NZ animal welfare framework meaningless: expert

New Zealand claims to have one of the most progressive legal frameworks on animal welfare in the world, but there’s little meaningful protection for animals used for agricultural purposes in practice

The issue of animal cruelty within New Zealand’s farming sector has reared its ugly head this week, after Newsroom revealed footage of Northland dairy cows being hit on the legs and head with a steel pipe. It wasn’t an isolated incident.

The Ministry of Primary Industries has been criticised for failing to effectively enforce animal welfare laws, but Otago University senior law lecturer Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere says while MPI may be grossly under-resourced, having only 23 inspectors and 20 investigators overseeing up to 60 million commercial animals in the country, the issues are also jurisprudential.

In a symbolic sense, the public is right in thinking New Zealand has the best animal welfare laws in the world, he says.

“The Animal Welfare Act was pretty revolutionary: we were the first country, for example, to prescribe the five freedoms in law: freedom from hunger and thirst; adequate shelter; freedom from injury and disease; freedom to express normal behaviour.”

This means if it’s deemed normal for a cat to move around, then the Act obliges those in charge of the cat to ensure that those needs are met.

Further changes to the Act in 2015 were another win for New Zealand, Rodriguez Ferrere says.

“The law took a stance against any animal testing for cosmetics, and also recognised animals are sentient - the appreciation that animals have a degree of awareness and consciousness to feel emotions, whether pleasant or not so pleasant.

“Although New Zealand became the first nation to prohibit animal testing - which generated international headlines that promoted the ‘NZ Inc’ clean green band - we never did it, so the legislation didn’t change the status quo.

“It’s similar to saying ‘I’m giving up heroin,’ and wow that’s really laudable but for the fact I’ve never done it.”

The most significant problem, he says, is while the law recognises all animals have perceptive capacity, the level of legal protection they get differs depending on whether they’re considered a domestic animal or used for agriculture.

“Cambridge University Emeritus Professor Donald Broom puts it well. Consider the rabbit: our views on how we ought to treat a rabbit or what might be reasonable conduct towards the rabbit will change according to our use of the rabbit. If it’s a pet, it would be inappropriate to eat 'Fluffy', just as it would be inappropriate, traumatic, and awful to eat the family dog. But if it’s used in scientific research, then it might be subjected to significant pain and distress.”

In New Zealand, “there’s a troubling distinction between animals used in a commercial situation and what we consider companion animals”. The issue comes down to profitability, Rodriguez Ferrere says.

“The de facto classification is there for commercial reasons. And so long as the commercial impetus to treat agricultural animals differently from companion animals remains, so too will the classification remain.”

On top of that, it’s little surprise there are poor enforcement capabilities across the board, he says, which means in the instance animal abuse is brought to light, resources dictate that little can be done.

“In a practical sense, the legislation farms out much of the enforcement to NGOs, and because of resource constraints, there’s little meaningful protection for vulnerable animals.”

The Ministry for Primary Industries monitors farm animal violations, and the SPCA looks after the rest, with police also warranted under the Act.

It seems MPI simply does not have the resources to monitor or investigate acts of animal violence, "and so we leave it up to the goodwill of farmers and farm workers, which is fine in most cases, since most ensure high standards of welfare. Some, however - and not just a few - don't. And those people have little disincentive to curb their behaviour".

"It's no wonder we see [examples such as what has been revealed this week], it's not just some bad apples, it's a system that allowed those bad apples to go unnoticed."

The only way to fix what is broken is to start seriously thinking about MPI's resources, and to have "a fundamental rethink about how we police animal welfare".

Otherwise, it's just a case of history repeating itself, he says. 

Read more: 

Hidden cameras reveal milking shed beatings

‘Abhorrent’ behaviour has no place in dairy industry

A long history of animal cruelty and neglect

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