Humane solution to animal cruelty

IT shouldn't have been like this. The dog was young, fit and healthy. True, she was tied up outside for days on end with no company or entertainment, but the young lurcher puppy wasn't suffering unnecessarily.

True, she wasn't living in the warmth with a roof over her head, but she had the legal minimum of a small, makeshift shelter under which to stand, and access to food and water. True, she was being ignored by her owner day after day, but she wasn't really the victim of animal cruelty. Or was she?

It shouldn't have been like this. The three ponies had their whole lives ahead of them. They had adequate living conditions, with food, shelter and water. They sometimes even had bedding laid down for them.

True, the field had no grass. True, the ponies were up to their knees in mud, with poor coats and lice.

But no-one was deliberately beating them. No-one was actively treating them cruelly.

This wasn't really animal abuse. Or was it?

It shouldn't have been like this the day the weather changed. Exposure killed the young lurcher puppy one cold November night. A Scottish SPCA inspector had seen the dog before the storm, but was powerless to act beyond giving the owner advice.

After all, the dog was in good bodily condition, and the legislation protecting animals in Scotland today does not extend to circumstances like this.

It shouldn't have been like this when members of the public got frustrated. They tried to take the three ponies away themselves for a new, happier life. Eventually, the Scottish SPCA took the ponies into their care, but this happened months after the animals had first been forgotten. And months after passers-by had started complaining about the state of the animals.

The legislation had not allowed the Scottish SPCA to act earlier because there were no deliberate acts of cruelty taking place; simply a failure to provide good welfare standards. These situations illustrate why the Executive's draft Animal Health and Welfare Bill is both welcome and overdue.

Current legislation on animal welfare, dating back to 1912, only allows the authorities to step in and safeguard an animal's welfare if the animal is suffering unnecessarily. Unfortunately, in situations like those described above, the fine line between neglect and outright cruelty is hard, if not impossible, to define.

Under the draft Bill, launched last week by Ross Finnie, Scottish Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs, anyone who keeps an animal will owe it a "duty of care" - an obligation to secure and promote its welfare.

In addition to food and shelter, owners will have to meet the physiological and behavioural needs of their animals, in accordance with good animal management practice and scientific knowledge.

This may sound obvious to many people. Of course a dog needs more than simply food, water and a makeshift shelter. Of course horses and ponies need to be kept in stimulating environments with fresh grass and good feed. But the obligation to ensure good welfare is something that has been lacking in animal welfare legislation for far too long. And animal organisations across the country will be greeting this new "duty of care" with open arms.

The draft Bill also makes great steps towards promoting responsible animal ownership. Every year, the Scottish SPCA cares for more than 13,000 animals. Many of these come into the society's 13 animal welfare centres because their owners can no longer cope with them. Perhaps their owner could not commit to their specialist requirements - a vivarium, UV lighting, or extensive grooming. Perhaps they require veterinary treatment which proves too pricey. Perhaps, as is sadly all too common, they are simply no fun any more.

Under the new legislation, Scottish ministers will make regulations obliging all pet shops to provide written information on animal care to prospective animal owners.

This should mean that people think longer and harder about the commitment that owning an animal genuinely requires. And it doesn't stop there. The draft Bill also raises the age at which young people can buy animals from 12 to 16, and prohibits the giving of animals as prizes.

Politically correct? Some might say so. Unnecessary? Certainly not. These new clauses convey the message that the Scottish SPCA has been trying to get across for years: owning an animal is a privilege and not a right.

The proposed Bill will also enable Scottish ministers to legislate on specific issues: regulating animal dealers, prohibiting or restricting tail docking in dogs, licensing animal sanctuaries and livery yards and issuing codes of practice on the tethering of equines.

Leonora Merry is parliamentary assistant for the Scottish SPCA

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