Under nationwide animal welfare legislation, cruelty to horses, as just one sort of animal, is outlawed.  Such legislation in Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and Northern Territory, also mandates a duty of care towards horses.  Now there has been a further development with a Bill currently before the Parliament of Western Australia that proposes to regulate the health, safety and welfare of all animals.

It is hardly surprising that Legislators are enacting laws going beyond the old concept of cruelty to animals to set legal standards for the health and welfare of animals.  There are already existing as well as in development national animal welfare standards and guidelines for livestock which do not, however, have legal force. Animal welfare advocacy groups are organised and vocal. There is popular and scientific recognition of animals as sentient beings.  All these factors lend impetus to legal developments in the area.

If, as expected, the Western Australian Parliament passes the bill into law, its Animal Welfare Act will include as a goal, to “promote and protect the welfare, safety and health of animals” and to “ensure animals are properly and humanely treated, cared for and managed”.

The Bill also permits the making of regulations (which are rules made by the Executive arm of government that have the force of law) to deal with the treatment, care, keeping and handling of animals, their accommodation, use (for commercial, recreational or other purposes), training, transportation, husbandry and sale, and the facilities and equipment used in relation to animals.  In other words, pretty much everything to do with animals and of course horses.

There is a current case in Canada which brings home the implications of animal welfare legislation.  In December 2015, Quebec’s Parliament adopted a new law on animal welfare and safety that prohibits all abuse or mistreatment that may affect the health of animal beings, or any action or omission that exposes them to distress.

A law professor and his students in the northern spring of 2017, brought legal action to stop rodeos organised for Montreal’s 375th anniversary on the grounds that the rodeos violated Quebec’s animal laws. The parties to the proceeding reached an agreement that the professor could send 3 observers to various prominent rodeos with unlimited access to the animals and facilities to collect evidence. About 45 hours of video was recorded and then viewed by an expert veterinarian.

On 11 April 2018, the law professor made public the findings and conclusions of the expert and added his view that “The treatment of horses, bulls, steers and calves in rodeos is irreconcilable with the provisions of the new law, according to which animals are no longer objects but ‘beings endowed with sentience’ whose welfare and safety must be assured”.

Eminent authorities around the world have commented on the findings and conclusions of the expert veterinarian.  Dr Paul McGreevy of our own University of Sydney, a professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science, is quoted as saying “Forcing animals into situations where they show obvious signs of extreme distress and risk entirely avoidable injuries is too great a price to pay for human glory and entertainment”.

According to the report into the videos of the expert veterinarian, rodeos are illegal in Quebec.  The case is continuing and the result may well be that the Quebec Superior Court agrees and holds that rodeos are in breach of the law of Quebec and must not be organised and run according to law.

It is certainly possible that if the Bill becomes law in Western Australia, one day rodeos there may become illegal. Horse sports involving calf roping might become legally doubtful. The lawfulness of conducting endurance rides without a veterinarian present might be questioned. The tightness of nose bands in dressage events might fall under a legal cloud. Whether the horse community in Western Australia likes it or not, activities involving horses in that State will be increasingly viewed through a legal lens.

The Western Australian Bill is not part of Commonwealth legislative reform so the other States and Territories are not obliged to follow suit.  Uniform laws throughout the Commonwealth are unlikely in this area unless the Federal Government steps in. But with recent graphic and deeply shocking images of sheep suffering aboard a livestock vessel on route to the Middle East, impetus might develop for a uniform Commonwealth set of laws dealing with not only cruelty to animals but their general health, safety and welfare as well.

16 April 2018

© 2018 Michael Mackinnon, Solicitor & Independent Counsel