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Herald On Sunday Editorial: Four legs good, two legs better

Anne Power has been convicted previously for neglecting cattle and horses. Photo / Doug Sherring
Anne Power has been convicted previously for neglecting cattle and horses. Photo / Doug Sherring

Back to court, then, for Anne Power, her five fox terriers, 18 horses and two llamas.

As in George Orwell's Animal Farm, it seems the livestock have taken over the courtroom. And the delays that once looked like high farce are now turning into tragedy.

These animals - and the eight years they have been in SPCA care - signify much of what is wrong with our animal welfare laws. There were 21 horses, but three have died since they were seized from Power's paddocks in Drury eight years ago.

And still, the legal wranglings over ownership drag on. Power has been convicted previously for neglecting cattle and horses, and for owning two dogs that attacked - but this time round, the SPCA prosecution failed.

The Papakura District Court ordered the animals' return, but the owner of the paddock turned away the first horse float - and so, on Friday, the SPCA went back to court asking that the judge's order be recalled.

Both sides claim to be acting with the animals' best interests at heart (it is fair to say the SPCA has a somewhat better track record in this respect).

And yet, since the thin horses and cowering pups were seized from Power eight years ago, the justice system has been unable to resolve their ownership or secure their futures in safe and loving homes.

Instead, the foxies have spent much of the time in the concrete pound at Mangere, costing the organisation more than $100,000 and going home with staff at night.

This is not an isolated example. The Herald on Sunday has found five horses seized from another owner two years ago, 15 cockatiels in SPCA care for two years, and nearly 50 cats put in a home 15 months ago.

This country's judges are constrained by the law from exercising the wisdom of Solomon: threatening to chop the animals in two, to see who cares most for their welfare.

And they are also constrained by law from acting with the same urgency that they would in child protection cases, making an interim order to put a child into CYF custody even before the parent or carer is convicted of abuse or neglect.

The SPCA wants to change this: it proposes a law reform that would enable a judge to order an animal's forfeiture soon after charges are laid against the owner.

This may seem like an attack on the presumption of innocence. Surely the owner should not be penalised till the charges have been heard and they are convicted?

But perhaps, in this case, it is better to compromise that person's right to own the animals than it is to throw away the animals' right to a secure and humane future.

There is precedent for such an impingement on an owner's property rights. Customs and police officers may seize goods where there is "reasonable cause" to believe they are imported or exported illegally.

And the proceeds of crime - usually houses and cars - can be forfeit when there is, again, "reasonable cause" to believe they were obtained with earnings from drug-dealing or other organised crime. Neither forfeiture requires that the owner be found guilty of a crime.

Only the more radical animal-lovers would argue a domestic pet's life should be protected just like a human's.

But the present law provides greater protection for a person's right to own animals than it does to the animal's right to be humanely treated.

This is surely a case of, in Orwell's words, "four legs good, two legs better".

The SPCA is right to demand change.

- Herald on Sunday

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