A feature for the Guardian
You may remember Louis Cole, the man who eats strange things. He became a YouTube celebrity by munching live scorpions, maggotty turkey legs, giant ragworms and the like. In April this year, he uploaded a video of himself eating a live goldfish (YouTube has since removed the video but, inevitably, it’s available elsewhere): he lifted the creature out of its bowl, held it up briefly then bit down on its head, chewing up the animal and swallowing it. Tasteless and crass the act may have been, but the creature was dead in a few seconds. If it suffered, it didn’t suffer for long.
At the end of April, Cole received a hand-delivered letter from the RSPCA telling him that he might have broken laws relating to animal cruelty, and threatening that the police would come to arrest him if he didn’t reply. Fish, like all animals with a backbone, are covered by legislation in a way that scorpions and tarantulas are not. Faced with an official-looking document and the risk of arrest, Cole got himself a lawyer. He was told he faced a £20,000 fine and up to six months in prison. For eating a goldfish.
Whatever you think of Cole’s brand of shock eating, the RSPCA’s approach towards him over the course of this year looks heavy-handed. “I felt from the start they wanted to pin me up and make an example of me,” he says. He was initially interviewed at a police station. On one occasion, “I was told I needed to see them within a couple of hours or a warrant would be issued for my arrest. They drove to meet me and I sat in their van answering questions. I didn’t have my lawyer with me and he felt this behaviour was underhand.” The RSPCA confirms these events, though it says he was free to leave at any time.
Cole chose to fight the accusations because he worried “if I’d admitted any guilt it might be taken into court, and I might end up with a hefty fine or a prison sentence”. Throughout, he claims, “I was under the impression that they had some level of power, that they could enforce certain things.” In fact, the RSPCA is merely a well-funded charity that, among other actions, brings private prosecutions against individuals. It has no special powers whatsoever, although it sometimes looks as if it might. Its inspectors wear uniforms that look very similar to those of the police, and turn up unannounced at people’s properties asking to inspect, for example, animals’ living conditions. (You have every right to refuse and shut the door if this happens.) Its number ends in 999.