Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Animal lovers' red-letter year

Campaigners, buoyed by a ban on the testing of psychoactive drugs on animals, join forces to produce a list of key concerns they want politicians to address as they try to make creature comfort an election issue.

SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge says political parties should be more alert to the needs of animals. Photo / Richard Robinson
SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge says political parties should be more alert to the needs of animals. Photo / Richard Robinson

Defenders of dogs, cats and rats are starting to feel that this could be their year.

An unprecedented coalition of animal advocacy groups, known as Animal Agenda Aotearoa, is aiming to make animal welfare an election issue for the first time.

And their campaign has been given the perfect start.

Parliament passed legislation on Tuesday to rule out the testing of psychoactive drugs on animals for the purpose of getting them approved for sale.


Nearly two-thirds of animals killed during tests are rodents.

The Animal Agenda group has celebrated this step, but sees it as the first of a number of key changes which New Zealand must implement to keep up with international standards.

"Animal issues have never really been an election issue before", said SPCA head Bob Kerridge, whose organisation is part of the coalition.

"But we just feel that because of the part they play in our lives it should be something that is looked at and debated and political parties should be more alert to the needs of animals."

The coalition is campaigning on the basis of economics and emotion. It says animals are the lifeblood of the economy, contributing to 70 per cent of all exports, and weak welfare rules could lead to a trading risk on a similar scale to the infant formula debacle.

It also says New Zealand is the most pet-loving country in the world. Half of us own a cat, and just under 70 per cent have a pet at home.

The coalition has produced a 10-point checklist of ambitious animal welfare goals, which has been distributed to all political parties.

The items include banning surgical mutilation of animals, abolishing intensive farming within three years, providing adequate shelter for farm animals, banning painful devices such as electric shock collars, and recognising animals as sentient in legislation.

In an article announcing the campaign, Mr Kerridge asked: "Given the significance of animals, both to the country and its people, why is it that the welfare of animals is never a subject in political agendas, and why are animals certainly never the recipients of promises in election years?"

As Prime Minister John Key said last week, animal welfare issues are "very vexed".

All political parties supported the phasing out of factory farming. But moving to free-range meant local producers would have to compete with international producers who did not face the same restrictions.

All parties believed animals should have adequate shelter. But if they were crowded into buildings during storms the risk of disease increased.

One of these vexed issues, and the first item on Animal Agenda's checklist, was ticked off this week. Lawyer and activist Catriona MacLennan, who is co-ordinating the campaign, said the Government's decision to rule out animal testing from the psychoactives testing regime came as a surprise. National had voted against a similar proposal just six months ago.

"I think a lot of people don't realise how much animal testing there is in New Zealand," Ms MacLennan said. "And I think when they heard animals like dogs could be subjected that really stirred a lot of opposition."

Labour's animal rights spokesman Trevor Mallard said it was almost certain that National had polled on the issue and anticipated an election-year backlash if it did not act. He said the next logical step was banning cosmetics which depended on animal trials.

At present, cosmetics were not tested on animals in New Zealand because the tests failed to pass a benefit-harm threshold. Labour and the Greens would encourage New Zealand to follow Europe's example by blocking imported cosmetics which had been tested on animals.

Animal Agenda wanted to go even further by banning animal drug trials altogether - a step no country has taken.

National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee data showed around 300,000 animals were "manipulated" for research or testing each year in New Zealand. Most were cattle and sheep which underwent minor procedures before being returned to farms.

Nearly 90,000 animals were killed during these tests, two-thirds of them rodents. And between 20 and 125 dogs have been killed each year in trials since 2008.

Toxicology experts say that while alternatives to animal trials now exist for most tests, there were still no alternatives for investigating whether substances would affect unborn babies or for testing toxicity.

The Animal Agenda group feels that the timing is right for a large-scale campaign. Animal welfare rules are being updated.

There are already 16 codes of animal welfare in New Zealand which contain minimum standards for everything from transporting livestock to caring for circus animals.

The Animal Welfare Amendment Bill would allow these standards to be regulated and enforced.

Responding to Animal Agenda's checklist, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy ruled out only one of its demands - a parliamentary advocate for animals, such as a commissioner for animals. Mr Guy said many of the other demands would be addressed by the amendment bill.

Surgical practices such as "docking" - the removal of dog's tails for cosmetic reasons - could be restricted by new rules.

The law changes would also create an offence for wilfully mistreating an animal in the wild. At present, sentences for animal abuse were relatively lenient.

A Blenheim man who clubbed 23 seals to death in 2010 was sentenced to eight months' home detention.

Under the bill, "reckless ill-treatment" would be punishable by up to three years' jail or a fine of $75,000.

Labour supports the intent of the bill. But Mr Mallard said he would like to see firm deadlines and standards written into the legislation, such as end-dates for factory farming.

Mr Kerridge said the changes were a start. "It's all very well saying we have a code for this and a code for that, but there's still abuse. We think the new laws will give those codes more teeth ... and that's something we're looking forward to."

The Animal Agenda group says it is aware that its demands are highly ambitious. But members point to the progress on animal testing as an example of the unpredictability of an election year.

"It shows that a public groundswell really does bring political change," said Ms MacLennan.

Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association executive director Garth Wyllie said a ban would have minimal effect because most makeup and cosmetic brands came from the EU where animal testing was illegal.

He believed a law change would be unenforceable because there was no requirement for foreign cosmetic manufacturers to put their means of production on the label.

- NZ Herald

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