environment

Why are we sparing crayfish but torturing rabbits?

New Zealand is a month or so into its rabbit killing spree. The K5 strain of the rabbit haemorrhagic virus being released in most of the South Island and the Waikato will, as I write, be inflicting a long, painful death on thousands, if not millions, of bunnies.

Most foreign-born New Zealanders I talk to about K5 are a bit shocked. The release smacks of it being OK to torture wild animals for economic benefit when it’s not OK to inflict pain on dogs, bobby calves, or even crayfish (see more about the crayfish below). Surely it’s not an individual rabbit’s fault it’s an introduced pest, foreigner friends say. We shouldn't torture them.

Bollocks, New Zealand-born friends and colleagues say. Bunnies are eating our crops. They are also encouraging stoats, who eat our kiwi eggs. Killing bunnies is crucial, and what are the alternatives?

(As an aside, I see a similar cultural clash about pineapple lumps. Most overseas-born New Zealanders - myself included - can’t imagine why anyone could possibly enjoy a pineapple lump. True New Zealanders can hardly imagine anything more delicious.)

Before Easter I wrote an article about the NZ vs foreigner divide over the ethics of the rabbit virus.

But the issue also highlights a couple of strange inconsistencies in our animal welfare laws.

The first involves the protection of “decapod crustaceans” - crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp etc. New Zealand is one of only a tiny handful of countries in the world (Switzerland joined them in January) where it’s illegal to boil a decapod crustacean alive.

The argument, according to Ministry of Primary Industries animal welfare expert Joanna Tuckwell in a 2006 NZ Herald article, is that a crayfish popped into a pot of boiling water would feel pain, because its nervous system was still functioning on immersion. Likewise, stabbing crayfish is cruel, Tuckwell said, because they have a spread-out nervous system. Drowning them in fresh water is also out because it causes “severe osmotic stress”.

It seems inconsistent at the very least that it is illegal in New Zealand to cause a couple of minutes of bubbling suffering to an animal with almost no feeling, on the basis that they nevertheless do have a functioning nervous system. Yet it is fine to cause up to four days of suffering to an animal with a sophisticated nervous system.

The most humane thing to do, MPI advised, was to chill the crayfish until it was insensible, and only then pop it in the pot.

Now I have no problem with being kind to crustaceans. But on a scale of one to 10 of sentient beings, a crayfish isn’t high up. Wikipedia has a useful list of the numbers of neurons in various animals, as a rough guide to the degree of development of the nervous system.

Lobsters have a total of 100,000 neurons. In the overall scheme of things, this isn’t many. It’s less than half those of an ant and a tenth of those of a cockroach.

By contrast, a rabbit has nearly 500 million neurons. (Humans, in case you are interested, have around 86 billion.)

So it seems inconsistent at the very least that it is illegal in New Zealand to cause a couple of minutes of bubbling suffering to an animal with almost no feeling, on the basis that they nevertheless do have a functioning nervous system. Yet it is fine to cause up to four days of suffering to an animal with a sophisticated nervous system.

Which brings me to another strange anomaly in New Zealand legislation.

The Animal Welfare Amendment Act states quite clearly that it’s wrong to wilfully or recklessly ill-treat wild animals or animals in a wild state. Deliberately infecting a rabbit with a virus that will cause fever, spasms, blood clots, difficulty breathing and hemorrhaging of organs like the heart, lungs and kidneys over two-four days would surely count as wilful or reckless ill treatment.

But there’s a get-out clause for councils and farmers who might otherwise find themselves being sued.

“A defendant has a defence to a prosecution for an offence... if the defendant satisfies the court that the conduct alleged to constitute an offence is or is part of a generally-accepted practice in New Zealand.”

This doesn’t seem logical to me. Surely it’s either OK to be cruel to animals or it isn’t. Take bear baiting. This activity, where a bear is chained in a pit and attacked by dogs, was for many centuries in Europe a perfectly-acceptable form of entertainment. It was, as Robert Laneham wrote in 1575, “a very pleasant sport” and one much loved by Queen Elizabeth I.

There is little doubt that bear baiting is cruel. Yet taking our law to its logical conclusion, if someone decided to set up a bear-baiting ring in Auckland and enough people went along to make it a “generally-accepted practice”, bear baiting stops being cruel.

Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere is a senior law lecturer at Otago University and an expert in animal welfare law. He says that because of the Welfare Act exemption, infecting the rabbits would probably not be considered as ill-treatment. Although he shares the concerns of animal welfare groups about the virus, he says a prosecution would be almost certain to fail.

“Under the Act, ‘ill-treat’ is defined as ‘unreasonable or unnecessary’ suffering, which the councils would (likely successfully) argue isn’t the case here, given the status of rabbits as a pest.”

Which doesn’t make much sense. The benchmark should be around the animal’s suffering, not what sort of animal is involved.

Crayfish or rabbit.

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