Understanding New Zealand animal welfare legislation: The Animal Welfare Act, Codes of Welfare, and new Regulations

Ngā mihi o te tau hou / Happy New Year! (in te Reo Māori)

This is a post I have been meaning to write for some time. I finally have a moment to sit and reflect on the new(ish) New Zealand Animal Welfare Regulations.

These regulations were proposed in 2015 and many were introduced in 2016 and 2017 – with more to follow in 2018. They are specific to certain species or types of animal, or refer to particular ways we manage animals, e.g. transport regulations.

Background to New Zealand animal welfare legislation

I should probably put some context around these regulations – why do we need them? We already have The Animal Welfare Act 1999 and Codes of Welfare in New Zealand. The Animal Welfare Act is a piece of legislation, whereas the Codes of Welfare are not – this means they are not enforceable as such. I will explain further.

I like to think of The Animal Welfare Act as working to reduce the extreme negative end of the spectrum of animal welfare states. It talks about ‘obligations’, ‘liability’, and that we should ‘attend properly’ to animals, etc. It is a really useful document to refer to when people have done really bad things to or with animals – when there is pain and suffering involved. The Codes of Welfare are at the other end of the spectrum and are ‘Best Practice’ documents. They expand on The Animal Welfare Act by setting minimum standards and recommending guidelines for best practice. They are also more specific. Where The Animal Welfare Act talks about animals in general, The Codes are broken down into specific animals and/or interventions, or things we may do to animals. Examples of Codes include: circuses, dairy cattle, dogs, horses and donkeys, and painful husbandry procedures.

The gap for animal welfare regulations

As we can see, The Act and Codes of Welfare are at the extreme ends of the spectrum. And although Codes do specify minimum standards for animal care, they tend to be used when rebutting complaints, and not as a means of prosecution or enforcement. If an animal cruelty complaint is laid against a person in charge of an animal, then proof of adherence to these minimum standards can be used as a rebuttal of this complaint. In effect, if the basics are provided for an animal, it is hard for anyone to say anything different. In addition, the process of bringing animal carers to prosecution can be difficult and expensive. This, again, only results in extremely bad cases being prosecuted.

This is where The Regulations come in. They essentially use the minimum standards already in place (with minor adjustments) to allow for better enforcement of The Act. To do this they clarify the rules already in place to protect animal welfare. In essence, they specify that if you do this, you will be punished with that. There is less ambiguity surrounding what is required of those caring for, or who are responsible for, animals. The regulations are meant to be an additional tool for animal welfare inspectors, and in most cases do not require evidence of pain and suffering.

What regulations will we have in New Zealand animal welfare law?

In early 2016, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) sought feedback on 91 animal welfare regulations they had proposed. The broad categories for these regulations were: live animal exports; care of, and conduct towards, animals; and surgical and painful procedures. MPI travelled around the country with ‘roadshows’ publicising the regulations. Attendance was widely encouraged and there was a chance for feedback to be given and questions answered. Official written submissions to MPI totalled 1,400.

It was interesting to attend one of these ‘roadshows’ at Massey University in Palmerston North. There were many interested parties with varied views (for/against) the proposed regulations. A particularly heated discussion was had about the ‘dog tail docking’ regulation. It was clearly of high interest to dog breeders and owners. A short history of tail docking in New Zealand is given in this excellent post. Due to the issues proposed, MPI commissioned an independent review of the science and arguments for and against tail docking. The full report is available here. Essentially, the findings suggest that tail docking of dogs is a surgical procedure of major significance – with the potential to cause considerable pain and distress. The costs outweigh any potential benefits making it an unjustifiable act. A policy was approved in July 2017 to restrict tail docking of dogs. The restrictions mean that it can only be performed by a registered veterinarian, using analgesia, for therapeutic purposes, i.e. in response to a significant injury or disease. Therefore, dogs whose tails are damaged in some way may still have them docked – if a veterinarian believes this is the best therapy. Final approval to create the regulation is still pending at the time of writing.

Other regulations are already in place – particularly those relating to bobby (usually young male) calves and the export of live animals. Four regulations covering the welfare of calves were in place for the spring calving season in 2016 and a further three for 2017 calving, while those covering the export of live animals were confirmed in July 2016.

Examples of important regulations include: the mandatory use of pain relief for disbudding cattle, standards for the transportation of lame animals, that calves must be 4 days of age before being transported off farm, a maximum 12-hour journey time for young calves, young calves being prohibited from being sent cross the Cook Strait by sea (i.e. from North to South Island and vice versa), and the prohibition of killing calves by blunt force trauma to the head – other than in an emergency.

The future for animal welfare regulations

A number of regulations will be progressed in 2018. These broadly relate to: tail docking/castration (horses, sheep, llama and alpaca, and roosters), other surgical procedures in production animals and companion animals (e.g. hot branding, velvetting, cropping of ears in dogs, and Caslick’s procedures in horses), and dentistry.

Of particular interest to veterinarians, the stock transport regulation relating to lame animal’s says that “A person in charge of a lame cattle beast, sheep, deer, pig or goat commits an offence if they permit the animal to be transported”. In contrast to current practice, liability has been placed on suppliers presenting lame animals for transport, rather than transporters. Veterinarians may therefore find themselves being called upon for additional certification of lame animals for transport.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, the Animal Welfare Regulations are promising, and although some did not make the final cut (mostly due to issues with wording and meaning), there are plenty of good regulations being progressed that will improve the welfare of animals in New Zealand.

Beyond the regulations, there is still scope for further reforms in animal welfare legislation. In an earlier post, I wrote about the excellent work Dr Rebecca Ledger is doing using the Five Domains Model for forensic animal behaviour analysis in Canada. This is something we could really embrace in New Zealand. In addition, using animal abuse cases to create ‘links’ to domestic violence could lead to improvements in both animal and human welfare. The Veterinary Council of New Zealand has a guidance document relating to this here.

We still have much to do, but this is a great start!