The law weighs in on animal welfare matters

Legal Debate Panel

Members of the Legal Debate Panel at the 24th New Zealand Companion Animal Conference, from left to right: Ian Robertson, David Tong, Anita Killeen, Catriona MacLennan, David Jones QC and Ian Wilson.

Recently the Ministry for Primary Industries released a paper for public consultation entitled “Animal Welfare Matters”, designed to provide an overview of the future direction of animal welfare standards in New Zealand. Its release coincides with a review of the existing Animal Welfare Act 1999 which will consider what changes in the Act are necessary to ensure the ultimate protection for all animals in New Zealand.

This sentiment is worthy, and as such, the 24th New Zealand Companion Animal Conference dedicated the consultation document title “Animal Welfare Matters” as its conference theme. Held in Auckland on 7 and 8 October, the conference brought together leading players in the animal welfare and animal control fields from New Zealand and overseas. International speakers included Joyce D’Silva (UK), William Gomaa (USA), and Antoine Goetschel (Switzerland, by video).

In addition, an impressive array of local speakers appeared including the Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy, Labour Party MP Trevor Mallard, Green Party MP Mojo Mathers and New Zealand First MP Andrew Williams, with lively legal and political debates fully exploring the proposed animal welfare policy in New Zealand.

A legal panel debated its views on the proposed amendments to the Animal Welfare Act, what suggestions they had to improve it and their views on how to persuade the judiciary to recognise the link between human and animal abuse. One topic that generated lively discussion was the issue of “live animals” being required to be kept as evidence pending the resolution of a prosecution case. Incarcerating animals at the SPCA pending the resolution of a prosecution is not optimal from an animal welfare point of view, nor is it fiscally sustainable for the SPCA branches throughout the country who are required to foot the bill of an animal’s care while the Court processes play out.

One of the panellists (also the Director of the SPCA Auckland and Chair of the Pro Bono Panel of prosecutors for SPCA Auckland) barrister Anita Killeen noted, with respect to the Auckland region where cases can take a long time to proceed through court, this is a significant problem. She provided one example in the Auckland region where animals had been in the control of the Auckland SPCA for nearly three years awaiting the commencement of a trial at a cost of approximately $62,000 (to date) to the Auckland SPCA. The Auckland SPCA receives no government funding to prosecute animal welfare cases. Nor does it receive any funding to provide for the care of animals while the court processes are underway.

David Tong (of the Human Rights Lawyers Association and legal assistant to the Pro Bono Panel of Prosecutors) noted that in such cases counsel for the SPCA should always attempt to obtain a voluntary forfeiture of the animals involved or to apply to the court for a disposal order (pursuant to s136A of the Animal Welfare Act). Such orders allow the SPCA to sell stock, re-home or euthanise animals. David Jones QC (also a member of the Pro Bono Panel of Prosecutors) noted that while animals cannot speak for themselves, when it comes to an application for a disposal order often the evidence demonstrating the animals’ condition will speak for itself and provide a basis for the Court to be satisfied there is good reason, given the physical state of the animal, to grant a disposal order.

Speaking more generally, David Jones QC noted that “if we look at the welfare of animals as our underlying concern, education is the key to making a difference. If you can educate children and adults as to the right approach to take you will, in time, achieve voluntary compliance. Prosecutions are still required. They do have a deterrent effect and they are an effective way of bringing education (as to acceptable standards of animal welfare) to the people who might not otherwise see it”.

Mr Bob Kerridge, Executive Director of SPCA Auckland and founder of the New Zealand Companion Animal Council, says this year’s conference was the most important one ever staged. He noted: “Our current Animal Welfare Act, even with the proposed amendments, does not address the horrors of intensive farming techniques, cruel hunting practices, or the daily abuse inflicted on many thousands of companion animals. Nor does it impose punishments necessary to deter animal abusers. New Zealand lags behind many of the countries we like to compare ourselves with, such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and even Australia. Now is the opportunity for us to catch up, and perhaps even lead the way.

 “We want to confront New Zealanders with our collective failure to protect these highly vulnerable members of our society, and we want to put the safety and well-being of all animals firmly on the political agenda”.

The Auckland SPCA has made the following submissions on the proposed amendments to the Animal Welfare Act:

Animal Welfare Recommendations

  • The prohibition of animal testing for psychoactive substances;
  • The prohibition of the docking of dogs tails and the shortening of cows tails;
  • The prohibition of the public sale and use of electronic shock collars for dogs;
  • The prohibition of the public sale and use of gin traps and leg-hold devices;
  • The reduction of time that animals are held at the SPCA during prosecution cases;
  • Sentencing guidelines should be developed for judges to ensure tougher penalties are enforced under the Animal Welfare Act;
  • It should be made mandatory for judges to consider disqualification when sentencing offences and allow immediate seizure of any animals held by disqualified persons;  
  • The phasing out of all forms of intensive farming on or before 1 January 2020; and
  • The desexing and microchipping of companion animals obtained from pounds, shelters and retailers should be made mandatory, including electronic media.

Structural and Ethical Recommendations

  • The Animal Welfare Act should include the declaration that animals are sentient beings capable of feeling;
  • The references to ‘owners’ of animals in the Act should be replaced by the word ‘guardian’;
  • A Commissioner for Animals should be created as an independent Crown Entity representing the welfare needs of animals; and
  • Animal welfare enforcement (SPCA Inspectors) should be fully, or partially, funded by the government.
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