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If only legislation could solve the welfare problems...

by
01 May 2015, at 12:00am

PERISCOPE continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

THIS year’s BVA Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF) discussion forum will take place on 8th June. One of the topics to be discussed will be the apparent over-population of companion animals in the UK, brought about in part, it will be argued, by loopholes in animal welfare legislation.

The evidence is that this over-population is getting worse with the RSPCA taking in 14% more abandoned, neglected or sick cats in 2014 than the year before, and horse charities a staggering 40% more horses.

It is likely to be claimed that the Government is contributing to the problem by failing to put in place measures to control and regulate indiscriminate breeding, and the sale and importation of animals.

If legislation could easily control things such as this then we could quickly pass a law and have done with it. Oh that it were that simple! When the Animal Welfare Act and its Scottish equivalent were enacted in 2006, they were heralded as the biggest improvement in animal welfare legislation in a century and a panacea for all things animal welfare related.

Codes of practice for the care of companion animals quickly joined those already in existence for the care of farmed animals, and it was made clear that pet owners were expected to know what was required of them in terms of the five freedoms. A golden age of improved animal welfare seemed to stretch out before us as we made our way to a utopian horizon. So where did it all go wrong?

Quite simply, those people who were formerly responsible pet owners didn’t need the welfare codes to tell them how to care for their pets. And those who were formerly irresponsible simply weren’t interested in what the codes had to say.

A few acres of trees “suffered” to provide the paper on which to print the codes, and everything continued pretty much as it had done for the previous “x” number of years.

And then along came the recession: the longest and deepest recession in living memory, and more and more people found that they had less and less money to spend. Result?

Horses began to be neglected and abandoned as people struggled to feed them and pay vet and farrier bills. Animals such as cats and dogs gradually found that they were surplus to requirements too, particularly when owners were faced with large and unexpected one-off bills, or perhaps long-term treatments for chronic conditions.

When people are faced with financial difficulties, something has to give, and whilst there are those who would go without food and heating in order to provide for their animals, there are plenty of others who would rather dispose of/neglect the horse/ cat/dog than get rid of Sky TV or the package holiday to Benidorm.

So how can legislation get us out of this mess? Quite simply it can’t. Legislation is only as good as the State’s ability and willingness to enforce it. Trying to enforce animal welfare legislation (except in those cases where there is cruelty on an unprecedented scale and which makes national news) is an absolute minefield.

Limited interest in minor cases

Many enforcement agencies aren’t willing to take up “minor” cases because they know that the courts will show only limited interest. Even if there is a successful prosecution, the penalties imposed are likely to be paltry and in no way comparable with the costs incurred in preparing and prosecuting the case.

Enforcement agencies are likely to be pilloried for their heavy-handed approach and if animals are removed from less than ideal homes they may well find themselves in a rescue centre where their life is no better than the one they’ve been removed from – and in some cases worse.

We all of us probably have a slightly different view on what constitutes an “ideal” home and the veterinary press has carried stories in recent years of rescue charities refusing to allow a veterinary surgeon to take on a rescued dog as his or her lifestyle was deemed unsuitable. Which really is a case of the lunatics running the asylum.

So if legislation is not the answer, what is? This is not an easy question to answer because the causes of the problems of abandoned pets are complex and fluid. No doubt when people really start to believe that the worst of austerity is past and their pay packets start to increase noticeably, some of the problem will simply melt away.

More spare cash in people’s pockets means that lower priorities (e.g. the family pet) can start to receive more funds. But the residual problem of abandoned pets will remain as it always has, just as the residual problem of child neglect and poverty remains. Legislation, however well intentioned, will not change any of them.

Education might provide some of the answer. There are countries in Europe where the care of animals and their welfare is being taught to some young children as part of the curriculum. Could that be implemented here? Doubtful in the current climate as many teachers will tell you that the curriculum is already prescriptive and crowded enough without bringing in another new initiative.

In the long-term, though, it might go some of the way to reduce the problem in the years ahead though it would certainly not be a quick fix.

Unpredictable and selfish

The real nub of the problem is that humans are unpredictable, selfish (to a greater or lesser extent) beings, with changing needs, aspirations, circumstances and disposable incomes.

“A dog is for life”, etc., misses the point that people’s lives and thoughts change, and probably none of us can say with certainty how we will feel about anything in a month, much less a couple of years’ time. Life has a habit of throwing unexpected things at us.

Living in a liberal democracy means people have to be allowed to make their own mistakes, even it that means some animals, and some children, are going to have less than ideal lives. We have all the legislation we need to prosecute blatant cases of cruelty and neglect in both animals and children and yet both still suffer.

Governments can’t (and shouldn’t) legislate against people changing their minds or for having expectations and morals that might be lower than the mean. To pretend otherwise is to spend time on something of little worth and to throw good money after bad.