal medicines.
If they could talk, I am certain they'd be against Brexit.
Dyer is convinced campaigns like Wooferendum could play a crucial role in determining the eventual outcome of the UK’s Brexit process, especially if there is a second referendum.
“If you have got 15 million dog owners, 13 million cat owners, and millions of people with other companion animals, the vast majority of the population have some sort of pet or animal in their household. And a fraction of those change their minds as a result of these concerns, that would be enough to change the outcome.”
Veterinarian Iain McGill, who spoke at the Wooferendum march, says there are already signs the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is “backpedalling” on the issue of “sentience” accepted under European law – which reinforces animal protections.
He said: “The British government is not to be trusted on this – and Conservative governments, in particular, have a woeful record on animal welfare: after Brexit, they will simply discard the additional protections for animals that the EU gives as soon as they can.”
As the clock now ticks to the Brexit deadline of March 29, when the UK is scheduled formally to leave the EU, pet owners are growing restless.
Dog owner Linda Seward was dismayed by the result of the 2016 referendum and admits that she has been stockpiling pet food in case of restrictions on imports.
“I am stockpiling dog food and supplies that we receive from the EU that may be in very short supply once this disaster happens in March if it does indeed happen,” she says.
Seward joined the Wooferendum march with her children and border terrier, Jack, under a banner proclaiming: “Borders against Borders” and hopes “common sense” will prevail.
“I am very hopeful that there will be another referendum,” she said.
It is, however, beyond our wits to know what man’s best friend thinks about this very human dogfight.
But Siobhan Goodchild is convinced Chunky and his housemate, fellow bulldog Bubbles, would be at the front of the pack in a second Wooferendum march.
“If they could talk, I am certain they’d be against Brexit,” she says.