Vet Ethics: Animal welfare all part of the plan

Victoria has released a new plan for animal welfare in the state. Animal Welfare Action Plan – Improving the Welfare of Animals in Victoria was developed after submissions from industry, veterinary bodies, welfare organizations, and other groups. The plan is designed to cover the welfare of companion animals, farm animals, animals in sport and science, and animals in the wild. Victorian Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford claims that the Animal Welfare Action Plan sets a new benchmark for animal welfare that reflects community expectations around how animals are treated.” Victoria’s Ambassador for Animal Welfare, Lizzie Blandthorn MP, helped to develop the plan.

One of the main aspects of the plan is an overhaul of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986, commonly known as POCTAA. This legislation is now thirty years old. Over that time, community attitudes towards animals have continued to evolve. Animal welfare excites stronger public feeling than it did several decades ago. Witness the overwhelming public response to revelations of widespread cruelty in Australia’s live animal export industry, or the increasing opposition to puppy farms.

The Animal Welfare Action Plan seeks to revisit codes of practice and guidelines on how animals are treated. In addition, it aims to promote education in order to improve “attitudes, knowledge, skills and compliance” in regards to animal welfare, and to foster collaboration on how to proactively address animal welfare issues. It also looks to strengthen enforcement of welfare legislation.
Importantly, there are plans to establish a body called Animal Welfare Victoria. According to the government, this body would gather together expertise and knowledge to enhance the goals of education, research, collaboration, enforcement, and legislative change that are part of the government’s stated vision for animal welfare.

This vision appears attractive to those interested in animal welfare. However, it has attracted some criticism from both pro-industry and pro-animal groups. For example, some of those in the latter camp argue that the plan is biased towards maintaining and even extending farming practices that are harmful to animals, rather than towards adopting, as the government intends, a more progressive vision on animal welfare.

It is true that one of the aims of the plan is to boost Australia’s reputation on animal welfare in order to remain competitive in animal agricultural industries. The government is no proponent of radical change in relation to animal farming. On the other hand, the Action Plan and the creation of Animal Welfare Victoria is a reflection of community interest in the need for better treatment of animals.

Part of point of the plan is to recognize animal sentience, or the fact that many animals have feelings and desires and can experience pain and pleasure. While the reality of animal sentience is something that hardly anyone seriously denies, making an explicit political declaration about animal sentience is surely a significant move. For while few people truly believe that animals are not sentient, it is all too easy to treat them as if they were not. In other words, it is easy to ignore the fact that they can suffer and that they have needs for a variety of positive experiences if their lives are to go well. It is especially easy if we have vested interests in using them for our ends.

The Victorian government has also recently initiated other legislative changes that may promote animal welfare. It has moved to prevent landlords from disallowing tenants who have pets. This could help to support the human-animal bond and reduce abandonment, relinquishment, and rehoming of companion animals. The government has also introduced legislation to wipe out puppy farms, including by preventing pet shops from selling animals unless they are from shelters, pounds or voluntarily registered foster carers.

Some have criticized the creation of Animal Welfare Victoria for the very different reason that it goes too far in the direction of appeasing pro-animal groups and attitudes. For example, the Victorian Farmers Federation opposes the bringing together of farm animals and companion animals under the one umbrella. VFF believes that Animal Welfare Victoria is unnecessary because animal industries already lead the world on animal welfare. The new welfare body, the Federation claims, would also sideline the existing Livestock Industry Consultative Committee, which deals with animal welfare issues in a way that, it says, satisfies community attitudes.
Animal Welfare Victoria is to award $500,000 in grants to non-profit community organizations to advance our understanding of animal welfare. It will also publish an annual animal welfare report. Community attitudes to animals continue to change.

So too does the science of animal welfare. A more independent body that has broad expertise may be more capable of remaining abreast of changes in community values and of improving our understanding of the nature of animal welfare. Time will tell if the new action plan achieves its goals.

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