Vet Ethics: The business of animal abuse

Over the last few years there have been two explosive Four Corners reports about animal abuse associated with Australian animal industries. The first, as you will recall, was the expose on live animal export. In that report, the public learnt that many Australian animals exported to overseas destinations were subject routinely to the most shocking and abusive treatment.

The more recent Four Corners report, of course, revealed to a mass audience the existence of widespread cruelty in the Australian greyhound industry. The public was informed of the practice of live baiting greyhounds – or “blooding” them as participants have long called it – which causes in small animals like possums, piglets, and rabbits extreme fear and suffering.

In one sense, the “ethics” of this treatment of animals is clear-cut: both industry and the general population condemn it as unacceptable, and such treatment of animals in Australia is a criminal offence.

However, there is much more to these two stories than this. In fact, it will be interesting to compare these Four Corners exposes and the industries that are involved in them.

First of all, the fallout from the Four Corners reports has been substantial. You will recall that the government ordered a temporary suspension of the trade in live Australian cattle with Indonesia – politically speaking, a significant domestic and regional response. People marched in the streets against the export of Australian cattle to Asia and of sheep and goats to the Middle East, where they are often brutally treated.

In response to community shock and outrage over the practice of live baiting, one State government removed the members of a racing board and another announced an investigation by the Racing Integrity commissioner. State greyhound racing bodies stood down a number of exposed trainers, cancelled an awards night, saw the resignation of a chairman, and promised to cooperate fully to eradicate what they agreed is a disgusting practice. As those involved were committing illegal acts, they now face criminal prosecution and also suspension from the greyhound racing industry.

Another relevant comparison concerns the fact that both industries are or were (in the case of live export) self-regulating. Before the Indonesia revelations, an industry commissioned report into the Indonesian trade concluded that the welfare of Australian cattle was “generally good”. This assessment was rendered untenable in the light of the television footage of cattle being tormented. Public outrage forced the end of self-regulation in that industry.

An inability to uncover and act on severe animal abuse was also found to be a feature of the self-regulating greyhound industry. This is so despite the fact that the industry has an animal welfare strategy and despite its public assurances that it has a solid approach to animal welfare. The situation prompted the Independent MP Andrew Wilkie to say that the “industry so far have done nothing but show they can’t be trusted, have shown that there is a pressing need for government intervention and government regulation”.

Others, however, had a very different response to the exposes of animal cruelty. Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce criticized the animal activists who obtained, possibly sometimes by way of trespass, the footage crucial to the ABC TV program and to its political and legal consequences. You might recall that the animal rights group Animals Australia obtained, quite legally, the important footage of Australian cattle being brutalized in Indonesia abattoirs. In the live baiting case, Animals Australia (as well as Animal Liberation Queensland) was once again were responsible for getting the video evidence. In neither case was this vivid documentary evidence of cruelty obtained by either industry or law enforcement agencies.

Federal Senator Chris Back was critical of activists who acquire video footage by trespass and who do not hand swiftly over that evidence to law enforcement agencies. The Australian reports that Senator Back’s proposed bill, which the senate is considering, “would impose five-year prison terms for trespass offences that result in economic damage of more than $10,000, or 10 years’ jail for damage exceeding $100,000.

Economic damage exceeding $1 million would carry a 20-year penalty under the bill”. Senator Back also wants it made be a law that evidence of illegal animal cruelty has to be delivered to authorities within days of its collection even when it is obtained legally.

The Senators’ positions invoke the prospect of what in the US have been called “Ag-gag” laws, named because of their potential to limit public knowledge of otherwise hidden illegal activity in agricultural industries. These laws would occur in circumstances in which laws against trespass already exist. Senator Back makes the point that compelling the release to authorities of evidence of cruelty sooner rather than later might prevent animal abuse that could occur while further evidence is being collected by journalists or activists. Immediately giving this evidence to the authorities, he thinks, is the action of someone who truly cares about animal welfare. Senator Back questioned the motivation of those who collect and then delay handing over the footage to the police or RSPCA.

It is obvious that a major reason for this delay is to build up a sufficiently strong case to enable an effective public and law enforcement response. One might admit that this approach has the unfortunate possible consequence that animals continue to be abused in the meantime. Two points, however, are worth making. First, if the original evidence is not effective enough for public/law enforcement action, then the abuse may continue in any case. Second, and more importantly, the aim of building a larger and more effective case in such circumstances as these is to prevent the abuse of far higher numbers of animals over longer periods of time. In contrast, a likely consequence of Ag-gag and similar laws is to stop compelling evidence of endemic cruelty in animal-use industries entering the public domain.


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