ACT passes Australia-first 'animal sentience' laws

ACT's tough 'animal sentience' laws impose new penalties for mistreatment of animals

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RSPCA ACT chief executive officer Michelle Robertson, who was welcomed the passage of the new laws. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

RSPCA ACT chief executive officer Michelle Robertson, who was welcomed the passage of the new laws. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

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The legislation introduces tough new penalties for the mistreatment of animals, while also placing more restrictions on pet shop owners and breeders.

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The ACT has become the first jurisdiction to recognise pets as "sentient beings", after tough new animal welfare laws were passed in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday.

It is the second Australia-first reform passed in the ACT in less than 24 hours, after the assembly voted in support of a bill to legalise cannabis for personal use on Wednesday afternoon.

The laws, which will come into effect in six months, recognise that animals can feel and perceive the world around them, and deserve to have a quality of life that "reflects their intrinsic value".

All three parties supported the bill, although the opposition remained concerned the laws went too far.

The legislation introduces tough new penalties for the mistreatment of animals, while also placing more restrictions on pet shop owners and breeders.

Owners will face $4000 fines if their dogs were confined for a full day, and then not exercised within the next two hours.

The penalty would not apply if a dog was kept in a backyard, where it could exercise, or if it had to be confined indoors for its welfare.

The government moved an amendment on Thursday to clarify that an owner would be confining their animal if they were keeping them in an enclosed space, or otherwise restricting their movement.

City Services Minister Chris Steel, who has secured the passage of Australia-first animal welfare laws. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

City Services Minister Chris Steel, who has secured the passage of Australia-first animal welfare laws. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

A $4000 penalty will apply for not providing pets in the ACT with appropriate food, water, shelter or a clean and hygienic environment.

People who take part in violent animal activities, such as dog fighting, could be fined up to $48,000 and face three years' imprisonment.

Pet shop owners and kennels will be required to obtain a licence to operate before the laws come into effect.

City Services Minister Chris Steel said the overhaul of the territory's animal welfare laws was "significant and well overdue".

"We've sadly seen recent incidents across our city of animal welfare abuses occurring and we need laws that allow us to take appropriate, balanced action against people who are doing the wrong thing," he said.

Mr Steel had hoped to pass the laws in July, but debate was pushed backed after it was revealed that he refused to grant opposition urban services spokeswoman Nicole Lawder a briefing on the bill.

At the time, Mr Steel defended his decision by saying Ms Lawder had already made clear her opposition to the proposal when she claimed the laws could effectively turn dog lovers into criminals.

Opposition urban services spokeswoman Nicole Lawder Picture: Jamila Toderas

Opposition urban services spokeswoman Nicole Lawder Picture: Jamila Toderas

Ms Lawder was belatedly offered a briefing.

During debate on Thursday, Ms Lawder said the opposition backed measures to stamp out animal cruelty, and therefore supported the bill.

But Ms Lawder remained concerned that the legislation was an "overreach".

She put forward an amendment designed to ensure the laws did not ban "responsible and humane" farming, scientific research or cultural and recreational activities.

"This is not a free pass to be cruel to animals under the above circumstances. There is a protection for responsible and humane practices in line with community expectations," she said.

"The amendment means that farmers can be assured that they won't be penalised for herding or [for] agricultural practices."

But Labor and the Greens rejected the amendment, with Mr Steel saying it would make the bill more ambiguous and harder to enforce.

Animals - including these kittens - will be recognised as "sentient beings" under new laws. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Animals - including these kittens - will be recognised as "sentient beings" under new laws. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

RSPCA ACT chief executive Michelle Robertson welcomed the passage of the new animal welfare laws.

"We believes that most Canberrans are responsible and loving pet owners, and foresee very little impact that this will have on responsible pet owners or businesses who have animals on site," Ms Robertson said.

"The changes could, however, have a significant impact on people who continuously neglect or who have no regard for the welfare of animals in their care.

"We will continue to work with the community in the first instance to change negative behaviours, but when necessary, our inspectorate's ability to take punitive and corrective measures will now be strengthened by the additional offences."

The story ACT passes Australia-first 'animal sentience' laws first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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