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Is it time to take animal cruelty out of the ‘too difficult’ box?
  1. Adele Waters

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‘WHAT do vets think about the campaign to get tougher sentences for people who abuse animals?’

So the conversation started in our editorial office last week. Marc Armour, our first EMS student at Veterinary Record, had joined us and was keen to write about something important. The campaign launched a few days ago by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to push for tougher penalties was just the sort of issue to get stuck into.

Marc set about surveying student vets and found overwhelming support (see p 211). But what about the profession as a whole?

Marc discovered that vets probably do support tougher sentencing, although not explicitly. The BVA, for example, doesn't have a position on it. It is perhaps understandable that the profession does not want to wade in to a sentencing debate – it is not its area of expertise and could lead to a reductive discussion about tariffs and numbers.

But does that mean it shouldn't even get its feet wet? Couldn't the profession contribute usefully in saying something in principle about appropriate and proportionate sentencing and work collaboratively with animal charities to push for a review by the Ministry of Justice?

Policy formation in a profession with multiple divisions and sensitivities means arriving at a consensus view on some topics, perhaps ethical ones especially, is not easily achieved. But certainly, not having a view can lead to confusion.

Some vets have told me that, when faced with cases of suspected animal cruelty, they have known colleagues to ring the RCVS to check if it's OK to report it. The instinct to protect client confidentiality is often seen as the overriding concern, despite a code of practice that clearly states that a vet's first consideration is to the animal they are treating.

Is it time to take penalties for animal cruelty out of the ‘too difficult’ box and set a position? Last month a magistrate's court heard the case of a young offender who killed a lamb by stamping on its head. Found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering, the penalty was a £50 fine and a nine-month conditional discharge.

Last year a man subjected his dog to 20 minutes of torture on a train. The abuse included hanging and swinging the dog by its lead, pushing his foot on the dog's head and beating it with his hands, knees and feet, forcing the dog to lose consciousness and eventually die. The offender was identified by CCTV and later jailed for 21 weeks and banned from owning animals.

Do such penalties provide a sufficient deterrent? You might reasonably argue that six months, the maximum custodial sentence for animal cruelty, is a long time to spend in a jail, but when you contrast that with a maximum five years for fly tipping or stealing electricity, you begin to see the reality of how our society judges value.

A key principle of our justice system is proportionality in sentencing so shouldn't we expect to see a graduated system, with harsher penalties to be imposed for serious cases of animal cruelty?

We can reasonably judge a society by how it treats its vulnerable – its frail elderly, incapacitated, children and animals in our care. We all have something to gain by managing the societal ill of animal cruelty well. There is a strong association between animal abuse and domestic violence against adults and children – tackling those who perpetrate violence against animals also protects us.

Certainly, there is no shortage of public will on this issue – any MP will tell you that animal welfare issues are one of the most common reasons constituents write to them.

The public looks to the veterinary profession and trusts its judgement on animal welfare issues – as the respected voice on animal safeguarding. But the profession must not take that for granted. Fifteen years ago, perhaps, the profession would have been more hesitant but, in recent years, there has been a growing appetite to take a stronger line.

In 2012, the BVA surveyed its members about issues that mattered to them and the message came back clearly – vets wanted the Association to be more vocal about animal welfare. It has since made bold strides in this arena. Now the profession has robust positions on slaughter (animals should be stunned before they are slaughtered) and on circuses (the profession supports a ban on wild animals in travelling circuses).

Leadership in animal health and welfare is also one of six key work streams in the VetFutures project, which has set the ambition for vets to be the leading force for animal health and welfare and valued for their wider role in society by 2030.

There is a lot of noise about animal cruelty right now, with animal charities coalescing, celebrities pledging support and a rising number of MPs agitating for change, and it is about to get noisier as Battersea moves its campaign up a gear later this month. As many vets have told me this week, the time feels right to speak up on this important aspect of animal welfare. If the profession doesn't adopt a clear position, there is a danger that not only will the space be filled by other voices, but the veterinary profession will lose an important leadership opportunity.

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