Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The greyhound ban and animal welfare: what next?

The past few months have been a rollercoaster for anyone who works with greyhounds in any capacity. So what next?

Many proponents of animal welfare are reeling this week following the NSW Premier’s decision to reverse the ban on greyhound racing.

In July this year, the Premier stunned just about everyone – animal welfare groups included – by announcing a ban on greyhoundracing in New South Wales, based on the findings of a Special Inquiry lead by the Honourable Michael McHugh.  The report raised multiple concerns about wastage of dogs in the industry, poor Governance, conflicts of interest, live baiting of dogs (securing small animals such as rabbits and possums – live – to a lure for the dogs to chase and kill – a practice that continues), systemic misreporting of injuries, discouragement of at least one veterinarian in appropriate record keeping, reliance on non-veterinarians called “Muscle Men” to treat dogs using outdated, unproven and cruel methods of treatment, poor socialisation of dogs and so on. The Inquiry evaluated a range of evidence and the report is over 900 pages long – and worth reading.

At the end of the summary, McHugh suggested two options: one was for the industry to follow 79 stringent recommendations (recommendations 2-80, page 22-29 of the report), although he stressed that it was unlikely the industry could reform to an acceptable degree.

“…the commercial greyhound industry has failed community expectations that it is an ethical and humane industry. Permitting GRNSW a further period of time in which to attempt to demonstrate it can successfully address issues of overbreeding and wastage appears to the Commission to be likely to prove fruitless and, at the same time, continue to result in the deaths of many more thousands of healthy greyhounds.”  (page 21).

Nonetheless, many were stunned that the Government took the decision to ban the industry. It is very rare for a Government to take decisive action on an animal welfare issue, and was a sign that a line was being drawn: it is not acceptable to use animals in this way.

According to a poll conducted by the RSPCA NSW, 64 per cent or two thirds of people living in the ACT and Canberra supported the ban. That is a majority.

Last week, the Premier stated that the date for the shut-down of the industry was “locked in” and it was the “right thing”. It was an “absolute decision”.

Nonetheless Baird has had detractors. Interestingly some news outlets covered the ban in an almost consistently negative light (one of these has a huge potential conflict of interest, having just acquired an online betting site). The same agency appeared very confident the ban would be overturned in the days before it was. People in high places – including influential radio personality Alan Jones – opposed the ban. Interestingly, Baird was photographed dining with Alan Jones the eve before the ban was reversed.

It was surreal watching the Premier state, after months of committing to a ban and recommitting last week, that he was wrong. 

Supporters and opposition alike speculated that the Premier was subject to intense political pressure. Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi argued that the dogs, and their welfare, were overlooked in the debate

There are two key approaches to animal welfare interventions. One is the “gold standard” approach. This is essentially what the Baird Government did – the gold standard approach recognises a standard, and if a practice doesn’t meet it, it may be banned or eliminated. In practice, this is rare, and tends to result in industry backlash. It recognises that some forms of animal use are simply unacceptable. Another approach is the “incremental improvement” approach involves gradually improving or phasing out some practices. While proponents of incremental improvement may recognise there are some forms of unacceptable use (those involving aggravated cruelty, for example live baiting of dogs), critics of this approach argue that its easy for people to pay lip service to welfare improvement.

Both approaches have disadvantages as well as advantages. The trouble is, oscillating between them can generate significant confusion. For example, if a ban can be reversed, to what degree will incremental improvements be enforced? What message is sent about animal welfare when legislation supported by the majority of the population on animal welfare grounds can be reversed? How much faith do organisations have in the Government now that a ban, seemingly “locked in”, has been overturned? Is any decisive action on animal welfare doomed to failure?

Was the ban a waste of everyone’s time? According to Premier Baird's facebook post, it wasn’t.
After recently being tasked with overseeing the transition away from greyhound racing, [Dr Keniry] has spent the past few months on the ground talking with industry participants.Dr Keniry strongly believes that the announcement of the greyhound ban was a watershed moment for greyhound racing. He found in his meetings with trainers and breeders that the industry is now willing to make the drastic changes that it has resisted in the past.
(It is probably worth noting here reports that Dr Keniry attempted to resign from the taskforce before this because he did not support the ban). The publicity surrounding the ban has brought to light some serious animal welfare concerns about which many people may otherwise have been unaware.

So where to from here?

According to the Australian Veterinary Association, the NSW Government must be held accountable for improvements in greyhound welfare.

AVA spokesperson David Neck said: 
“The Premier made a commitment to greyhound welfare in July, and that commitment should be honoured. The NSW Government must ensure the greyhound industry adheres to the highest possible standards, and commit adequate financial and human resources to the task. The first step is for the Government to implement and fully fund the recommendations of the McHugh report, starting with the recommendations for truly independent regulation, separate from the commercial and operational aspects of the industry. We need a truly independent system that allows veterinarians to proactively speak out and improve greyhound welfare.”

In other words, there is a lot of work to do.

A good start, perhaps, is to re-read those 79 recommendations in the McHugh Report and consider how these can be implemented.

Another lesson learned is the need for veterinarians to ensure they operate independently. No matter who he or she is employed by, a veterinarian should be able to make accurate records of animal injuries and deaths and alert appropriate authorities. We should be vigorously defending not just our rights, but our professional obligations, to do so, and support each other in this regard.