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Animal law workshop

Published on July 7, 2014 under General

Dr Michael Morris

The Animal Law Workshop was held on 24 May 2014 at the University of Auckland to discuss the Animal Welfare Act and the changes being proposed by Parliament. While dissecting out the legal minutiae of clauses and sub-clauses, arguing mens rea and strict liability, and strategies involving parliamentary submissions and legal wrangling with the judiciary would not appeal to everyone, the workshops clearly presented an overview of the basis for the legal protection for animals in this country. They would therefore be useful to anyone interested in furthering the cause of animal rights in New Zealand.

The good

Vernon Tava started the workshop on an upbeat note, reminding us of recent legal victories. Parliament have recently passed a complete ban on testing party pills on animals and in 2010 created a new offence of reckless ill treatment of animals, which means farmers could be prosecuted even if animal abuse is a result of ignorance and carelessness and not deliberate neglect. This may seem a minor victory, but one only needs to read the vigorous and vehement objections put forward by Federated Farmers to realise what a threat they consider this initiative.

Vernon pointed out that animal welfare is now treated more seriously by Parliament in general. The Labour Party have emulated the Green Party in now having a dedicated animal welfare spokesperson, and they no longer feel obliged to join their National Party colleagues in making animal noises and weak put-downs whenever the subject is brought up in the House.

Nevertheless, the main message was that the new Animal Welfare Act provisions serve to weaken, not strengthen, animal protection in New Zealand.

The danger

The most dangerous and insidious of these changes is the shift from codes of welfare to regulations, a point also made by the next speaker, David Tong. The regulations will be determined solely by cabinet – which in practice means the Ministry of Primary Industries, in consultation with the industry. Particularly revealing is that the amended Act as written will allow economics to overtly trump animal welfare considerations.

The present code of welfare system is by no means perfect; the 2009 exposure of pig farmers by Open Rescue and high profile comedian Mike King, and the more recent footage from Farm Rescue in 2014 highlighted the inhumane practices that can be carried out quite legally according to the codes. The Regulations Review Committee in 2005 determined that battery cages did not meet the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act. The Labour-led government of the time simply ignored the recommendations after intensive lobbying by the industry, again showing just how impotent the present system is in providing protection for animals.

Some may cynically say that being more honest about the relative status of economics and animal welfare would make no difference and may even help animals in the long term because the true agenda will now be obvious to our trading partners. The point made by the presenters was that the present system does allow the public to have some say in the code making progress, and it has been instrumental in allowing some gradual improvements in the treatment of animals, including the ban on sow stalls from next year.

Enforcement

The next two speakers, Danielle Duffield and Unitec lecturer Arnja Dale, highlighted the inequitable nature of the way animal welfare offences are enforced and prosecuted. Only 0.5% of animal welfare complaints result in a prosecution, compared to 28.3% of police complaints.

Sentencing of animal welfare breaches, even quite horrendous ones, is not taken seriously by judges. Even though there is a maximum sentence of 5 years, the longest sentence handed down has been 18 months, with judges in their summing up appearing more concerned with the offender than the victims.

The resources allocated for enforcement are abysmal. Although 51% of New Zealand GDP is based on agriculture, only 0.007% is allocated to animal welfare. The Animal Welfare Act is the only case in New Zealand law where criminal prosecutions rely on a private charity for enforcement, and this goes a long way towards explaining why prosecution is so rare. One could not imagine for example the police having to run a sausage sizzle to raise funds for investigating a child molester, the Ministry of Fisheries having street collections to buy petrol for their boats, or even council parking wardens running cake stalls to pay for ticketing. Although the Ministry of Primary Industries and the Police have the power to investigate and prosecute, in practice, 87% of prosecutions are initiated by the SPCA.

Danielle proposed one way of redressing some of the imbalance and providing a deterrent for animal abusers would be a system of infringement fines, rather like parking offences, which would make it much cheaper to prosecute and enforce the Act. She responded to criticisms that this trivialises animal offences by pointing out that infringement penalties are becoming more popular, even for serious offences such as theft.

The presentation was well-argued and thought-provoking, but in my mind there is still a difference between stealing someone’s property and grievous bodily harm to a feeling being. Animals may be better served by encouraging the police to become more involved with prosecutions. As one of the audience pointed out, many police officers are not even aware they have the right to do so.

Animals Agenda 2014

Catriona MacLennan next described the Animals Agenda campaign for the 2014 election, promoted by the Auckland SPCA, and mentioned the now well-established link between animal abuse and abuse of humans. This led to a lively discussion on whether the link was simply a correlation – those who abuse animals have the same mindset as those abusing humans – or whether there is a causal link.

While no definite conclusions can be reached on this, there is some evidence to suggest that those who abuse animals or even witness others abusing them can go on to become abusers of humans. If this link is more widely known, it may encourage the police and other enforcement agencies to treat animal abuse more seriously.

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