The RSPCA is being investigated by police over allegations of animal cruelty after its officers were accused of "inhumanely" using a bolt gun to put down unwanted dogs.
The charity is alleged to have ordered the destruction of ten German shepherd dogs whose owner had recently died. The dogs, which had been kept indoors for several weeks and were said to be aggressive and in poor condition, were killed with a captive bolt gun of the kind used in abattoirs to stun livestock before slaughter.
The use of captive bolt guns is deemed "inhumane" and "unacceptable" for the destruction of dogs by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).Since news of the killings in June began circulating on the internet, around 5,000 people have signed a petition calling for use of the bolt guns to be banned.
Animal shelters and dog rescue charities have condemned the RSPCA and accused it of failing to try to find new homes for the dogs.
Last month German Shepherd Rescue, which rehouses between 200 and 300 of the breed every year, complained to South Wales Police about the incident.
The force has now written to the organisation to confirm that they will investigate the allegations.
The letter, from Inspector Mark Hobrough, states: "In relation to your correspondence received on 18th September 2009 can I please assure that this matter is receiving our thorough attention.
"I am sorry that I have no update to provide you at present and can only state the matter is undergoing investigation."
Jayne Shenstone, the founder of German Shepherd Rescue, said the dogs had a treatable condition called sarcoptic mange, a skin disease caused by a mite infection.
She said: "The RSPCA did not consult us or any other dog rescue centre. There was no vet present and there was no diagnosis. The dogs did not need to be killed, especially in such a brutal way.
"The RSPCA has claimed it's the only time they have heard of such a weapon being used like this, but captive bolts are routinely issued to inspectors.
"We believe that serious offences have been committed and that they merit charges for both the RSPCA and the officers responsible.
"If anyone else had killed ten dogs in such a cruel way the RSPCA would have been the first to prosecute."
The RSPCA says that it would have been impossible to rehome the dogs and there was no alternative to having them destroyed.
But instead of being put down with a pain-free injection, they were caught with a "grab" pole – a noose at the end of a stick – before being dragged outside and shot in the head with the bolt gun, which fires a metal bar about three inches long into the animal's brain.
According to the WSPA, use of the captive bolt gun to put down domestic animals is "unacceptable" because of the difficulty of ensuring a "clean kill".
The RSPCA, which last year rehomed 15,872 stray unwanted dogs and destroyed a further 8,313, admits that it did not approach animal rescue shelters for help in finding homes for the animals.
A spokeswoman said: "The RSPCA will co-operate fully with any police investigation. But as yet we have not been told by the police that we are being investigated.
"The police contacted us several weeks ago to ask for some information, which we provided, but they did not state that we were under investigation.
"It was an absolutely extreme case. The bolt gun is certainly not used routinely by our officers."
By Ben Leach
Published: 7:45AM GMT 01 Nov 2009