Why we need a Minister for Animal Welfare

23/10/2020

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made empathy and kindness the hallmarks of her leadership. During Ardern’s first term in office, that empathy extended only to humans. But now, as she begins her second term as prime minister, it is time for her to extend that same empathy to animals.

Ardern created history in 2017 when she appointed Meka Whaitiri, as the first New Zealand Associate Minister of Agriculture with responsibility for animal welfare. However in 2018, with the sacking of Whaitiri, the animal welfare portfolio was absorbed into the Primary Industries portfolio under Damien O’Connor.

Since then, the silence on animal welfare has been deafening in New Zealand.

When Ardern decides on her Cabinet, animal welfare must be considered – not only for the health and welfare of animals, but also the health of humans.

Any Minister for Primary Industries will focus on supporting and promoting agricultural export, however if their only concern is the financial return of those exports and not the humane treatment of animals, that oversight will have far reaching implications for New Zealand.

This can plainly be seen in the Government’s dithering on live exports.

A decision to stop sending thousands of animals on cruel sea voyages to destinations where New Zealand has no control over how they will be treated, is a no-brainer. We have seen deaths, incontrovertible film and other evidence of the cruelty and danger in live exports and yet we do nothing.

Live exports make no economic sense. This country’s largest agricultural returns come from exporting animal products, not live animals. That will always be the case, with New Zealand earning $9.1 billion a year from exporting meat. This country is jeopardising the bulk of its agricultural income for the benefit of a small number of farmers and exporters.

Live exports damage our international standing and make animal welfare-conscious consumers less likely to buy our products. Recent publicity about the sinking of the Gulf Livestock 1 off the coast of Japan, and the deaths of almost all the crew and more than 5800 cattle, cast a slur on this country’s international reputation as a world leader in farming.

Despite stating in mid-2019 that a conditional prohibition on live exports was potentially the best option to protect exported animals and New Zealand’s reputation, O’Connor has dragged his heels since then and backed away from making the obvious decision.

A Minister for Animal Welfare would provide clear advice about the welfare and economic benefits of banning live exports.

Secondly, appointing a Minister for Animal Welfare would help to restore the damage this country has suffered internationally through exposure of its poor treatment of animals on factory farms, in rodeo, and through testing on animals. A special animal welfare portfolio would show the world that the New Zealand Government regards animal welfare as important.

Thirdly, our country and the rest of the world has been ravaged by Covid-19. The pandemic will not end soon and we will be dealing with its consequences for years, if not decades.

However, most of the focus to date has been on surviving the present, finding a vaccine and building back – but what are we building back to?

Almost no attention has been devoted to the source of the outbreak and the fact that our poor treatment of animals makes future pandemics increasingly likely. That’s a fact – our scientists know it, our animals need it, and like live exports we continue to resist the obvious – human and animal health and survival are co-dependant – and yet we do nothing. 

Factory farming and wet markets place animals in crowded and appalling conditions close to humans, making it easier for viruses to transfer from animals to humans.

We need to urgently take steps to prevent it from happening in future.

There must be a thorough analysis and investigation into our farming practices and what we need to improve to protect humans. New Zealand already has high annual incidence rates of enteric diseases, and the massive increase in dairy density in recent years creates potential for more transfers of pathogens from animals to humans.

If the current pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has shown us that poor treatment of animals is catastrophic, for both humans and for animals.

Prime Minister Ardern, we ask you to step up, extend your inclusion and kindness to improving the lives of animals by appointing a Minister for Animal Welfare. It’s not only the right thing to do; it will also ensure New Zealand’s health, safety and economic future. 

By Simone Clarke, Executive Director at World Animal Protection Aotearoa / New Zealand