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Animal welfare and the judgement of history

By Simon Caterson - posted Friday, 29 July 2016

There is a right and wrong side to history. And currently history - and indeed our own personal experience – is showing us that the more we understand about the lives of animals the more inclined we are to be concerned about their welfare. Currently topical issues such as greyhound racing and live export of cattle challenge us as a society to test the current limit of that knowledge and empathy.

It wasn't so long ago that Australia, like other countries such as the United States, had a whaling industry that employed many people, yet no one now calls for that trade to be revived. Indeed Australia in recent times has been at the forefront of international legal efforts to put pressure on those countries that still allow the hunting of whales.

Are activities like duck shooting gaining or losing public support? Are we for or against the poaching and trophy hunting of wild animals in Africa?


The NSW government's decision to close down the state's greyhound racing industry has been welcomed by many individuals and respected organisations such as the RSPCA concerned with advancing the cause of animal welfare.

Greyhound racing currently is banned in parts of the US though it remains popular in countries like Britain.

Many of those opposing the NSW ban no doubt are sincere in their belief that their industry does more good than harm. For others, including owners of rescue dogs, with no interest in the continuation of greyhound racing, the negative reaction to the ban in NSW reveals how far society still has to go in overcoming the widespread tolerance of, or ignorance towards, the suffering of animals at the hands of humans.

Animal welfare, like conservation, looms as an issue that transcends party politics yet so many politicians and commentators still appear to react with partisan opportunism rather than empathy.

The decision to end greyhound racing made by the Baird state government in response to the frankly horrific details contained in the McHugh report recalls the contentious decision in 2011 by the Gillard government to suspend the live export of cattle to Indonesia. The federal government led by Julia Gillard made that move in response to a public outcry at footage aired on Four Corners showing animals being tortured to death by workers in Indonesian abattoirs.

Both the Baird and Gillard decisions were attacked on economic grounds and the supporters reviled as elitist and out of touch, yet history would appear to be on the side of Julia Gillard and Mike Baird and those activists who supported the respective bans, as well as those farmers that don't support the live export trade and former greyhound racing participants who now want that industry shut down.


Consumers increasingly want to know about the conditions under which farm animals are kept. No new restricted enclosure zoos are being built at public expense. The few remaining big-top travelling circuses that use wild animals continue to employ people who support families, etc, yet councils increasingly are not permitting circuses that include exotic animal acts to use public facilities. The recent disclosure of footage of farm animals being handled violently by private schoolboys on a farm in NSW was widely condemned and led to a statement of regret from the headmaster.

If horse racing were to be invented now then would it be permitted to operate on animal welfare grounds? There is no doubt that scrutiny of the treatment of the racehorses, a number of whom die on the track every year, is intensifying.

Once legal activities such as dog-fighting, cock-fighting and bear-baiting would no doubt generate jobs and taxes if allowed to back into business, but no one is seriously arguing that the dividend in terms of gambling revenue and economic activity legitimises the exploitation of the animals involved.

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About the Author

Simon Caterson is a freelance writer and the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri (Arcade).

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