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Herding cats

Session one of the long awaited Western Province Animal Summit has come and gone. So overwhelming was the response to invitations that the first session was devoted to issues concerning domestic animals only (it did not touch on farm animals though, for reasons which remain obscure). A second session for wild animals will follow on 4 April.

Presided over by SPCA patron and local Premier, Helen Zille, the first session got off to an inauspicious start when a member of the fourth estate, who tried to sneak in unnoticed and a little late, was summarily evicted on the somewhat spurious basis that this was a closed meeting for animal welfare organisations only. Why a meeting of such compelling public interest should be kept away from the scrutiny of the media when it was publicly funded and encompassed robust discussion of newsworthy nature is hard to divine. Ample press coverage, despite the ban, has nevertheless followed.

Initially it was suspected that the palpable conflict of interest between the two roles that the Premier played on the day could be to blame for excluding the press. Upon closer inspection it appears that this is only half the story.

Getting to the bottom of the motivation for excluding the press requires a little digging into the history of the DA and its policy position. The express purpose of the summit was to forge an animal policy that is appropriate and responsive to the needs of the people of the Western Cape.

Some of the organisations present, a minority, belong to the Animal Welfare Forum (AWF), a loose association of like minded non-profit organisations. The AWF has a constitution with a draconian admission and black-balling system, an attitude toward sterilization that is hard to justify and an unwillingness, or even inability, to accept members who are not duly registered NPOs. Most, if not all, of its members are in the class of welfare organisations which are prepared to resort to mass euthanasia of excess domestic animals. Most of the non-NPO organisations present at the summit which are not members of the AWF have a more humane and compassionate ethos toward animals and seek to avoid killing healthy and young animals merely because they are part of a population explosion that is due to official neglect and unwillingness to fund mass sterilization programmes, especially among the masses of owned but unrestricted domestic animals roaming the province’s poorer areas.

While everyone appears to accept that mass sterilization is the answer to the over-population problem, the willingness of pro-kill organisations to lose the euthanasia linked part of their livelihoods that they earn from killing excess animals and disposing of the carcasses this creates tends to act as a damper on their enthusiasm for a mass sterilization programme, properly funded by public and private means.

The hitherto supine approach of the authorities at both provincial and city levels is about to change, if any credence is to be attached to the “let’s roll up our sleeves and get down to tackling this” attitude on display from the Premier. It must be obvious to any objective observer that a continuous upward spiral of mass euthanasia is not sustainable ethically, logistically, legally, financially and constitutionally. The answer is publicly funded best practice compulsory mass sterilisation: it addresses the cause of over-population, not just its dreadful symptoms.

Beside lack of funding, the summit identified two other main issues in addition to that of mass sterilization: the need to promote humane education and the need to enforce the laws in respect of cruelty to animals more effectively.

So why then has the DA, in power since 2009, been such a long time coming with this summit? Its election manifesto is instructive.
It reads, under the heading Animal Protection:

Humans have a special responsibility to ensure that cruelty against animals is prevented. The DA believes that each living creature has intrinsic value and is a sentient being. While the DA acknowledges that animals can be used in service of humans, legislation and regulations must ensure that animals are not abused or exploited.

11.1 Legal Review
Despite longstanding animal protection legislation in South Africa, there is more that must be done to improve the enforcement of laws and alignment across government. The DA welcomes the integral role that the NSPCA plays, as well as the variety of other animal welfare and animal rights organisations that operate in our communities. The partnership between state and civil society groups needs to be maintained and strengthened, with increased funding for groups that operate in this field.

Under a DA government animal protection would move to the newly created Ministry of Natural Resources and Heritage, and would enjoy its own empowered inspectorate.

Other policy initiatives on animal protection would include:

  • The creation of an Ombudsman for Animal Protection.
  • The employ of at least one state attorney in each province to represent the interests of animals.
  • Increased capacity for working committees at provincial and national levels for all stakeholders who work with animals including farmers, wildlife managers, veterinarians, scientists and animal protection organisations.

Notwithstanding the existing legal framework for animal protection, the DA acknowledges that the field of animal protection is a contested one. We believe there needs to be a pragmatic and ongoing approach to law reform with regard to animal protection, focusing on the further strengthening of laws and the increasing of penalties in line with further realising the intrinsic value and sentience of animals.

11.2 Education
The DA would also include animal ethics in the educational curriculum.
Underscoring the importance of the individual’s own right to make choices about his or her own consumption, the curriculum should include the consequences of different consumption patterns, both on the environment as a whole and on animals in particular. International research indicates a strong link between pathological animal cruelty and human violence. Therefore, by showing children how to bond with animals, as well as respect and care for animals and the environment, they will be less inclined towards violence against fellow human beings.

The Premier, who is also leader of the party espousing this policy statement, wants all animal welfare organisations to join the AWF. She virtually ordered those that are not members to join. This may prove to be an impossibility having regard to the features of the AWF constitution highlighted above, unless they are quickly modified. The Premier may have to accept that she is attempting to herd cats and that the dividing lines between the “pro-kill”, “anti-kill” and “no-kill” groupings so in evidence at the meeting will require officialdom to deal with at least two bodies, in the way envisaged by the DA before it came to power in the province.

It is also notable that there was not a flicker of recognition of the worthy idea of an animal ombud on the face of any DA representative present when this was suggested from the floor of the summit. Instead, veteran activist Chris Mercer was castigated for pointing out the obvious – that the SPCA is both player and referee (quasi-ombud as it were) in the animal welfare sector. That the SPCA also enjoys the patronage of the Premier merely compounds the problem and this should end. No wonder the press was excluded.

The Premier is meeting with the, hopefully expanded, AWF at Wale Street on 1 March to thrash out best practice on sterilisation and other issues. Expect fireworks, and no invitations to the press. Humane education needs to find traction with the provincial education authorities.

Until such time as the province and city of Cape Town take election promises seriously and become financially involved in animal welfare the misery and squalor created by unrestricted breeding of domestic animals will continue. Creating the best practice parameters for mass sterilization and calling for tenders is surely not beyond the wit of officialdom.

Paul Hoffman SC
8 February 2012.

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