Luxembourg's leaders have proposed a far-reaching animal rights bill that advocates say could be the most progressive in the world if it becomes law.
"It goes further than any legislation that I'm aware of," said Kitty Block, vice president of Humane Society International. "It is impressive and it's taking on another whole area that traditionally anti-animal cruelty laws have not gone."
Proposed recently by Minister of Agriculture Fernand Etgen and written with the help of animal rights activists, the proposed law assumes that animals are "living non-human sentient beings with a nervous system scientifically capable of feeling pain and experiencing other emotions" including "suffering and anguish," according to a ministry statement.
The legislation wouldn't apply to most farm animals, a common provision in animal rights laws. But it would ban slaughtering animals primarily for their fur, feathers, skin, or wool — an extraordinary provision, said Block — limit the sales of dogs and cats to reputable breeders, ban people from giving animals as gifts or prizes, and prohibit the poultry industry practice of killing male chicks because they don't lay eggs.
"This act is punishable because the animal's dignity must prevail over the profitability of the industrial activity," the ministry statement said, referring to the poultry provision.
Violations would entail fines of as much as $227,000 and jail sentences from eight days to three years depending on the seriousness of the alleged cruelty and the health of victimized animals.
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The three-year jail sentence is not too dissimilar in line with American laws, said Jared Goodman, director of animal law at the PETA Foundation. Every state in the United States has a felony cruelty law that can carry jail sentences of at least a year, he said.
But the fine was more than any he'd seen before and certainly would act as a deterrent. "The law is promising," Goodman told VICE News.
Etgen, the minister, said animal welfare legislation required "profound reform" because of what scientific advances had revealed about animals, and because of changes in how animals were viewed by human society. "The very definition of the animal and its needs have been amply improved," the ministry statement said.
Block noted that people were becoming increasingly open to laws like the one proposed in Luxembourg in part because they were the logical next step in widespread efforts to treat all living beings and the planet more humanely. She linked animal rights to the same battles women, LGBT people, and others are waging around the world for equal rights.
"I don't see the animal movement as separate and distinct from other movements. It is part of an evolution," said Block. "There is clearly an evolution in thought towards animals and what the role of society is towards animals and what we need to do to be good stewards of animals and our environment."
If enacted, Luxembourg's law would put the grand duchy alongside Germany and the United Kingdom as countries that are most protective of animals, Block said. On the other side of the spectrum, she said, China and most African nations have no protections for animals at all.
"Transparency, good government, strong equality laws — if you are a country that is devoid of all of those things, then you can be pretty damn sure they don't have a good animal cruelty law," said Block.
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The United States doesn't have a single law that covers animal welfare in general, though the Congress has passed laws that ban dog fighting, mandate humane slaughtering, protect endangered wildlife, and set rules for laboratories and similar facilities.
"I wouldn't term them animal rights laws because none of them recognize the rights of animals," said Goodman.
The proposed Luxembourg law would grant animals rights, however. "Animals are no longer considered as a thing, but as gifted non-human living beings with sensitivity and holders of certain rights," said a record of a meeting of Luxembourg's cabinet, the Government Council, which approved the proposal earlier this month.
The bill must now go to Luxembourg's parliament, where Etgen's Democratic Party is part of the governing coalition.
Giving rights to animals goes too far, said Alan Herscovici, executive vice president of the Fur Council of Canada, an industry group. He thought it was ironic that people who supported laws like the Luxembourgian bill would cite animal rights as on par with environmentalism.
"In North America, the fur trade is an example of the sustainable use of renewable natural resources," Herscovici told VICE News. "This is the key concern of modern environmental thinking."
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He also called into question the bill's provision about slaughtering animals primarily for their fur, noting that most fur producers sell not only their pelts but oil for waterproofing, manure for compost, and other products. "The whole animal is used in one way or another. You have a complete agricultural cycle," he said. "That makes a lot of sense, and you are also creating employment. Once you start looking at it that way, it's not such a frivolous product."
He figured Luxembourg was targeting fur producers because there weren't many operating there — though argued that they were an easy target even in big countries.
"It's an artisanal industry," Herscovici said. "This is not the cattle industry. This is not an industry that has the clout to defend itself. It's little. In this hyper-industrialized age, we still have this craft industry. These fur coats are made by hand like my grandfather made them. It deserves a little respect."
The detail of the proposed law was one issue, said the activists. Another was whether or not the law would be enforced. India, for example, has advanced animal protections that reflect the country's religious traditions. But Block said the Indian government did not enforce its laws.
Police everywhere often have trouble understanding laws that make it illegal to cause an animal anguish, Goodman added. Since animals can't talk, cops often decline to arrest someone unless they see wounds, a carcass, or other tangible proof of cruelty.
"Law enforcement officers are not used to making arrests based on mental suffering," said Goodman.
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr
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