Canberra set to recognise animals as 'sentient beings' that are able to feel and perceive in Australian first
By Elise Scott, Tahlia Roy and Niki Burnside
Updated 17 minutes ago
PHOTO: The new laws would mean people could break into cars to protect an animal from serious injury. (ABC News: Tahlia Roy)
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Pet owners who keep their dogs locked up and do not allow them to exercise for longer than one day could face a fine of up to $4,000 under sweeping changes that enshrine animal feelings into ACT law.
ACT to recognise animals as "sentient beings"
New laws include harsher fines for mistreatment
Pig dogging and steel-jaw traps banned
Under the bill, confinement is judged on the dog's size, age and physical condition.
And anyone found confining a dog for longer than 24 hours would have to provide two hours of exercise or pay the fine.
Under the proposed laws the ACT would become the first jurisdiction in the country to recognise animals as "sentient beings" — the idea that animals are able to feel and perceive the world.
The concept recognises that "animals have intrinsic value and deserve to be treated with compassion" and "people have a duty to care for the physical and mental welfare of animals".
"The science tells us that animals are sentient," ACT City Services Minister Chris Steel said.
"I know with my dog he gets very excited when we're about to go on a run.
The animal welfare amendments, to be introduced into the ACT Legislative Assembly this week, would establish a suite of additional offences, including hitting or kicking an animal, abandonment, and confinement in a car that is likely to cause the animal injury, stress or death.
A person would be allowed to legally break into a car to protect an animal from serious injury or death, if they acted honestly and there were no other reasonable options like calling the police.
Having an animal in a moving vehicle without proper restraint would also be punishable by up to one year in prison or a $16,000 fine or both.
PHOTO: ACT City Services Minister Chris Steel says research has shown animals are sentient. (ABC News: Tahlia Roy)
The new laws would also create specific offences for failing to provide appropriate food, shelter, water, hygienic living, grooming and medical treatment to an animal.
For example, an owner could be prosecuted if their pet suffered an eye infection due to hair growing into its eyes, was impaired due to unclipped nails or had irritated skin due to fleas.
The bill also doubles penalties for cruelty to an animal to up to two years' imprisonment or a $32,000 fine or both, and increases punishments for aggravated cruelty to three years behind bars or a fine of $48,000 or both.
Fines would also apply for injuring animals and not reporting it — such as a car hitting an animal, including kangaroos.
New protections for guide dogs, assistance animals
For the first time in the ACT, guide dogs and other assistance animals would need to be accredited and listed on a register.
It would become an offence to prevent a person with an assistance animal entering a public place, remove an assistance animal or impose a charge for the animal — with a fine of up to $8,000 for an individual or $40,500 for a business.
And anyone caught pretending that an animal was an assistance animal would face a fine of up to $3,200.
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Pig dogging — using dogs to hunt wild pigs — would also be banned under the laws.
"Dogs will still be allowed to go out hunting with a person but we're specifically looking at banning practices like pig dogging," Mr Steel said.
Steel-jaw traps, which have metal jaws that close against each other when an animal enters it, have been banned in other Australian states and would also not be permitted in the ACT.
Penalties would also apply for any trapping of animals without a permit.
Animal sentience could have broader implications
The ACT adheres to the national code of practice in culling animals, including in kangaroo culling, which is supported by the RSPCA.
Veterinarian Dr David Rizkalla, from the Gables Veterinary Group, said the recognition of sentience was a good place to start enforcing animal rights.
"It's more about protecting animals from people who can harm them, than giving animals better opportunities," he said.
But he said it was important to clearly define which animals were recognised as sentient.
"It could get in the way of the economy," he said.
"I think it has to be quite clear if you introduce that sort of thing to large animals, like cows.
"Farmers spend money on the animal if it gets them more money, it's a profit thing, it's not a sentimental value, it's an economic value."