In NZ animals are afforded basic rights including freedom from pain and suffering. The Animal Welfare Act makes it illegal to deliberately subject an animal to cruelty or abuse.
This does not protect all animals however, as those used in research, testing and experimentation are exempt from the Animal Welfare Act, with many subjected to painful and distressing procedures, some of which would see you in jail should you do the same thing to a pet dog or cat.
Throughout the last decade, almost 3 million animals were made to take part in experiments right here in NZ. The severity of procedures varies. For example, in 2012 almost 17,000 of the animals involved were graded as undergoing 'severe suffering'. Even those not undergoing invasive tests are usually housed in barren cages with nothing to do but wait for the next procedure.
Sadly the Animal Welfare act doesn't apply to factory farmed animals either, who's suffering serves to lower the price of our food.
Read more: Are you guilty of animal cruelty?
What animals are used and what for?
Those arguing for animal testing often justify their position by saying it saves human lives. Medical testing accounts for less than 10 per cent of the total in NZ, with the majority of animal experimentation carried out in the agriculture sector in the pursuit of increased growth and reproduction - ultimately greater yields to maximise economic return per animal.
Vaccines and other pharmaceuticals all involve a testing stage on animals. As well as cows, sheep, pigs and deer, small animals such as rabbits, possums, rats and mice are all used to test the efficacy of products as well as their side effects. To test a vaccine for example, an animal must first be infected with the disease and then treated with varying doses to ascertain what works, what doesn't and what level of dosage will cause its death.
It seems the Government underestimated the manufacturers of party drugs, thinking that compulsory safety testing would bring the industry to a halt. The huge amounts of revenue these drugs generate meant that safety testing was entirely viable, essentially calling the Governments bluff. Good news then with not only the outlaw of the sale of party drugs, but also the use of animals for their safety testing. According to SAFE director, Hans Kriek, "the results from animal testing is questionable anyway". As to the ethics of using animals for cruel testing of a product that has absolutely no benefit to society goes far beyond what the average New Zealander feels is reasonable. Less than 15 per cent of respondents to a recent survey supported this and only then if it has the best results.
Schools, Universities and other teaching establishments account for the remainder of animal testing in NZ. As a zoology student interested in animal behavior rather than anatomy, I raised the issue of the huge numbers of animals used for dissection perhaps unnecessarily. Surely students not pursuing a career in veterinary or physiological disciplines could learn without costing the lives of so many animals. Though there was little interest in this viewpoint at the time, some schools and universities are now offering alternatives to traditional dissection practices as pressure from students' increases.
In NZ, there is no cosmetics testing on animals, though we certainly import a huge amount of products that have been. According to statistics on SAFE's (Save Animals from Exploitation) website almost 90 per cent of Kiwis would like a ban on the use of animals to test cosmetics. A law change to ensure this never happens in NZ is currently under review.
What can we do?
As the majority of animal testing in NZ is done in the quest for increased efficiency in meat production, going vegetarian is the only real way not to support the use of animals for experimentation here. Even free range products use the pharmaceuticals developed as a result of animal testing. This may sound like a radical move, but having done it myself a year or so ago it's actually not that difficult and comes with the benefit of a clear conscience.
Another way to remove your support for cruel procedures on animals is to be vigilant about what products you buy, particularly cosmetics, healthcare and pharmaceuticals. Generally anything manufactured in NZ will be cruelty free and some companies very sensibly use their policy of no animal testing as a marketing tool with clear labeling.
It is important to consider not just the end product but the ingredients that have gone into it so check out SAFE's safe shopper guide here.
A Commissioner for Animals?
We have a commissioner for children as they are a vulnerable group that cannot represent their own needs. There is a clear parallel with animals here, so why don't we have a commissioner for animals to speak as an independent voice in their interest - one that is unbiased by the agendas of agriculture and other economic objectives? Mr Kriek points out that while animals bring in half of our export revenue, only 0.03 per cent is spent on their welfare. Surely we can do better than this?