Animal welfare in Ireland is better, but what next?
Last weekend, I gave a talk to a national meeting of the ISPCA, reflecting on aspects of animal welfare in Ireland. I moved to Ireland from my home country of Scotland twenty five years ago, so I described how things have changed for animal welfare in that period. I also asked questions about what the aim should be for animal welfare over the next twenty five years.
Looking back, there's no doubt that there have been many improvements. Animals are now given more respect in Irish society, with a wider recognition that they are sentient beings who can feel pain and fear, just like humans.
The biggest single change has been the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act in 2013. This new law insists that people must provide the "five freedoms" to animals under their care: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort (by providing adequate living conditions), freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom to express normal behaviour, and freedom from fear and distress. The new Act was introduced to give more authority to welfare officers to intervene before situations become serious, and to provide stricter penalties to those who were guilty of improper treatment of animals.
For the first time, owners have the responsibility to care for the well being of their animals. Prior to this, it was a crime to be physically cruel to animals, but if there was no physical evidence of injury, it was difficult to get a prosecution for neglect. The new Act changes this, and since 2014, there have been over fifty prosecutions. Offences successfully prosecuted have included causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals, ignoring necessary steps to protect the welfare of animals, neglecting the welfare of animals, failing to provide necessary veterinary treatment and failing to comply with notices issued from officers to take corrective measures in the interest of animals.
These prosecutions represent the tip of the iceberg: there must be many hundreds of situations where people have changed their behaviour because of the threat or fear of prosecution.
Implementation of the new Act is a work in progress, and the Department of Agriculture has recently initiated a programme of training for officers involved in implementing the animal welfare code. The hope is that in the coming decades, infringements of animal welfare will become rarer and rarer as owners realise that that if they do not look after their animals properly, they'll be taken to court.
Of course cruelty cases still happen: in 2015, over 3,000 cases of animal cruelty were reported to the ISPCA via its helpline, leading to the rescue of over 1,100 animals. The good news, however, is that the ISPCA now has robust legislation to support its actions, whereas in the past, there were many situations where the charity could not intervene because strictly speaking, although an animal was not being looked after well, the law was not being broken.
There have been two other significant new laws affecting animal welfare: the Dog Breeding Establishment Act 2010, which regulates puppy farms, and the introduction of compulsory microchipping of all dogs. The combination of this legislation plus many other factors on the ground (including much hard work on the part of local animal rescue groups) has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of unwanted stray dogs being euthanased in Ireland's dog pounds.
In the 1990's between 25 and 30000 dogs were killed every year. The latest Irish Pound figures from 2015, released earlier this month, show that 1,824 dogs were destroyed in Irish pounds in 2015. This is a massive improvement on the historic figures, and it's a 37% decrease on 2014, which is a welcome trend.
One ongoing issue is the high percentage of registered greyhounds entering and dying in the Pound system. Of the 366 greyhounds entering the pound system last year, 203 were destroyed (55%). Dogs Trust and other animal welfare groups are calling on owners and trainers of racing greyhounds to make adequate provision for their rehoming once their racing careers end so that this high percentage can be tackled.
So what are the pressing animal welfare issues for the next twenty five years in this country? First, the pressure needs to be maintained, using existing laws and structures, to ensure that animal cruelty generally is kept to a minimum.
There are specific areas where actions to improve the lot of animals are still needed. Examples include ultra-intensive farming, such as pig and poultry production: the pressure from supermarkets for cheap food has to be balanced by efforts to give all farm animals a life worth living. The use of animals in medical experiments is another area where balance is needed: the development of tissue cultures and computer models should be able to reduce the numbers of live animals used. A ban on wild animals used for entertainment in circuses is another goal, and many would like to see the end of live export of farm animals to countries where treatment of animals does not come up to Irish standards.
Much has been done, but there's still plenty more to do to help Ireland's animals.