Animal welfare legislation welcomed

Denise Hall talks to a veterinary nurse in Co Cork about new laws on cruelty

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has announced the first major shake-up in animal welfare legislation in Ireland since 1911.

For the first time, judges will be able to imprison someone for acts of cruelty, and disqualify them from owning animals.

And fines of between €100,000 and €250,000, and up to four years in prison for serious cruelty offences, may also be imposed.

There are two distinct trains of thought on animal welfare. A centuries-old view insists that animals are not consciously aware and therefore cannot experience poor welfare conditions.

The opposing view purports that animals should not be regarded as property, and that any use of animals by humans is unacceptable.

Some animal rights proponents even argue against the notion of better animal welfare, claiming that it only contributes to the continued exploitation of animals.

Our relationship with animals generally lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

The relationship has been, generally speaking, pretty much weighted in our favour.

This may be because some people feel that animals don’t have souls, and were placed here simply to benefit humankind.

But even if this rather egocentric view were true, I don’t see why it should preclude treating vulnerable creatures with care.

I’ve never been able to grasp those random acts of cruelty against animals that seem to involve inflicting pain for no other reason than the satisfaction of seeing a sentient creature suffer terribly.

Dogs with lit fireworks tied to their jaws; new born kittens thrown into bonfires while their mother is forced to watch; or the chilling crime of indifference — dogs left tied up in back yards when their owner moves, or horses left to starve in bare fields.

Mr Coveney said one of the biggest changes in the new legislation is that it allows his department to be proactive.

“We can deal with animal cruelty of all sorts now, rather than being just confined to farm animals as it would have been in the past.

“Authorised officers will be able to follow up on reports of suspected animal cruelty, and issue a welfare notice warning people that if their behaviour doesn’t improve, there will be consequences.”

All very welcome steps in the right direction. But those who are concerned with animal welfare still have some concerns.

I spoke about animal welfare to veterinary nurse and welfare campaigner Jennifer Carroll, who lives and works in Bantry, Co Cork.

* What do you think of the new legislation? Is it going to do what it says on the tin?

>>It’s obviously very welcome news and it’s been a long time coming. But there are some important areas that seem to have been left out, or are not made clear.

* For instance?

>> Well, there’s no mention of cats, and we have a huge problem in rural areas with the increase in so-called feral cat population. RAWR (Rural Animal Welfare Resources), the organisation we started here in Bantry, has an active trap, neuter and release programme that’s been very effective. Left to their own devices, the cat populations will increase dramatically in one year, they will become inbred with a high prevalence of disease. So we trap, spay and release these cats to keep the populations down, and to avoid unnecessary suffering for the animals.

* Are there other areas in the bill, which concern you?

>> Yes. I’m not quite sure who exactly are the officers that Minister Coveney says will follow through on reports of cruelty and issue legal warnings. Are there going to be new welfare officers employed? Or will the ISPCA get more resources? And there’s been no mention so far of exotic animals, which have absolutely no protection under current Irish law. They can be bought and sold on the internet.

* Have you always been passionate about animals?

>> When I was little, we lived on an estate here in Bantry, and I was always bringing lost or hurt creatures home, no matter how much my parents gave out. And they did! I decided early on that I wanted to be a vet, but you needed 575 points for that. So I opted for veterinary nursing instead, and now I’m very glad I did. I studied at St John’s College in Cork. 

* As a veterinary nurse, you must have to deal with some difficult situations sometimes How do you cope?

>> I think the worst thing I can remember is being called out by someone here in town to rescue two tiny kittens who some children were using as footballs. That was terrible. Dogs with mange, injuries, or sicknesses that could have been prevented, and people who simply refuse to take responsibility for an animal’s welfare — they upset me that most. And maggots, I can’t stand maggots.

* What’s the most common problem you see in the surgery?

>> Overweight dogs, and because I’m quite outspoken, I simply tell people that their dog is fat, and they don’t always like that. But it can have the same repercussions as it does for a person, and we can fix it. What I enjoy most about my job is when I can fix an animal that was broken or in pain. That’s very special.

Legislation on animal welfare will help

Since British MP Richard Martin introduced the first bill to protected farm animals from cruelty in 1840, the welfare approach toward animals has had human morality and humane behaviour as its central concern.

Ireland’s new legislation will help to ensure animal welfare becomes of concern for us all.

There are five internationally accepted freedoms which apply to animals, although even the RSPCA will tell you that these freedoms are sometimes aspirational:

* Freedom from hunger and thirst — through ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.

* Freedom from discomfort — by providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

* Freedom from pain, injury, disease — by prevention, or rapid diagnosis and treatment.

* Freedom to express normal behaviour — by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.

* Freedom from fear and distress — by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

The concept of Five Freedoms originated with an enquiry into the welfare of animals that were kept in intensive farming conditions during 1965 in the UK. Farm animals should, it declared, have the right to “stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves and stretch their limbs”.

At the time of the Brambell report, as it was known, these modest demands caused quite a stir.

Today, the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council say, “These freedoms form a logical and comprehensive framework for analysis of welfare within any system together with the steps and compromises necessary to safeguard and improve welfare within the proper constraints of an effective livestock industry”


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