New ACT laws set higher benchmarks in animal welfare

Walkies: Providing your dog with appropriate exercise is covered under the new ACT laws.
Walkies: Providing your dog with appropriate exercise is covered under the new ACT laws.

Any pet owner will tell you that their pet isn't simply a thing. Pets have their own personalities and emotions, feel pain and can suffer, and many humans believe animals should have a higher legal status than simply someone's property.

Those people will be pleased that animals in the ACT now have better protection under the law since being classed as sentient beings in a bill passed by the ACT Legislative Assemble in late September. It is the first time in Australia such a bill has been passed.

Similar laws have existed for several years in other countries such as France, Colombia and New Zealand. In Switzerland the sentimental value of a companion animal is recognised in law, is considered upon the death or divorce of its owner, and compensation can be awarded if it is harmed.

"These new laws will make the ACT a national leader in animal welfare, and reflects a zero tolerance approach to animal cruelty," Minister for City Services Chris Steel said.

"Modern animal welfare is about considering how an animal is coping both mentally and physically with the conditions in which it lives.

"For the first time under law we are recognising the science, that animals are sentient, and they feel emotion and pain.

"This legislation will enable better enforcement of laws to protect animals.

"People who do not properly care for their animals, such as failing to provide a dog with water or shelter, face new on the spot fines.

"Fines for these offences can now be easily issued by officers as part of the new escalating enforcement framework to deter further acts of cruelty from happening," Minister Steel said.

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. However this 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.

There will also be a $4000 penalty for not providing pets with appropriate food, water, shelter or a clean and hygenic 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.

It also allows for passers-by to break into a car to relieve the suffering of an animal without any legal consequences (unless it can be proven their decision-making abilities were impaired by drugs).

Under the new laws, if serious animal welfare abuses are committed, the Animal Welfare Authority can impose an interim ownership ban of up to six months. The Authority can also seize, retain, sell or rehome an animal where appropriate.

Pet businesses will also be required to be licenced for the first time in the ACT, including pet shops and boarding kennels, to provide increased protections for animals in their care.

It is now also a legal requirement for someone who has hit a wild animal in the ACT to report the injury within two hours.