New Zealand Law Society - Animal welfare watchdog needed, study finds

Animal welfare watchdog needed, study finds

Animal welfare watchdog needed, study finds

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A Law Foundation-backed report is helping drive a push for more effective enforcement of animal welfare law.

The report, Animal Welfare in New Zealand: Oversight, Compliance and Enforcement, gained considerable publicity on its release at the end of May around its key finding that less than one percent of complaints under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 ever reach prosecution.

The report called for greater resourcing of the SPCA and the Ministry for Primary Industries, the two organisations primarily responsible for enforcing the Act. It also proposed that an independent Commissioner for Animals be established to advocate for animal welfare, and called for a public inquiry into the adequacy of animal welfare protection in New Zealand.

Two of the Otago University researchers who co-wrote the report, Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere (Faculty of Law) and Dr Mike King (Bioethics Centre), are now working on detailed models for how an Animals Commissioner could operate.

“A commissioner would oversee the sector and advocate for proper resourcing for the appropriate enforcement agencies,” Mr Rodriguez Ferrere says. “Judge Andrew Becroft has been a remarkably effective advocate for children in his short time in the role. I would like to see someone like that in this position. It’s an area that cries out for independent oversight.”

Mr Rodriguez Ferrere sees the role being established as an officer of Parliament, similar to the Children’s Commissioner and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Its remit would include production animals, companion animals, animals used for entertainment (rodeo and the racing industries), and animals subject to pest control.

While it’s unclear whether animal abuse is increasing, greater public awareness of the problem has led to higher reporting of complaints, due to publicity on issues such as animal transport, rodeo and intensive confinement of farmed animals. But the sub-one percent prosecution rate for animal welfare cases compares unfavourably with the 20% prosecution rate for criminal law complaints generally.

“The disparity isn’t justified,” Mr Rodriguez Ferrere says. “We expect the animal welfare enforcement agencies to act like the Police, but they are not even close to being well enough resourced. This means they have to choose the most egregious cases to prosecute. It’s important for the SPCA to ensure that each prosecution is a win.”

The high costs of prosecutions and appeals means that, in some cases, the SPCA cannot always afford to be represented in court, he says.

The issue has not attracted a strong political response to date, although officials and sector organisations support greater resourcing for enforcement. Mr Rodriguez Ferrere says the strong media and wider public interest shows that a lot of people care about the issue.

The Law Foundation is backing another research project that aims to improve enforcement of animal welfare standards. A coalition of lawyers, the New Zealand Animal Law Association, is studying legal standards and regulation around farmed animals, in particular pigs and chickens.

The researchers will interview stakeholders to understand the law in action and how it might be improved, aiming to report around March next year.

The Otago University report Animal Welfare in New Zealand: Oversight, Compliance and Enforcement, is available on the Law Foundation website.

Lynda Hagen is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

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