9 November 2022

Instead of harsher penalties for animal cruelty, do we need eligibility requirements for pet ownership?

| Zoya Patel
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Dog being held

The most common complaints regarding animal cruelty concern failure to provide adequate and proper food, shelter or veterinary treatment. Photo: RSPCA ACT.

RSPCA ACT has recently called for stricter animal cruelty penalties after they seized five emaciated dogs in one week in October.

These animals had been starved over a consistent period of time. In one case, they found a deceased German Shepherd who had been kept inside and fed far too little until she died. Her owner pled guilty but was spared conviction due to her poor mental health.

Now, I understand that mental illness severely impacts the individual – but does that explain starving an innocent animal? And where animals have been neglected or underfed due to resource or time constraints on the part of their owners, does the hardship faced by those individuals excuse the suffering of their animals?

READ ALSO RSPCA calls for heavier animal-cruelty penalties after five dogs seized in five days

While the ACT leads the country when it comes to animal cruelty laws, I wonder if we need to start shifting the way we think about this, to requiring a level of vetting before people are allowed to own animals in the first place.

I think we should have a licensing system that assesses an individual’s capacity for pet ownership with regards to housing, resourcing and any prior convictions of animal abuse. There could be levels within the system to differentiate between the capacity to own animals with more simple needs versus complex needs, and proof of license would need to be shown to breeders and rescue shelters before an animal could be released into that person’s care.

If this sounds extreme to you, then unfortunately, you’re probably part of the majority of the human population who think pets are there for our entertainment and should be available for purchase and discarding just like a toy or object.

In reality, all pets are complex, unique and individual, requiring specific care to ensure their basic welfare needs are met. Beyond those basics, they also need stimulation, socialisation, and specific provisions for their natural behaviours which are species and breed-dependent. Anything short of this is cruelty, and we should not in any way tolerate that in a humane society.

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I am always shocked at how many reasonable people I know who show little understanding or interest in the welfare needs of their pets. These people go out and buy a puppy online, then complain about how much ‘work’ it is, as though introducing a baby animal into their lives should have had minimal impact. These are the same people who later drop their dog off at a shelter, complaining about its behavioural issues, as though they didn’t create those problems through a lack of training and knowledge.

And it’s not just dogs. Cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, fish – they all have needs, and right now, no one is checking if they’re being met until they’ve already reached the point of harm.

If we had stricter requirements for owning pets, we could ensure that the decision to introduce an animal into our lives was done with consideration for the responsibility it entails. There would be a flow-on effect to the oversupply of dogs and cats, and hopefully a significant reduction in the number of animals being bred but ending up in shelters.

And for those who would argue that requirements like this would mean people on low incomes would effectively be barred from having pets, I would say that regardless of your income level, if you can’t afford to properly care for an animal, then you should not have one. Economic inequality is unfair, and we need to urgently address it as a nation – but human welfare and animal welfare are two different things, and animals should not suffer for our own needs if we can’t meet theirs.

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Wouldn’t it be better if the ACT government just did its job when a pet is reported as distressed and constantly howling or barking, or out on the loose so not safely contained? These are clear indications that the pet is at risk to themselves, or is a risk to the public, because the owner isn’t caring for it properly.

This has become an increasing problem in apartments because the ACT government insists all tenants should be allowed pets, but no-one deals with them when they’re out of control. The Tenancy Tribunal and the RSPCA ignore these issues. Don’t burden all owners with more rules, when the ACT government fails to do its bit to ensure animals are under proper care.

Alex Smorhun4:37 pm 10 Nov 22

Please don’t get me going on this. In my mind cruelty to animals is in pair to the worst crimes done by humans. The laws at present are pitiful and judges seem to dismiss its seriousness. Anyway, the only solution is prison time for the offenders and nothing less – no counselling, no education etc – it doesn’t work.

I oppose imposing red tape, bureaucracy and time consuming costly vetting for people who care for domestic animals. This will tie us all up in knots and result in people on low incomes, or people who find it difficult to navigate red tape, in benefiting from the love and companionship of animals. Stop punishing those of us who beautifully care for our animals because a minority practice cruelty. I don’t like the phrase ‘nanny state’ but seriously how much more interference in our personal
Lives is acceptable?

Sharon Annells2:24 pm 10 Nov 22

We need judges who will hold people accountable. The legal system is a joke. A slap on the wrist so people can just go and repeat the crime.

Not sure what the author means with “Economic inequality is unfair”. Life can be pretty unfair. Does she mean that we should all be on the same salary.

Marilynne Read1:49 pm 10 Nov 22

While I agree with the idea of a vetting/licencing program, a person’s circumstances can change over time. Finances, property status, physical and mental health can vary significantly over a pet’s life. One of my cats passed away recently from a suspected stroke. He was 18 years old. Would the vetting/licence have to be re-assessed every few years? If so, and I was found, at some stage in his 18 years, to be unable to meet the requirements, would I have to give him up? If so, what would be the recourse? Would the years of care and medication be taken into consideration despite vetted circumstances? As I said, I like the idea but pet ownership is too complex for a simple policy solution.

SigmaOctantis7:31 am 10 Nov 22

No, otherwise you’re punishing everyone else for the actions of a tiny minority.

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