Flash the raccoon: an accidental boorach

An MEP's remit is broader than most. I, along with my SNP friend and colleague Ian Hudghton and four others jointly represent the whole of Scotland, making sure that the entire legislative output of the European Union fits Scotland's needs.

What is more remarkable is that by and large we actually manage it. But there are times when the process trips up, and last month we had a good example centred on a raccoon from Bathgate!

Published in iScot February 2016

Flash the raccoon is no ordinary animal. He’s one of Scotland’s most-loved “therapets” – an animal whose presence has a therapeutic value, particularly for older folk and children with learning or developmental difficulties.  He is owned by Sean Carr and Liana Kontou of Party Animals, a great business in West Lothian that won the 2015 West Lothian’s ‘Favourite Business’ award.

So when the rumour started flying around that Flash was "about to be deported under new EU legislation", you can imagine how many worried constituents, as well as local MSP Angela Constance and local MP Hannah Bardell, got in touch to ask me to intervene.

This is why we need to talk about the EU. Complex documents written by folk who only speak European Legalese being filtered through a media that doesn’t have the resources (or in some cases, the inclination) to sort the meat from the gristle is a recipe for disaster.

Now, let’s use Flash as an example of how the EU really works:

The proposed Alien Invasive Species Regulation by the European Commission would have outlined measures to ban certain plants and animals from Europe. We need to protect native biodiversity, so December 2014 saw the European Parliament agree with the Council of Ministers and the European Commission and pass primary legislation on invasive alien species.

The legislation placed a responsibility upon the Commission to submit a draft implementing act by January 2016 laying down the list of species considered invasive.

But these proposed laws were widely criticised as covering too many, too few, or simply the wrong species, and of not giving enough clarity on the implications for animals.

Ordinarily, legislation can’t pass without the European Parliament voting in favour, but this Regulation would have been adopted via implementing acts. The decisions requiring implementing acts are complex and require expert knowledge that most MEPs simply don’t have, which is why we can’t just throw them out. But we can object to them and make the Commission reconsider if we feel it has exceeded its powers or simply got it wrong.

I hadn’t heard much about therapets before folk started getting in touch with me about Flash, and the more I heard, the more I was intrigued. Fortunately, Sean was kind enough to invite me to Livingston to see the magic for myself, so I fired up the Quattro and away we went. The Crusader Court sheltered housing complex is a regular destination for Flash and his fellow therapets, and Sean suggested my seeing Flash at work would help his case. 

What I saw was Flash bringing a lightness and joy to the room simply by being there. While I’m not advocating wild animals being kept as pets, Flash is very much an unusual case. He was born in captivity and was hand-reared by Sean, who told me he was up more times in the night with the baby raccoon than with his own son!

But Flash doesn’t just work with older folk. Many emails came from parents whose children had benefited from sessions of animal-assisted therapy, where kids with autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy and so on can develop their social, emotional and cognitive skills in a calm, non-threatening environment.

These parents were literally begging me to do something to help. This was no coordinated campaign from a flashy city headquarters, but rather friends and families all banding together to show support for a local organisation that was directly helping the lives of some of their community’s most vulnerable people. The clock was ticking – could we save Flash?

Inspired by my visit, I began making a few calls and knocking on office doors. Of course nobody thinks a big grumpy rhino is a suitable pet but surely this proposal hadn’t been fully thought out? Surely my fellow MEPs agreed that the Commission had somewhat exceeded its powers on this issue? The Parliament’s Environment Committee certainly did, and we were about to vote on their formal resolution would send the Regulation back to the Commission. As we filed into the voting chamber in the final plenary of the year, my heart was in my mouth.

But I’m delighted to say we won! Not only was the Regulation returned to the European Commission, but we also have a grandfather clause included, meaning that alien species already here will be exempt from the new rules. Or, more simply, Flash and his friends are safe.

It is a pretty good example of the EU system working - we do indeed need rules on alien species across the whole of the EU as beasties cross borders, but they need to be good rules and it is my job to represent Scotland's needs in the process of drawing them up. Folk got in touch asking me to act, I did, and the inadequate proposals were sent back to the drawing board.  Me with a raccoon on my shoulder might not look like High Politics, but it mattered to a lot of folk in West Lothian.