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Animal law out of the cage

Animal law out of the cage

After years floundering in the back of the classroom and the hallways of top tier law firms, animal law has arrived in Australia. Katrina Sharman, corporate counsel at Voiceless, writes

It’s official. After many years floundering in the back of the classroom and the hallways of numerous top tier law firms across Australia, animal law has arrived. Katrina Sharman, corporate counsel at Voiceless, the fund for animals, writes. 

Several years ago, Professor David Weisbrot AM, then-President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, foreshadowed this event by announcing that ‘animal protection may potentially be the next great social justice movement’. This year, with the publication of Australasia’s second animal law textbook, it became apparent that animal law has moved into the mainstream.

To lend weight to the cause, the Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG, noted in his foreword to that textbook that “there is nothing so powerful in the world as an idea whose time has come”.

This might prompt one to ask: why has animal law arrived in Australia? Why now? The answer, put simply, is that while Australia is often marketed as a country with high animal welfare standards, more animals are suffering in our backyard than at any other time in history. Furthermore, any detailed analysis of the regulatory framework for the treatment of animals reveals that Australia is home to some of the gravest animal abuses on the planet.

Take the plight of farm animals for example. Half a billion chickens, pigs and cows are bred for the specific purpose of food and food production in Australia every year. The vast majority spend their entire lives indoors in cages or sheds and never even see a blade of grass.

This is because farm animals in Australia, as in most common law countries, have no rights such as the right to bodily liberty or bodily integrity. They are classified as ‘stock’ or property and are viewed as inputs in a production process geared towards maximising profit and efficiency, subject to minimum standards of animal welfare. The presence of exemptions, defences and industry-friendly Codes of Practice ensure that they spend their lives largely beyond the protective reach of State and Territory animal welfare statutes.

The lot of kangaroos, our beloved icon, is little better. Kangaroos are classified as ‘protected fauna’ in most jurisdictions; however a lucrative commercial industry for kangaroo meat and skin exists in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. Under the current Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos (‘The Code’), a ‘humane death’ is defined as one in which the animal dies instantaneously through a clean shot to the head; however previously commissioned Reports and anecdotal evidence suggest that tens of thousands of animals die an inhumane death when they are shot in the body, neck and jaw each year.

Another alarming feature of the commercial kangaroo industry is the manner in which the law permits young kangaroos, including joeys, or pouch young, and young at foot to be treated. The Code requires pouch young and dependent joeys to be ‘euthansed’ when their mother is killed, by methods which (depending on the age of the young animal) include a forceful blow to the base of the skull sufficient to destroy the functional capacity of the brain, or stunning and decapitation with a sharp blade.

The above examples are only two insights into the suffering which is lawfully meted out to Australian animals on a daily basis. However they go a long way towards explaining why animal law is becoming a mainstream legal concern.

Animal Law is now being taught at nine law schools around Australia. The Barristers Animal Welfare Panel comprises more than 100 barristers (including 25 silks) from the Victorian and NSW bars and will soon go national. More than 1000 people attended the annual Animal Law Lecture Series run by Australia’s leading animal protection think-tank Voiceless, in August this year.

In short, there is work to be done for animals and there has never been a more important time for legal professionals to get involved. Boundless opportunities for pro bono involvement and scholarship wait. Those contributions are critical because they will continue to lay the foundations necessary to ensure that the lucky country becomes a kinder place for generations of animals to come.

Katrina Sharman is the Corporate Counsel for Voiceless, a non-profit organisation for animals in Australia founded by Brian Sherman AM and Ondine Sherman. Katrina has contributed to Australia’s first two textbooks on animal law published by The Federation Press and Thomson Reuters.

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