Companion Animal Welfare

(6pm 27 July 2011, 170 Phillip Street Sydney)

Welcome everyone and thank you to the Animal Law Committee for holding this information session on the very important topic of companion animals.

I would like firstly to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of this land, and I pay my respects to the Elders, both past and present.

Australians may think of themselves as animal lovers, but our laws allow many animals to suffer in the name of profit.

We are well behind world's best practice in this area, particularly Europe.

While we love our pets and boast the highest rate of pet ownership in the world, companion animal welfare remains a major problem and pet owners continue to be treated as second class citizens.

Pets are bought and sold in shops like handbags and shoes, and many get discarded when the cuteness wears off and the costs, behaviours and responsibilities become apparent.

Many end up in pounds and shelters.

Thanks to the tireless work and dedication of pound and shelter workers (often volunteers), a large number get re-homed, but sadly there are never enough homes for the large numbers of animals being dumped.

In New South Wales alone about 60,000 cats and dogs are destroyed every year. This does not include the animals that get dumped in national parks and forests, the cats that end up living on our street having multiple litters, or rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets and other abandoned animals.

Meanwhile animals are bred for profit. Dogs particularly, are farmed en masse in cruel puppy farms and backyard breeding facilities to supply cheap puppies for pet shop windows and classified sales. Puppy farm bitches are kept in filthy conditions, bred continuously and then discarded.

This is an indictment on our society. A humane civilised society would act to stop this.

In 2007 I introduced my Animals (Regulation of Sale) Bill to ban the sale of mammals in pet shops and markets and limit classified sales to responsible breeders and people re-homing pets.

The aim of the bill was to reduce impulse buying and subsequent dumping of pets, and to close an outlet for puppy farms and backyard breeders.

The bill was the first of its kind in New South Wales and I understand Australia. I remember the silence from MPs in the chamber when I gave my second reading speech on the bill (normally they all carry on loud private conversations). The silence showed that for most members, the problems associated with the pet industry were something they had never thought about.

The bill attracted interest from across the state, indeed the nation and thousands of animal lovers lobbied their local MP for reform.

However, the then Government failed to act. Initial letters to constituents ridiculed the bill because it included small pets like guinea pigs and mice. I found this offensive because small mammals are live sentient beings, many of which end up dumped in shelters or in parks and forests. It also showed the Government's eagerness to dismiss community concerns without any investigation.

So in 2008 I reintroduced an amended bill that related only to cat and dog sales. While I continue to be concerned about treatment of smaller mammals, the government's own statistics showed clearly that there is a serious problem with abandoned cats and dogs.

The campaign gained momentum.

A strongly attended rally was held out the front of Parliament House; lobby groups such as Death Row Pets, Paws for Action and Lead The Way were formed; and the bill was reported on the Sunday Program, Stateline, 9am With David and Kim, and in almost every State and local newspaper in New South Wales.

Unfortunately instead of using this groundswell of public support as an opportunity to reform companion animal law, the Government made some minor changes to its ineffective animal welfare Codes of Practice. The changes made no real difference, but they gave the Government something to say in letters back to constituents who had lobbied in support of my bill.

In Parliament debate was consumed by MPs talking about their pets and repeating pet industry media releases. Figures from those media releases were unchecked but members quoted in verbatim particularly in relation to the number of cats and dogs in pounds the industry claimed originated from pet shops.

In a 93 seat Parliament only two other independents supported my bill - and one Coalition MP abstained from the vote.

... And the problems that I first raised in Parliament in 2007 remain.

(60,000 or more dogs and cats continued to be destroyed annually)

People continue to ask whether I will reintroduce the bill, however I am now working to initiate a parliamentary inquiry on companion animal welfare. Which I hope will be a powerful catalyst for reform.

In the late 90s I was a member of the Joint Select Committee into Injecting Rooms. At the time the idea of a safe injecting centre in New South Wales was quite radical despite the high incidence of street injecting and large numbers of young people dying from overdoses.

The committee visited Cabramatta and Porky's in Kings Cross; met with drug users and their families; and was presented with information on what was being done in other countries to more effectively address this serious health problem.

While fear of electoral backlash led the committee to conclude that a trial should not proceed, together with two other MPs I released a dissenting report that supported a trial of safe injecting rooms. Subsequently when the front page of the Sun Herald printed a fairly shocking photo of a young drug user in Redfern, the Premier committed to a Drug Summit where I moved a motion recommending a medically supervised injecting centre in Kings Cross.

Earlier this year the centre celebrated its 10th anniversary.

An inquiry also gives Parliament the chance to engage with an issue in detail - to talk to and question affected individuals and experts, to visit off-sites, to research world's best practice, and to make recommendations.

An inquiry in to companion animal welfare would allow rescuers, people who work in shelters and pounds, council rangers, and animal protection groups such as the Young Lawyers Animal Committee the opportunity to talk about their experiences and knowledge with legislators. The Committee of MPs could visit shelters and see the huge number of healthy animals that have been abandoned.

The outcome of my Animals (Regulation of Sale) Bill made it clear that most members of Parliament need to learn more about the plight of companion animals in this State so that they will support reform instead of succumbing to lobbying from vested interests - the pet industry.

An inquiry would also encourage much-needed media attention on companion animal welfare, through regular reports on issues raised at hearings.

The Coalition proposed an inquiry during debate on my bill and they are now in Government, and I hope this means there is a good chance it will succeed.

The terms of reference that I am proposing include investigation into the numbers of companion animals arriving in NSW shelters and pounds each year, and whether they are given another home, reunited with their owners, or destroyed.

The Committee would look at issues around the sale of animals from pet shops, how they are bred, mandatory desexing, data collection and many other issues.

I have also included issues that are of major concern in the inner city because pet owners are more likely to rent, live in apartments and not own cars.

Most apartments, retirement villages and rental properties continue to impose blanket pet bans, regardless of whether animals cause problems. It is heartbreaking to hear from responsible pet owners forced to give up their companion because they have to downsize or are moving to a retirement village.

And getting to a vet or to visit a friend remains difficult without a car because pets are not allowed on trains and bus drivers have the authority to decline patrons with their pets. Some of my elderly constituents have not been able to visit sick relatives because they can't afford a taxi and they don't want to leave their pet home alone over night.

The inquiry would look into policies governing the admission of animals into apartments, retirement villages, and rental properties, and on public transport.

In most civilised countries pet owners don't face these barriers, which are unfair, unnecessary and fail to recognise the valuable contribution of pets.

Pet ownership helps to build community, it breaks down barriers between people and it brings measurable physical and psychological benefits.

Pets give pleasure, teach responsibility and provide love, companionship and security.

In fact, it's been estimated that through their contribution to physical and mental well-being, pets save the national health bill over $4 billion each year - it is not too much to ask that we investigate ways to improve their welfare.

While I said an inquiry should have a good chance of passing, it will still require a concerted community campaign and it is essential that all those who care about companion animal welfare contact their MPs calling for their support.

Contact should be personal - form letters can add to numbers but are often discarded by MPs.

I believe that change is inevitable and that one day we will look at the way we treat animals with shame. The issue is how soon we can bring about change so the suffering of animals is reduced.