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Peters: Address To SPCA Regarding Animal Welfare

25 August 2004

Public Address by Rt Hon Winston Peters SPCA’s Companion Animal Workshop Rotorua

It is good to be here today to talk about animals and their welfare.

They are an integral part of our lives in New Zealand, particularly in the farming community.

Also most homes have a pet of some description. They seem to fill a need in the human psyche.

The most well-known animal lover in history was St Francis of Assisi – the patron saint of animals.

Perhaps the most famous story of St. Francis is when he tamed the wolf that was terrorizing the people of Gubbio.

This wolf had been killing and eating not only animals but people too, and the villagers had become afraid to leave the city walls.

Francis had pity on the people and decided to go out and meet the dangerous wolf. Accompanied by a brave friar, he went into the woods only to be faced by the ravenous wolf.

St. Francis ordered the wolf to halt and explained that the people of Gubbio wanted to make peace with him, and that they would feed the wolf every day.

From that day on the people kept the pact they had made. The wolf lived for two years among the townspeople, going from door to door for food. It hurt no one and no one hurt it.

What a wonderful picture this paints of animals and humans living together in harmony.

Unfortunately, this story does not reflect modern reality.

St Francis would be absolutely beside himself if he had to witness some of the animal abuse cases taking place today.

Just two weeks ago, a Christchurch man was sentenced to three months’ in jail, fined $2,500 and banned from having a pet for five years.

This individual had bashed his already malnourished dog over the head with a baseball bat, taped her mouth shut and left her to die on Christchurch’s Port Hills.

If upheld, this jail term will be the harshest penalty ever imposed for animal cruelty in New Zealand.

For some time now, there has been concern expressed over the low sentencing levels for cases involving the gross mistreatment of animals.

This concern is certainly justified.

While the 1999 Animal Welfare Act allows for fines of up to $50,000 and/or sentences of up to three years in jail for acts of wilful cruelty, these sentences are rarely handed out. Animal cruelty cases are serious, and people who engage in acts of animal cruelty could be just as capable of doing the same to humans.

It is certainly not stretching the imagination to realise that people who take pleasure in inflicting pain on living, sentient beings, are not likely to show much compassion to their fellow humans.

The issue that needs to be examined is not so much the species of the victim as the cruelty of the act committed.

Cruelty is cruelty, and it is always wrong.

As evidence demonstrates, someone heartless enough to torture a defenceless animal is capable of doing nearly anything.

As a compassionate society we have a duty to protect the innocent and defenceless among us from those with violent and destructive tendencies.

It has been said that violence begets violence, but what do we know about the nature of the relationship between the abuse of animals and aggressive behaviour towards human beings?

Studies in Australia and the United States have shown people who were cruel to animals were also likely to commit sexual and physical assault, arson, vandalism and theft.

The links have led to child-protection and animal welfare groups working together to identify and cross-report incidences of abuse.

At a recent seminar in Sydney, US child psychologist Frank Ascione presented the common roots of violence to people and animals.

He called for a national tracking system to monitor animal cruelty, a view backed by Melbourne psychologist Eleonora Gullone.

Some may argue that prosecutors are far too busy, and prisons are far too crowded, dealing with criminals who have harmed humans.

They believe we have to give these cases priority, so animal abuse shouldn't be viewed that seriously.

But, since the animal abuser of today stands a very good chance of being the murderer, rapist or child abuser of tomorrow, the odds are that the justice system will be dealing with them sooner or later anyway.

And if we are really serious about protecting the public from these heinous crimes, we should deal with them sooner.

The light sentencing of those found guilty of animal mistreatment only encourages further mistreatment.

Some of the cowardly sadists responsible for the suffering of animals would think twice if they thought there was a chance of something approaching a maximum sentence being handed out.

The principles of animal welfare need to be universally understood, respected and protected by enforced legislation.

As such, the Animal Welfare Act should be amended to give greater legal status to animals.

To ensure that those found guilty of animal cruelty are handed the maximum sentence relevant to the harm they have caused, the Animal Welfare Act should include similar provisions to that of the 2002 Sentencing Act.

Under similar provisions to this Act, those found guilty of animal mistreatment or neglect could be called to account in a far more serious way than has previously been the case.

For example, the Act prescribes that in sentencing or otherwise dealing with an offender, the court must take into account the gravity of the offending in the particular case, including the degree of culpability of the offender.

The consideration of the offender’s culpability is important in cases of animal cruelty and neglect because of the vulnerable position animals are in.

The Act also prescribes that the court must impose a penalty near to the maximum for the offence if the offending is near to the most serious of cases for which that penalty is prescribed.

If an animal dies or must be put down as a result of the offender’s rage, negligence or deliberate mistreatment, that person deserves to face a sentence at or near the maximum range.

The recently amended dog control laws have changed dog ownership rights.

Requirements such as microchip identification and having to obtain a special license from the local council to keep more than three dogs, as well as a significant increase in dog registration fees, have some people claiming that dog ownership may easily change from a right to a privilege.

In addition, under the new regulations, councils can ban people from owning a dog for up to five years and have stronger powers to seize stray, unregistered and dangerous dogs.

The recent terrible tragedy in Dunedin highlighted just how dangerous some animals can be under certain circumstances.

Any dog can be dangerous and some are potential killers.

There is no room for sentiment in these cases. The dog has to go and hopefully before the harm has been done.

Removal of the freedom of choice for dog owners and breeders to carry out tail docking has also recently come into the limelight.

The Animal Welfare (Restriction on Docking of Dogs’ Tails) Bill was drawn out of the parliamentary ballot earlier this month.

This will be an issue of interest to all animal lovers.

Some animal welfare groups argue that tail docking is an act of cruelty.

Others maintain that when the correct procedures are followed, cruelty has never been proven.

Some say that while tail docking is legal, the procedures can be carried out in a safe environment by people who have had proper training.

And others claim that making tail docking illegal would open up the possibility of inhumane procedures carried out by untrained owners.

Ignorance is the main contributor to animal abuse, and education is important in ensuring the prevention of cruelty.

Anyone who looks closely at how animals are treated around the world today cannot help but be confused.

Hunters cherish their hunting dogs, but kill and trap wildlife without conscience or regret.

People coddle furry house pets, but think nothing of wearing the skins of animals.

At animal farms and zoos, parents introduce their children to animals usually found in the wild, but see no harm in exposing them to circus acts which degrade animals.

The law too is contradictory.

It is legal to butcher livestock for food, but not to cause them to suffer during slaughter.

It is legal to kill chickens for the pot, but not to allow fighting cocks to kill each other.

Animals can be used for painful laboratory experiments, but they must be exercised and their cages must be kept clean.

Kittens can be drowned, but not abandoned.

Certain types of birds are protected, but others are annihilated.

These are the contradictions we live with.

But, if young people are taught at an early age to respect and care for their pets and other animals, they will tend to do so throughout their lives and pass the same attitude onto their own children.

Like a number of New Zealanders, I grew up on a farm.

Animals were central to our farming abilities, and ensuring they were fit and healthy was crucial.

Our economy is dependent on farm exports and we have to take seriously the ever-higher standards for the treatment of animals demanded by consumers in some of our key overseas markets.

The humane treatment of farm animals should be an ethical imperative for all New Zealanders.

But, as a meat-exporting nation, it is also in our own interests to give animal welfare a high priority.

While most of our exporters understand this requirement, it’s about time it became a necessity.

There is increasing evidence that New Zealanders want their political representatives to give animal welfare far more priority as an issue.

As evidence of growing public concern over animal welfare standards, a Colmar Brunton survey recorded in April 2002 displayed a 79% response in favour of a ban on battery cages for hens.

More than 10,000 submissions to Government collected since March 2002 called for cages to be phased out as soon as possible and not later than 2010.

These are not fluke results.

A similar level of support during the 2001 campaign against sow stalls, the cruelly restrictive pens in which some pregnant pigs are kept, was received from New Zealanders.

More than 65,000 submissions were sent to the Government calling for sow stalls to be banned whilst nearly 90% of those surveyed told pollsters that they regarded the use of stalls as unacceptable.

There has been media coverage earlier this year concerning “exotic meat processors” engaged in supplying horsemeat to the European luxury market.

And since 2000, we in New Zealand First have warned the Government about the increasing incidence of dogs being farmed in New Zealand for human consumption.

We share the same fear, which has been expressed in animal welfare quarters that the local market has reached the point where hundreds of dogs have been killed for consumption in the Auckland region.

New Zealand is a nation of dog lovers. Dogs in the main are farmers’ workmates and peoples’ friends.

They offer security and companionship to a lot of people and they should be protected from cruel exploitation.

Unfortunately, the attitude from the courts over animal welfare makes this sort of exploitation a lot easier than it should be.

There is no doubt that St Francis demonstrated an affinity with nature and with the animal kingdom.

He was known for his humility – not a popular word in our dictionary!

Greater law enforcement powers in animal welfare legislation should ensure that those not willing to display humility and who grossly mistreat animals receive a clear and consistent message that their behaviour is wrong and deserves punishment.

Because, as St Francis has been quoted as saying, "If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who deal likewise with their fellow men."


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