The annual animal law conference is special for a variety of reasons: it offers a safe and welcoming place for animal rights advocates (and vegans) and it is a reminder that New Zealand's animal welfare laws are progressive in theory. However, it was special in the negative sense for me personally, as I made the faux pas of likening anti-1080 enthusiasts to chemtrail haters during a panel discussion, and repeatedly asked whether there was any 'real' milk on offer.
Rewind back to July last year - animal law advocates were rejoicing over NZ First's proposal to introduce an animal welfare commissioner. Unfortunately, it was Animal Welfare Minister Meka Whaitiri who was leading the charge, and her promises and portfolio left parliament as hastily as she exited Cabinet.
Trevor Mallard seemed promising, until he turned his attention from animals to babies once he was made speaker of the house. Mojo Mathers didn't make the cut into parliament, obviously, and Damien O'Connor - who took responsibility for animal welfare in his position as Minister of Agriculture - is all a bit ho hum about, well, everything.
• Historic SPCA conviction over Auckland pet store company
• SPCA List of Shame: Starved horses, dumped kittens and beaten dogs
• SPCA looking for new home for elderly dogs saved from 'unsuitable conditions'
• Wellington SPCA's longest staying animals looking for love
Otago University senior lecturer Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere put it bluntly, "we're at a complete standstill, and as nothing is progressing, the situation for our most vulnerable is getting worse".
"It's very easy to ignore people who don't vote or have a political voice. We have a Commissioner for the Environment, a Commissioner for Children, and the Health and Disability Commissioner for those who don't have a seat at the table. It would make sense then to have an Animal Welfare Commissioner."
As it stands, the Ministry for Primary Industries continues to monitor farm animal violations, the SPCA looks after the rest (domesticated animals), and police are also warranted under the Animal Welfare Act.
On the matter of MPI - last year it was criticised for being grossly under-resourced, having only 23 inspectors and 20 investigators overseeing what was up to 60 million commercial animals at the time.
The elephant in the room is that we've got an agency that has a mandate to promote the 'NZ Inc' brand when it comes to agriculture, which seems a little ironic seeing as it's also responsible for the enforcement side of dealing with animal maltreatment.
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The SPCA has been going through a transition of sorts, combining its different local organisations into one national body. The charity has been fraught for some time, though. Back in 2011 former chairman Craig Shepherd and former board member Debra Ashton (of Save the Animals from Exploitation fame) resigned over the appointment of Iain Torrance as (now former) chief executive.
That leaves us with police enforcement, which is on the decline, if you can believe it.
According to Official Information Act figures, there were 160 proceedings against offenders under the Animal Welfare Act in 2011, 118 in 2013, 101 in 2015, 94 in 2017, and 58 for the year ending June this year. While it's an offence to fail to prevent or mitigate suffering, or to participate in any animal fighting venture, the vast majority of the proceedings were enforced under the offence of animal cruelty/ill-treatment.
So where does that leave us? The New Zealand Animal Law Association (NZALA) - which is made up of lawyers, law students, and law graduates - has filed criminal charges against a rodeo cowboy for using an electric shocker on calves and cattle at Northland rodeo events.
The private prosecution was made as a result of MPI deciding against prosecution in favour of issuing a warning. The case at the very least highlights the problems around enforcement, or lack thereof. The matter is currently before the courts.
NZALA, together with Save the Animals from Exploitation, has also filed proceedings against the Government for its failure to ban farrowing crates. The organisations claim that farrowing crates and mating stalls breach the Animal Welfare Act 1999 since sows - better known as mother pigs - aren't able to express natural behaviour.
The Government's animal welfare advisor, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee has had something to say on the matter. 'Pigs Code of Welfare 2018' said farrowing crates had its advantages insofar as it prevents sows from crushing their piglets. Crates also restrict a mother's movement and reduces her ability to carry out nest-building behaviours.
NAWAC made an amendment to its 2018 submission, stating: "We consider that current approaches, where farrowing crates are used for up to four weeks post-farrowing, do not provide for every behavioural need of sows in that sows have their activity restricted for
a longer period than is necessary.
"Previous trade-offs of long-term sow freedom against piglet survival can no longer be used as current perceptions are that the requirements of each individual in the system should be provided for if possible."
The case will be held at the High Court in Wellington next June.
Milk or no milk, it seems there's much to bark on about when it comes to animal law. But all hope is not lost in terms of animals on the political agenda - we mustn't forget that the Minister for Racing, the Rt Hon Winston Peters stayed true to his promise "to revitalise the New Zealand racing industry" with the Racing Reform Act coming into force this year.
If you've got any tips, legal tidbits, or appointments that might be of interest, please email Sasha - on email@example.com