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Animal cruelty hypocrisy

  • January 12th, 2016

RNZ this morning interviewed Ric Odom of SPCA on a case involving people who let dogs kill tethered goats for ‘training’ purposes. He cited the principle of animal welfare law – that everyone should avoid inflicting unnecessary or reasonably avoidable pain.

That is not a simple test. Mankind has always used animals against their ‘will’. We modify our environment at the expense of millions of other living organisms. Even vegans have to admit that their vegetables flourish only with a constant fight against insects. Devout Hindus allow people of lesser moral purity to keep at bay (kill) for their benefit even the more obviously ‘sentient’ animals that compete with us, or would eat us if we let them.  Animal welfare cannot be an absolute. There are always difficult trade-offs about the kinds and degrees of continued suffering that must be accepted.

Enforcement of the underlying principle reported today casts light on the enormous elephant in the New Zealand animal welfare circus. It is not rodeo which has been under recent hostile scrutiny as requiring suffering purely for entertainment. Rodeo is trifling compared to our  real elephant.

We are stupendously hypocritical. We live off the breeding of millions of fluffy lambs and calves for slaughter. They die in slaughter houses after hours of terrifying transport and ’emptying’. But at least the industry tries to minimise the suffering. At the extreme of care is our guilty recent near deification of whales. Even going near marine mammals for benign watching without evidence that it causes distress, can be a strict liability offence. Why the difference? It can’t be cuddliness. Seals have foul manners, including to each other and even fouler breath (as I know from direct exposure to a seal belch at close quarters on surfacing from a dive).

Yet at the other extreme our state protects thousands of perpetrators of cold-blooded torture of possibly millions of highly sentient animals in our jurisdiction.

Rich foreigners come to New Zealand to torture animals purely for that pleasure. Our government has given the practice legislative cover for many years. The torturers are probably mainly aging white males but our officials collude in attempts to expand the market in Asia.  Government agencies spread the word that New Zealand is the best place in the world for this kind of torture, with some of the fewest restrictions. Government money has gone into soft focus filming of the torturing in progress, with dramatic scenery backdrops, and gloating shots of the torturers holding up their exhausted victims.

The groups who profit from this state patronage have influence at the highest levels. The seemingly inoffensive Minister Peter Dunne has curried favour with them, preserving historic legislative privilege.

Those who enjoy this torture, and others who make money out of selling equipment, guiding, feeding and accomodating the torturers rarely even try to justify  themselves. It would be fatuous:

  • The cruelty is not incidental – the pain and terror is essential to the pleasure.
  • The animals do not threaten any human interest.
  • They could be killed and eaten humanely, with their suffering time only a few minutes.
  • Instead their value is calculated according to how fiercely they resist capture and for how long they suffer before succumbing to desperate exhaustion;
  • They are then abandoned to fend for themselves in the hope that they will recover (without any attempt at the care demanded by our law) so they can be subjected to the torture again.
  • Though the animals can be eaten they are not generally preferred food species;
  • The torturers have no intention of eating more than a tiny proportion of the number of animals they torture.

The elephant of hypocrisy is catch and release ‘game’ fishing.

Those who’ve grown up treating it as an honourable past-time offer sophistries – fish don’t feel pain (ludicrous), they feel pain differently (if true, so? and how do we know when it appears to be as aversive to them as it is to us?), we’ve always done this (not true – through most of history people have fished to capture and kill the fish as quickly and as securely as possible), and the law draws a sensible distinction between mammals who are like us, and others (not true, and birds as as different from mammals as fish and lizards). As a clincher they offer – if fish were not being pursued that way their habitat would not be protected (unlikely to be true – deer stalkers protect game habitat without trying to justify avoidable  suffering).

Whether it is dragging a swordfish around the sea by a hook in its mouth for hours until it is spent, or enjoying the ‘fighting quality’ of a terrifed trout or kahawai, the issue is the same. There is no equality of arms. There is no honour in the contest. The purpose is not to eat. However eloquently a Zane Grey might describe his exhaustion, it is entirely artificial. It could be brought to an end promptly if the ‘sportsmen’ and women were not deliberately using light tackle designed to break if the the fish is not ‘played’. So they must ration out their force so that the hook extends the agony for long enough to stretch the ‘game’ until the fish tires itself near to death.

I supported some of Sue Kedgley’s animal welfare campaigning in Parliament. I upset some ACT members with my opposition to sow cages and battery hen farming. But I could not support the one-eyed extremism of many animal rights campaigners. And for me their sincerity will be suspect for so long as they focus on dubious boundary cases involving farmers while they strategically fail to tackle the game fishing elephant.

It will be problematic. Thousands of New Zealanders will respond with gut rage. If the SPCA challenges this hypocrisy it will be vilified. It could lose substantial donors. But if they do not, they are hypocrites too.

Perhaps game fishers will find less support than they think. The numbers who catch and release, and who consciously use light tackle, may be tiny compared to the numbers who fish for their family pots. The latter should not feel threatened.

Farmers have been wrestling for years with the animal welfare implications of what they do for the stomachs (and economic interests)  of us all. They’ve changed their practices dramatically over several generations. But their efforts have not saved them from scape-goating.

Self interested Fish and Game critics have led the mob, piling on condemnation from a platform of false moral superiority. Lazy journalism and alliteration automatically connect the words ‘dairying’ and “dirty”.

The time is long past when farmers should have blown away the hypocritical  moralising of most of their fishing critics.  Parliament generally acknowledged that some animal suffering was unavoidable, but the question of degree consumed us. How much cost should farming absorb to reduce animal suffering? The law now has detailed provisions on arcane matters such as cropping dogs ears, and other traditional practices.

Farmers should start asking Bryce Johnson, next time he expresses Fish and Game’s sanctimony, just what part of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 definition of ill-treatment they do not understand. It means:

” causing the animal to suffer by any act or omission, pain or distress that in its kind or degree, or in its object, or in the circumstances in which it is inflicted, is unreasonable or unnecessary”.

Callousness toward suffering is widely recognised as a sign of low character.


  • Eric Crampton
  • January 12th, 2016
  • 5:08 pm

I have a lot of sympathy with your position here. But why does the fish not prefer to be tortured to be released and maybe die, rather than be tortured to be eaten and die for sure? And what is the counterfactual for the fish: would the death it would otherwise eventually face be any less grim?

  • Stephen
  • January 13th, 2016
  • 9:23 am

The issue is the torture – the use of tackle and methods expressly designed to create or leave risks that the line will break or the hook tear out if the fisher is too impatient and tries to bring things to an early conclusion by just hauling the fish in. And the fact that though it might prefer A – to be tortured then released over B – being simply taken and eaten, there is no reason for the A process at all other than human pleasure in skilfully deploying the torture instrument then conducting the torture so as to improve the odds of landing the fish at the end.

  • Eric Crampton
  • January 13th, 2016
  • 4:39 pm

If the unpleasantness of being hooked and reeled in is worse under release, you’re right. Didn’t know they differed.

You mean they make lines that break on purpose?


While I personally agree with you the way in which these fish suffer a slow lingering capture is unacceptable, I do think that improving the lives of farm animals needs to be a higher priority here. We haven’t got that right yet -not by a long shot.
It only dilutes the argument if you put the focus onto line fish before that battle is won.

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