The real risk: rethinking arbitrary animal welfare

Editor’s note: On Tuesday the 11th of October, NSW Premier Mike Baird officially signed a ban reversing the ban on greyhound racing, stating he ‘got it wrong’.

real-risk

The NSW Government has recently labelled the licence that allows property owners to kill native animals as ‘red tape’ to further development in the state, before then proposed a new, largely discretionary, risk-based approach to take its place. This comes as part of a legislative reform that is seeking to repeal the Native Vegetation Act, the Threatened Species Act and the Nature Conservation Act, and replace them with one single piece of legislation – the Biodiversity Conservation Act. Legal centralisation and simplification weakens environmental protection, however, and such change would put native species and the forests, rivers and ecosystems they live in at additional risk. This attitude is symptomatic of the arbitrary manner in which animals are treated and regarded in human society when economic or other stakes are at play.

On a broader level, the introduction of the new Act reflects the hit-and-miss manner with which our natural world is regarded, and is of particular concern from an animal rights perspective. It would be difficult to disagree that there is an emerging belief that animal welfare is important in Australia. We cannot stand pets being abused, we feel uncomfortable with Orcas at SeaWorld, and there is an ongoing dialogue about live exports. Yet our relationship with animals is complex, at times even illogical: at the same time a government bans greyhound racing, it plans to reduce protections for wildlife. Animal welfare is haphazardly categorized in accordance with human interest all too often.

This conditional attitude disadvantages animals, with the new proposed government legislation making it easier for property owners to disregard the lives of native species. The Section 121 licence that is likely to be abolished restricts the number of animals that property owners are able to kill, and places a requirement on them to report these numbers to the Office of Environment and Heritage. While this allows for some form of accountability, animals are still in a fairly arbitrary position. Even with the licence, 47,000 native animals and birds were killed in NSW by property owners in 2015.

A ‘risk-based approach’ would essentially eliminate the ability to monitor how native animals are being treated. The proposed system is based on an evaluation of the risk (high, moderate, and low) of ‘wildlife interactions’ (generally humans controlling animal populations) – with risk being calculated by the potential impacts on human safety, animal welfare or species populations. Only high risk activities would require a licence. This category includes specific and unusual activities such as ‘pet shops selling native wildlife, trading in native plants and keeping higher risk reptiles’, thus leaving a void between these contexts and interactions with the remainder of native species in NSW.

Activities deemed ‘low risk’ will no longer require a licence or oblige the property owner to record and report kills to authorities. As a Labour MP has suggested, these acts will occur “with no oversight and little consequence.” For example, animals that are ‘locally abundant’ but pose a threat to crops or property are free to be killed, indicating that the term ‘open season’ used by many commentators is sadly applicable.

This risk-based framework accentuates the way in which the value placed on animals is calculated by their usefulness or ‘peskiness’ to human activities. If animals do not fit in with the designated plans of humans, if their population levels are too high, or if they inhabit areas humans also have claim over, they are labelled as ‘pests’. As Malcolm Caulfield notes, “because the prevailing attitude of killing wildlife or feral animals in these circumstances is ‘necessary’, there has been little consideration of whether those activities are cruel or not.” By developing a narrow, risk-based hierarchy which decides when it is ‘okay’ to harm or kill animal populations, the value of an animal is understood based on their impact on human interests, not their intrinsic worth as sentient beings.

These highly variable evaluations of animals continue when we compare the treatment of animals in different contexts. The law makes distinctions based on these labels, making it okay to harm an animal in one context and illegal in another. In one context, an animal may be considered a pet and then in another – for example in the wild or in the laboratory – they will be labelled a ‘pest’ or a ‘specimen.’ Further, whilst it is an offence to harm a domestic animal, it is deemed acceptable to harm a native animal if it interferes with human activities. This questionable logic continues in the new Biodiversity Conservation Act, where harming a native animal during land clearing will no longer be an offence if the property owner is unaware of the animal being there. When did it become acceptable to harm an animal due to a lack of knowledge?

These kinds of patterns do not bode well for the future of our native animals. Stand Up for Nature claims that one hundred species of plants and animals have become extinct in NSW. A further one thousand species are threatened. In NSW, there are specific protections for these threatened species, yet a strategy that waits until animals are no longer abundant seems inconsistent with any real concern for wildlife populations. This legislative change seems to contradict efforts to preserve what we have left of Australia’s unique fauna, all in the name of priorities that hold greater economic weight for government and business interests.

In 2011, the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy listed ‘general public ignorance and/or apathy regarding the welfare of animals in the wild’ as a major risk for the welfare of wildlife in Australia. The changes in NSW have little regard for welfare, and feed a culture that continues to determine the value of animals as based on human interests. The real risk, then, to animal welfare and biodiversity, may be our own approach to the lives of animals.

 

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