Please don’t take this the wrong way, but so much of this book has been about how to make your life better, or less difficult, and my cat wants you to know that it things this is grossly unfair and bias. Therefore, in the interests of restoring some balance to my writing, and to keep my cat happy so that it does not murder me in my sleep, I hope you don’t mind if we take a slight detour and look at ways the law affects the lives and lifestyles of animals.
After all, who wants to live in a world where kittens and puppies cannot freely run about and relieve themselves all over lamp posts and footpaths with reckless, legal abandon? Not me. And hopefully not you, or I may need to reconsider this whole reader/writer friendship thing we have going on right now.
There is a bit of a problem in writing about animals and the law, though. What exactly are animals, in the eyes of the law? And can they use the law to protect themselves or to take legal action against other animals or even humans? Because if the law does not apply to animals, then how can things be fair and balanced? How can Spot get justice when his owner continually forces him to run, Spot, run?
There are many legal rights that, for obvious reasons, are simply not available to any animal. Animals can’t drive a car (legally), or be charged with assault if they attack someone, or another animal, in the street. Sadly, they can’t bring an action of slavery against their owner to the International Criminal Court.
Then again, animals are not treated by the law as an inanimate object that you can use and abuse and throw away like a newspaper or your old Matchbox Twenty albums. Fortunately for animals, there are strong laws in all states and territories of Australia that make acts of violence, neglect, abuse, and in some cases the sale and breeding, of animals, illegal.
Unfortunately for animals, there are also lots of loopholes in these laws, which allow people to cause injury and death to animals free from any legal consequences. Some of these loopholes are justifiable, such as laws that require dangerous animals to be destroyed to protect other animals and humans. Many more loopholes exist so that animals can be raised as livestock and killed and sold for food, without the inconvenience of our cattle farmers being charged with the death of their cows every time they send them to the abattoir.
So how far does the law go with respect to animal rights, if it goes anywhere at all?
When I first started looking into this area of the law, I had hoped it would be relatively straightforward. I assumed animals had some legal rights, such as the right to be protected from harm and death by human hand. Animal laws, I believed, would stop people from doing evil things to animals, and punish those who did.
Oh, how wrong I was.
It turns out that animals have no legal protection of their own. Instead, the law focusses on preventing bad behaviour by individuals towards animals. To see what this means for animals, let’s take a quick look at the laws that are intended to protect animal welfare.
The first thing to know is that the law is very hands-off when it comes to animals that are raised as livestock.
The treatment of livestock is set out in industry-regulated codes of practice and rules of conduct rather than formal laws that say what can and cannot be done to our cows, sheep, turtles and sloths (note: I have never been to a farm so I assume this list of barnyard animals is complete and correct). These industry codes of practice are put together by various industry bodies, government agencies, farmers, and animal welfare organisations. While I do not want to criticise the people and bodies making these regulations, I do feel that some of these bodies might have a vested interest in the way such regulations are applied. A farmers’ representative body would, I presume, be more interested in ensuring livestock are killed quickly and cheaply. An animal welfare group (which would be completely unbiased of course) might take the position that no animal should ever be killed, whether for human food use or otherwise.
Once we step outside the farming world, things for animals improve a little. Animals, both domestic and feral, are indirectly protected from unnecessary harm or death by way of animal cruelty laws. If someone kills a dog in the street, without any good reason, the person would have committed a crime under these animal cruelty laws and, if there is justice in the world and the person is caught and charged, be punished by a large fine or jail time.
That is all great in theory, but the reality is that, all too often, crimes against animals are simply not discovered, or are overlooked or ignored. When a case of animal harm, neglect, or death is reported or discovered, the official response of the police or animal protection organisation is usually to remove the animal from the situation causing it harm, or to humanely dispose of the corpse, rather than punishing the person or people responsible for committing the harm or death. Jail sentences are only applied when someone has systematically and repeatedly injured or killed animals for financial gain or for their own pleasure or sport. Dog fights, cock fights, drugging animals, torturing them, or causing them unreasonable harm or mental abuse might lead to jail time, but these cases are very rare.
So where does this sad state of affairs leave animals in the eyes of the law? They do have some legal protections, but no legal rights of their own nor any legal avenues to take action on their own behalf against their cruel owner or some random shithead who kicks them in the park. It would be like asking a wall to exercise its right to take action against someone who decided to graffiti it. It is not for the wall to take action, but rather for the police to take action against the graffiti artist. Animals are in the same position; they need someone to take legal action on their behalf. They are not recognised by the law as their own unique creature with their own legal rights.
And I think that is a shame. I am sure many lawyers would love to have animal clients and be paid in licks and cuddles.