Why We Need to Improve Animal Welfare Laws

Animal welfare laws

Current standards, the rise of public knowledge, and the need for change

The recent review of animal welfare law in NSW was led by the Department of Primary Industries. It was the first of its kind in over a decade. As an authority under state animal welfare legislation, the Department is tasked with achieving impossibly polar opposite aims. It must simultaneously promote the profitability of animal agribusiness on one hand and manage the inevitable suffering implicit in its operation on the other. Today we tackle this significant conflict of interest and outline why meaningful structural changes are urgently needed in animal welfare legislation. In particular, we will look at the moral significance of sentience and why it must inform any future progressive welfare reforms.

The last two decades have seen a relatively meteoric rise in public concern regarding issues of animal welfare [1]. Yet, punishment for acts of animal cruelty remains exceedingly rare [2]. The outlawing of the live export trade and greyhound racing in NSW are – when considered – demonstrations that Australian lawmakers are beginning to recognise the existence of deeper social unrest about poor welfare caused by cruelty to animals [3]. At the time, Australia had been an exporter of livestock for over a century [4]. These bans, though temporary, reflect the growing presence of progressive politics and its potential impact on the ways animals are treated in Australia. A key takeaway from the reforms is the growing demand for a truly independent statutory office, an Independent Office of Animal Welfare (IOAW), tasked with overseeing, governing and enforcing welfare laws [5].

Live export welfare
Live Export Ship
Credit: Animals Australia & 60 Minutes

A toothless law cannot bite back

At present, the brunt of both the legislative and practical responsibility for animal welfare issues is shouldered by state branches of charities, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the Animal Welfare League (AWL) and, rarely, State police forces [6, 7]. In many cases, offenders may have recourse to cite various Codes of Practice (COPs), guides, or Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as exemptions to offences under state legislation [7]. A sizeable gamut of these documents essentially provides cruelty offenders with get-out-jail-free cards. These provisions are symptomatic of a disturbingly weak regulatory regime that effectively legalises cruelty to (most) animals. In NSW, for example, COPs are incorporated into the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act through provisions contained within additional documents, particularly the ancillary Regulations of the Act [8]. These effectively void the only legal provisions intended to prevent cruelty. Even if offenders are caught red-handed committing gross acts of animal cruelty, they may walk free as if the suffering they instigate is only an offence upon a limited range of select species.

Studies have shown that animal welfare law enforcers employed by the equivalent of Australia’s DPI, such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), experience profound distress and disappointment at the scarcity of successful convictions handed down for often egregious acts of animal cruelty [9]. Convictions under the American regulatory regime are also counted as “infrequent” and are “generally limited to minimal fines” [10]. Indeed, “there is general consensus” that legislation “has failed to fulfil its potential in fostering the humane treatment of animals” [11]. This is the foundation of arguments that insist laws must act as tools that “must remain ever servant, never master” to society and its guiding ethos [12].

Chicken maceration welfare
Egg Industry Live Chick Maceration
Credit: Aussie Farms

A brief look behind the numbers

During the 2018-19 financial year, RSPCA NSW investigated a total of 15,673 cruelty complaints. Of these, 75 prosecutions were “finalised”. Only 68 were successful [2]. This amounts to less than 0.5% of complaints being successfully prosecuted. Such figures may be startling. Studies have shown, however, that the leniency of such sentences follows a deeply disturbing trend; between January 1996 and December 2000, “only 3% of offenders who committed acts of animal cruelty were imprisoned”. 80% of those imprisoned were released after four months or less and 98% were fined $1,000 or less [13]. The legislative framework, as it stands, is heavily weighed in favour of the offender.

The DPI issues paper explained that, though the Department and the NSW Government more generally does not protect or promote animal welfare solely through the application of the law – which it does so sparingly – a “baseline” is needed to “ensure that the few individuals who do the wrong thing” are “held to account”. Our submission to the review concluded that the process was innately flawed, toothless and an abject failure of the present political system, which refuses to follow community expectations and sound science. Rather than being the actions of a few “bad apples”, as industry and government alike would like us to believe, the entire orchard is toxic.

broiler chicken farm
Example of a broiler chicken farm in NSW
Credit: Animal Liberation

Here’s why.

Previously published DPI reports admit:

“the community may perceive a conflict of interest if the industry were self-regulated because the same body entrusted with promoting the interests of its members would also be responsible for monitoring compliance with animal welfare standards” [14].

The statement appears to suggest that such a conflict of interest could occur. In reality, it is already underway in each state and territory. No substantial structural change has been imposed on primary producers. Rather, moves to further shroud the true nature of animal agribusiness has been amplified and reinforced by political parties with an electoral interest in retaining the status quo. The true scale of suffering that the facilities these parties protect churn out is mind-boggling. Often, we are unable to even imagine the magnitude [15]. Because of this, most consumers fail to realise that the “overwhelming majority of animal suffering at human hands” is not borne out of cruelty, per se. Rather, these animals suffer normalised abuse and “socially acceptable motives”, such as farming animals for their flesh, fibres, or bodily fluids [16].

Others simply refuse to allow questions with uneasy answers to enter their minds at all. This is primarily because most people are aware of the extreme suffering animals routinely experience [17]. The majority of consumers enjoy eating animals, yet simultaneously disapprove of harming them [18]. In general, the killing of animals for human consumption is something “no one wants to know about” [19]. Others concerned with the environmental destruction indelibly tied to animal agribusiness may rationalise their consumption with a range of discursive excuses. For instance, they may believe that technology will continue to improve and surpass the present production system through the invention of increasingly sophisticated plant-based alternatives to animal protein. Cellular agriculture is one example of this [20]. This optimistic approach may compete with a belief that “it’s the system, not the meat” causing problems [21]. The latter is a neo-welfarist approach which effectively allows it’s proponents to continue consuming animal flesh despite an awareness of the suffering it’s production involves [22].

For the average consumer, more than a little help is provided by producers, retailers and the packaging they shrink-wrap legs, breasts, ribs and an array of other body parts in [23]. Many industries have been permitted to create their own, largely voluntary, guides, standards and codes [24]. Previous Minister’s have revealed, on record, their unwavering allegiance to the producers their office is legally tasked with overseeing, investigating, and disciplining.

The current procedure is failing

In 2018, for example, the NSW Legislative Council Select Committee on Unauthorised Filming or Surveillance revealed the attitudes producers exhibit to animal welfare. During the proceedings, the CEO of Egg Farmers Australia bluntly stated that “an animal has a bad day in every agricultural livestock supply chain” [25]. The phrase, “bad day”, echoes the claims made in the NSW animal welfare reforms issues paper. It significantly diminishes the suffering animals, such as hens, kept in all varieties of life-long confinement experience. During the same hearing, Animal Liberation’s CEO and Farmed Animal Campaign Co-ordinator argued that “rather than being about preventing animal cruelty, this is a blatant attempt to control what we know”. We explained that “it has been activists – and only activists – who have brought terrible instances of cruelty to the public” [25].

The day before the Senate proceedings, Animal Liberation published a press release stating:

“last week we saw footage from a Victorian slaughterhouse showing workers kicking the decapitated heads of sheep around the kill floor like footballs. Earlier this year we saw ducks killed whilst fully conscious. Sheep are escaping only to be dragged back to their deaths. There is no excuse for the authorities tasked with protecting animal welfare to stand idly by as abuse of this kind continues” [26].

A year later, Animal Liberation revealed the sickening abuse that “spent” layer hens endure, from birth through death by gas or decapitation [27]. Victorian Farmers Federation Egg Group president Tony Nesci claimed that he didn’t need “a lecture on how to treat animals, especially from a bloody journalist” [28]. Twenty-four hours later, Mr Nesci had stepped down from his Victoria Farmers Federation position [29, 30]. Despite this, we were challenged to “immediately provide the raw, unedited, and un-modified footage” to police and relevant state authorities. This demand was obviously intended to appear as though parts of the exposé were “modified” [28]. It was another attempt to find the bad apple in the orchard. Both Victoria Police and Agriculture Victoria, the equivalent of the NSW DPI, were alerted. The latter investigated the matter [30] [31].

animal cruelty chickens
Contract workers mocking and killing the chickens.
Full exposé by Animal Liberation

“Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made”.

Our submission to the welfare review panel argued that significant and non-negotiable changes must be made in the effectiveness and transparency of compliance and enforcement efforts. We argued that for legislation of any kind to function properly and achieve its stated objectives, it must not only be well crafted but appropriately executed and efficiently enforced [32]. This sentiment is backed by Commonwealth research regarding citizen attitudes to animal welfare [33].

Without implementing significant and necessary reforms, the present regulatory regime will continue to fail the animals it ostensibly aims to protect. In the process, it will doom thousands to incredible and preventable suffering. Our state laws will continue to lack the teeth required to truly impel producers to make even minor or cosmetic changes. This has been shown by the charades played by various industries to improve animal welfare by removing or tweaking only certain components of the system they are willing to accept are cruel enough to discontinue. These most often relate to confinement systems. The Australian pig-meat industry and its voluntary “phase-out” of the sow stall, for instance, is a classic case study of this façade, or “humane-washing”, in action [34].

Pig welfare standards
NSW Welfare Standards for pigs
Image: Aussie Farms

The moral imperative of animal sentience and its implications for welfare legislation

Welfare is generally defined as positive health, happiness and fortuity. Theoretically, animal welfare has been broadly defined for some time [35]. In practice, it is a “multi-faceted issue” involving “important scientific, economic and political dimensions” [36]. It can, therefore, be understood as both scientific and social [37]. Unfortunately, both of these concepts can be co-opted by industry-led misinformation campaigns [38]. Often, the government colludes in their creation. As the public is routinely “bombarded” with “polarised, simplistic depictions” of animal agribusiness, the intended result is a community of “misinformed” individuals [39]. Because “citizens’ concerns about farm animal welfare are often dismissed on the assumption that they are not well informed,” this is significant [40].

Welfare may refer to a procedure, conscious, or concerted effort to promote positive outcomes. These can, in turn, be considered alongside others as plots on a continuum ranging from “good” to “bad” and in between [36]. Reforms of the kind NSW recently engaged in, present a valuable opportunity to expose deeply hidden truths, such as the fact that “a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old” [41]. The size of the cage is of no consequence in these instances.

The rise of public knowledge and outcry

Thankfully, public opinion is beginning to fill the significant gaps left by industry and government alike. A significant reason for this is the unprecedented spread of information, including first-hand footage taken inside facilities. Though film has been a strong influence since the mid-1950s, it was not until the 21st century that oppressive “Ag-Gag” laws were introduced across the Western world [42] [43] [44]. Like picking apart a feeble argument only to find further problems at every corner, Australians are beginning to accept that we “owe something to animals” and that we do so “on the basis that they are sentient” [45].

On this, the latest national figures are unequivocal. Fully 95% of Australian consumers consider welfare to be “an area of concern”. At least 91% of these want to see this concern improved through reform. Participants generally agreed that “animals have needs [and] choosing not to meet these needs is cruel” [33]. Yet the annual slaughter statistics outpace the standing herd and flock numbers at any given time. This is because “most livestock reach slaughter weight well within one year” [46]. Chickens bred and raised for their flesh, for instance, are killed between 30 and 55 days of age. The difference is because chickens are killed at specific ages depending on their purpose [47].

In early 2020, a statutory authority established under the Primary Industries Research and Development Act referred to as Agrifutures admitted that “animal agriculture is under more community scrutiny than ever before”. It acknowledged that “social licence issues have arisen on everything from livestock’s contribution to climate change through to shifting animal welfare expectations” [48].

Typical battery cage farm for layer hens.
Credit: Animal Liberation

What’s next?

Animal Liberation will continue to fight, expose, and transmit the side of the story each exploitative industry refuses to reveal to its consumers. We will do so to abide by our mission: permanently improving the lives of all animals.

Animal Liberation will be holding a submission writing workshop with the NSW Young Lawyers Animal Law Committee post-COVID19. Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram for alerts, news and campaign updates.

The NSW Government is currently accepting submissions regarding animal welfare issues. If you would like to speak up on behalf of the animals, we have written a template for you here.

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One Comment

  1. The sooner Laws are changed to benefit the Animals instead of Humans the better.
    All too often Animals suffer from Human hands for the table & for their own sadistic pleasure. Too often some people have said “I don’t care I like the taste “ too often Animals are tortured, raped, maimed & just thrown aside to die. Chickens grinder alive, sometimes cows cut up alive. All because someone likes the taste.
    Now it’s time to change to benefit the Animals & put them 1st.

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