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On animals
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16 July 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Ruining cats and dogs
The UK government's Animal Welfare Bill could turn having a pet into a pain.

by Stuart Derbyshire

Britain's animal health and welfare minister Ben Bradshaw presented a draft Animal Welfare Bill to parliament on 14 July 2004 (1).

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has been promoting the bill as a necessary update to the 1911 Animal Welfare Act (2), sending its volunteers to town centres wearing Edwardian costumes to highlight the length of time since the Act was passed. But while the Edwardians undoubtedly had a dubious taste in fashion, it is surprisingly difficult to determine what is wrong with the 1911 Act from an animal welfare perspective.

That Act prohibits 'offences of cruelty' and provides for a prison sentence of up to six months or a fine of 5,000 if any person 'shall cruelly beat, kick, ill-treat, over-ride, over-drive, over-load, torture, infuriate, or terrify any animal'. The Act goes on to cite 'unnecessary suffering' as unlawful, and specifically outlaws 'fighting or baiting of any animal', wilful poisoning or injury without reasonable cause, and the subjecting of any animal to any operation 'without due care and humanity'.

The obvious omission of dogs was addressed in a 1933 Protection of Animals (Cruelty to Dogs) Act. The suggestion that animal welfare legislation has not changed in almost 100 years is, in fact, quite misleading. There have been over 40 amendments or introductions of new legislation since 1911 (3).

You might think that assembling all these different pieces of legislation and amendments into one bill would make for a more rational law, and perhaps it would (though I have my doubts), but that is not what the RSPCA is arguing for. The RSPCA wants to extend the 1911 Act to include a 'duty of care' for all persons in charge or in control of an animal, and to provide for an offence of 'likely to cause unnecessary suffering' - and the government agrees. This latter charge is to be backed up by increased RPSCA inspector and police powers to enter premises if they suspect cruelty to animals (4).

The offence of breaching the duty of care towards an animal will be judged upon whether the animal is free from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear and distress, and is able to express normal behaviour. These freedoms will be open to expansion based on any future developments in the understanding of animals so as to include, for example, the impact of insufficient environmental stimulation.

There are several problems with this proposal. The first problem is that it betrays a patronising attitude towards the pet-owning public, who will no longer be trusted to obtain a pet with the right intentions. Pet owners feel an automatic 'duty of care' towards the animal they acquire; it is often the defining feature of the relationship. We don't need the RSPCA and the government to tell us how to care.

It is bad enough being patronised by an over-zealous bunny hugger, but what is worse is that it is almost impossible not to fall foul of this law. The original 1911 Act had the good sense to confine the definition of cruelty mostly to obvious acts of physical insult, such as beating or running over the animal. By contrast, the 'duty of care' includes requirements to attend to the psychological needs of an animal, which means managing the relationships between pets and their owners in the best interests of the animal.

You might, for example, decide that your dog has to be locked into a single room for most of the day because of your need to work and the objectionable habits of your dog when he is roaming free expressing his 'normal behaviour'. The RSPCA might believe that this is not the best way to keep a dog, and many may agree. Most of us, however, accept that people are an authority over their own behaviour whereas the dog is not. Given that there are a wide variety of views on how best to care for an animal, pet owners remain at liberty to do with their own animals as they wish so long as the intent is not malevolent. Under a duty of care legislation, however, this liberty is lost, and types of pet ownership that may be interpreted as causing suffering can now lead to prosecution.

Fairgrounds will be forbidden from giving away goldfish as prizes
According to the draft legislation, there doesn't even need to be proof of actual suffering. The mere presence of circumstances that can or will lead to future suffering will be sufficient grounds for the authorities to enter a premises, take custody of animals and pursue a prosecution. The civil liberties implications are breathtaking and, if the RSPCA has its way, even foregoing the pleasure of owning a pet will not necessarily protect you. Animals that wander into your home may also carry a 'duty of care', and merely setting a mousetrap might lead you to violate that duty. Even if you are allowed to set the trap, should it spring upon a non-target species or you leave the targeted beastie in there for more than 12 hours you could be in violation of the law.

The fact that the RSPCA and police lack the resources to smash down every door potentially concealing a distressed or soon-to-be distressed animal is not the point. The mere existence of the law provides a pretext for entering a premise that would otherwise be protected by the need for a warrant and other due process.

Some have noted the potential for increasing the numbers of people falling foul of the law. John Cushnie, panellist on BBC Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time, expressed his outrage to the Daily Telegraph. 'To give worms and slugs protection under the law is ludicrous. If I have an infestation of slugs or snails or cabbage white butterflies then I will get rid of them in whatever way I choose. No one is going to tell me that the things are suffering. If I want to boil them alive, stamp on them or treat them to a slow drawn-out death by poison then I will - and I would like to see the government that would try to interfere with a man and his garden.' (5)

Much has also been made of the fact that the bill will forbid children under 16 from purchasing animals, and forbid fairgrounds from giving away goldfish as prizes. Bradshaw told BBC News that the banning of goldfish as prizes 'sends a message that buying a pet or owning a pet is an act of responsibility. You might not have a tank and also a lot of goldfish that are won at fairs end up on the compost heap' (6).

Except for worries that goldfish might not make for good compost - maybe Cushnie can advise - the problem with goldfish landing on the compost heap is lost on me. Without the fair the fish is likely not to have existed at all, which is a win for the fish; and for many a young child, owning a goldfish is their first attempt at caring for another living thing. The often premature fish death is met with a mixture of concern, wonder and further investigation, otherwise known as a valuable learning experience that will now be denied.

Neither people nor animals are likely to benefit from this proposed legislative attention. Children will be forced to forego opportunities to enjoy animals and learn from them, while adults may be increasingly reluctant to have any relationship with an animal lest they fall foul of a nebulous 'duty of care'. Animal welfare will suffer, since fewer people will be inclined to take the risk of caring for them - and never will human freedom have been sold so cheaply.

Stuart Derbyshire is assistant professor of anesthesiology and radiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Read on:

spiked-issue: On animals

(1) Launch of the draft animal welfare bill (.pdf 707 KB), Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, July 2004

(2) Animal Welfare Bill takes to the road, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

(3) A comprehensive list of UK animal welfare legislation can be found at the statute pages section of the Self Help Group for Farmers, Pet Owners and Others Experiencing Difficulties with the RSPCA website

(4) Time to act: The RSPCA's submission to the DEFRA consultation on a new Animal Welfare Bill (.pdf 624 KB), Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

(5) Gardeners critical over slug protection laws, Fiona Govan, Sunday Telegraph, 11 July 2004

(6) Overhaul for animal welfare laws, BBC News, 14 July 2004

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