The idea that animals are “sentient” beings—that they have feelings, or the capacity to actively perceive the world around them—is not currently accepted by Australian law. But that looks set to change. This week, a suite of animal welfare amendments that enshrine the feelings of birds and beasts in state law will be introduced into the ACT Legislative Assembly, the ABC reports—bringing harsher penalties against anyone caught mistreating an animal.
Although "the science tells us that animals are sentient", according to ACT City Services Minister Chris Steel, the proposed laws will make the ACT the first jurisdiction in Australia to recognise that fact. "I know with my dog he gets very excited when we're about to go on a run,” says Chris. "I think most dog owners, most cat owners know their animals do feel emotion."
Under the new legislation, offences such as kicking an animal, abandoning it, or confining it in a car in a way that’s likely to cause it injury, stress, or death would all attract much harsher penalties than they do currently. A person would also legally be allowed to break into a car to save an animal, provided they acted honestly and had no other option such as calling the police.
Having an animal in a moving vehicle without a proper restraint would be punishable by up to one year in prison, or a $16,000 fine, or both, and keeping a dog locked up without proper exercise for longer than a day could attract a fine of up to $4,000. The bill would also double the current penalties for animal cruelty to up to two years' imprisonment, or a $32,000 fine, or both, and introduce fines for accidentally injuring an animal—hitting a kangaroo with a car, for example—and not reporting it to authorities.
If implemented, the nation-first legislation is sure to be celebrated as a win for animal lovers and rights activists around the state. But there are some concerns that laws which recognise animals as “sentient” and capable of feeling could end up causing problems if they fail to specify which animals exactly, while making exceptions for others. There is, for example, the issue of Australia’s meat industry.
"[The legislation] could get in the way of the economy," veterinarian Dr David Rizkalla, from the Gables Veterinary Group, told the ABC. "I think it has to be quite clear if you introduce that sort of thing to large animals, like cows. Farmers spend money on the animal if it gets them more money—it's a profit thing. It's not a sentimental value, it's an economic value.
"[The legislation's] more about protecting animals from people who can harm them, than giving animals better opportunities.”
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