Draft Submission into BCC's Animals Local Law 2017

Brisbane City Council has just begun a short period of public consultation on the introduction of a new Animals Local Law, which amalgamates and updates some existing local laws in line with new State Government regulations, and also makes a few substantive changes.

It’s pretty rare for these local laws to be updated, so this is the best time to be advocating for changes to the way BCC regulates the keeping of animals.

You can view the draft local law at this link. You can make your own submission by emailing SubmissionsToTheCEO@brisbane.qld.gov.au (make sure you include your full name and address). Your submission doesn’t need to be complex or use specialist language. Just use plain English and share what issues you’re concerned about just like you were writing a normal letter. The deadline for submissions is 22 February.

Below is the first draft of my submission into the local law. I’ll be making a few more changes to this before I submit it in late February, so if you’re making your own submission into the Animals Local Law, feel free to CC in my office, and I will take your views into account before submitting my comments.

 

Councillor Jonathan Sri’s Draft Submission regarding the BCC’s proposed Animals Local Law 2017

Thank you for the opportunity to submit feedback regarding the proposed Animals Local Law 2017.

I make this submission in my capacity as the Brisbane City Councillor for the Gabba Ward and as a resident of East Brisbane. The content of my submission is informed by feedback from the residents I represent, as well as from extensive conversations with experts who work in the fields of ecology, animal welfare, animal husbandry and veterinary science.

My submission begins with general recommendations, some of which relate specifically to the drafting of the Animals Local Law (‘the ALL’), and others which relate to the enforcement and implementation of the local law, but which must obviously be taken into account in the drafting process. The second part of my submission identifies specific sections within the ALL which are problematic and should be redrafted. I would welcome the opportunity for a one-on-one briefing with the council officers who are drafting the local law so I can go over my concerns in more detail.

Shifting Values and Expectations requires better resourcing

My strong impression is that the council officers who work both in Invasive Species Management and in Animal Management are overworked and do not have the staffing capacity to adequately administer and enforce the Animals Local Law 2017. As a result of this, minor breaches are often overlooked, and council inspectors do not have the time and resources to play the educational role which they need to be playing in order to shift the values and behaviours of residents.

Written laws mean very little if there are no effective mechanisms to ensure they are being followed. In the absence of regular enforcement, laws can obviously still hold normative value in setting expectations and guiding residents’ behaviour, but this is only the case if residents are aware of the existence of the laws in the first place. For example, many residents are still unaware that it is illegal to allow a pet cat to wander onto a neighbour’s property. Currently, BCC does not enforce this rule sufficiently or consistently, and as a result, many residents ignore it. The lack of proactive education means the law is not serving its intended purpose.

I understand that at present, BCC only employs five Invasive Species Management officers, which is clearly insufficient for a city of Brisbane’s size. It is crucial that BCC hires more staff and invests more in staff training so that Invasive Species Management and Animal Management officers can do their jobs properly, without having to take shortcuts due to time constraints.

Prioritising Animal Welfare

The tone and stated purpose of the ALL fails to centre and prioritise animal care and protection as a core value. While a lot of emphasis is rightly placed on protecting human health and safety and protecting the environment, I believe the ALL should also have a stronger focus on the welfare of the animals themselves. The draft ALL appears to make no mention of the State Government’s Animal Care and Protection Act (‘the ACPA’), and falls short of implementing and embodying the principles that this legislation requires local councils to follow in managing and caring for animals.

BCC’s animal management officers need specific training in the application and relevance of the Animal Care and Protection Act and how it relates to the Animals Local Law, and my impression is that maybe this does not currently occur.

The failure to prioritise animal welfare and the tendency to blame animals for humans’ mistakes shows up in specific elements of the local law, like the fact that dogs can be destroyed if they repeatedly escape their enclosure.

All council employees who interact with animals must clearly understand that they have a duty of care towards those animals to protect them from harm and ensure they are treated appropriately by their owners.

Establish Stronger Partnership Arrangements with Animal Refuges

I have been concerned by rumours of captured animals being put down due to lack of space in BCC’s pounds, and I would like to know what steps are currently taken to ensure stray animals are rehomed via animal shelters. BCC should establish formal partnership arrangements with shelters like those run by the RSPCA and the Animal Welfare League if it has not already done so. It is not appropriate to destroy animals while there are spaces available in animal shelters unless those animals are so dangerous that they cannot be rehabilitated and rehomed.

Compulsory desexing of all cats and dogs

Unless an owner has a breeders’ permit, desexing of all pet cats and dogs should be compulsory in Brisbane. An exception could be introduced for situations where desexing would have a significant negative impact on an animal’s health, but mandatory desexing should be the default expectation. In a crowded, growing city, and in a society where unregulated for-profit breeding can too often lead to abuse and exploitation of animals, I see no compelling reason why desexing should not be mandatory. Programs already exist in Brisbane to offer free desexing to low-income pet owners, and council could easily fund an expanded free desexing program at the same time as desexing becomes mandatory.

Cat management

Desex and release trials

The new ALL should be drafted with the flexibility to allow for trials of trap-neuter-return (also known as ‘catch, desex and release’) feral cat management programs. While there is still some scientific debate as to the merits and effectiveness of trap-neuter-return (TNR) compared to wholesale culling, BCC should be open to trialling alternatives to culling. I would be happy to support a trial of TNR feral cat management in my electorate of the Gabba Ward, and while there are some legislative barriers to this at the State level, I’m confident that the State Government would be supportive of such trials if the BCC were to write to the relevant Minister to request permission.

Better enforcement and public education to prevent wandering cats

I support the strict penalties contained in the ALL against allowing animals to wander at large, however I’m concerned they are not currently being enforced in regards to pet cats. Contrary to myths which circulate in some sectors of the community, pet cats can adapt quite well to a life lived predominantly indoors, and can be exercised on leashes or in outdoor enclosures if necessary. Not only does preventing cats from wandering help preserve and protect native wildlife – it is also safer for the cats and better for society as a whole.

Responsible cat owners should keep their cats indoors or in outdoor enclosures, and owners who allow their cats to wander should be reminded of their obligations to both their own pets and to native wildlife.

If this law is enforced more consistently, it will also make it easier for council’s Invasive Species Management team to identify cats which are genuinely stray or feral.

The draft Animals Local Law should be amended to clearly specify that the prohibition against animals wandering at large also applies to pet cats. This could be highlighted using example scenarios or explanatory text if it is deemed unnecessary to amend the relevant sections themselves.

Mandatory Registration

It is essential that BCC introduce a system for registering cat ownership similar to the current dog registration system. While reasonable people can disagree as to whether there should be an actual registration fee, whether it should be annual or one-off, and how much that fee should be, it is obvious that a registration system is needed to allow better enforcement of the Animals Local Law.

Currently, cats are usually only microchipped when they are sold. This means that if an owner later abandons the pet or gives it to someone else without updating the microchip data, it can be difficult for council workers to identify a cat’s current owners or determine whether it is a stray.

Microchipping does not constitute legal proof of ownership. This means that even if a cat is microchipped, it is more difficult for council to legally prove that a particular individual owns a cat and to take enforcement action against negligent owners. The difficulty of proving legal ownership of pet cats can sometimes mean that council is unable to prevent irresponsible owners retaining custody over an animal even if they are not taking proper care of it.

A cat registration system would also help resolve disputes over pet ownership which can sometimes occur when families and households break up, and make it easier to reunite impounded animals with their owners.

Concerns that a registration system might exclude low-income residents from owning cats can easily be addressed through means-tested discount registrations, or offering free registration for cats which are adopted from animal shelters.

The fact that some people will ignore the law and refuse to register their cats is not a valid argument against introducing the law itself, as the benefits of introducing a registration system will outweigh the negatives even where there isn’t 100% compliance. Neighbouring city councils including, Moreton, Logan and the Redlands all currently have cat registration systems, and it is high time that BCC followed suit and adopted this common-sense measure.

Specific recommendations regarding sections of the draft Animals Local Law

Part 1 – Preliminary

Section 2(1) of the Animals Local Law should be amended to specifically emphasise the responsibility of pet owners to train their animals and educate themselves about how to provide a high standard of care.

Section 4(2) acknowledges that the local law does not override state legislation, however there appear to be several parts of the Animals Local Law which do conflict with the Animal Care and Protection Act. Council drafters should carefully compare each element of the ALL with the ACPA to ensure there are no direct conflicts.

Part 2 – Keeping of Animals

Section 9(1) should be amended to specifically include criteria relating to animal welfare. While the section encourages council officers to consider factors such as public health and safety before granting a permit for the keeping of certain kinds of animals, there is no mention of the standards of care the animal is receiving. A subsection should also be added to s 9(2) which specifically mentions the standard of care that the animal is likely to receive as a factor for council to have regard to.

The level of care contemplated in s 10(3) does not appear to set the same high standard of care embodied in the ACPA. Section 10 should be amended to more closely align with the terminology and expectations outlined in the State Government legislation.

Section 17 gives council the power to amend, suspend or cancel permits for keeping animals, however it does not clearly specify what is to happen to those animals if an owner’s permit is cancelled. BCC has a duty of care to ensure that if an owner loses the right to keep an animal, that animal will be transferred to an appropriate shelter or placed in the care of another person rather than simply let loose to wander. Ideally, the ALL should set out a clear process for council workers to help rehome animals in situations where permits are suspended or cancelled. Please see my comments above about the need to establish stronger partnerships with animal shelters and rehoming networks.

Part 3 – Control of Animals

Section 26 should be amended to include the same enclosure requirements as are specified in the State Government’s Animal Care and Protection Act. Although the State Government legislation technically overrides the council’s local laws, council’s inspectors are primarily trained and empowered to enforce the text of the local law without looking to see whether owners are also complying with the ACPA. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some animal management officers do not adopt an animal welfare-centred approach when assessing the adequacy of an enclosure. They are looking only at whether an animal is likely to escape, rather than whether an animal will be safe and comfortable in its enclosure with access to water, food, shelter from the sun and rain, and mental stimulation. This needs to be re-evaluated. The lack of clear definitions around the appropriate standards for an enclosure is concerning, and is replicated in other parts of the local law such as s 30(2), which again looks only at whether an enclosure will prevent an animal from escaping, rather than placing emphasis on the suitability of the enclosure from an animal welfare perspective.

Section 28 makes it illegal for owners to allow their animals to threaten or attack other people and animals, and to damage their property. However the section is drafted to allow an exception for non-native ‘vermin’. The word ‘vermin’ is emotive and poorly defined, creating unnecessary ambiguity and implicitly devaluing the lives and welfare of smaller mammals. More significantly, this exception allows pet owners to feed live mice, rats etc to their pets without specifying any measures to reduce the stress and suffering experienced by these small mammals. This is an emotive and divisive issue in the community, and it is important that a decision to continue to allow feeding of live mice and rats to other pets is made on the basis of broader public consultation and debate. Importantly, the RSPCA takes a strong stance against feeding live prey to any animal. Given the strong public sentiment against animal cruelty, and concerns about the potential for cruelty arising from the for-profit breeding of live rodents as prey for other pets, council should consider removing or narrowing the exception in s 28(3)(b) of the proposed ALL so as to discourage owners from feeding live prey to their pets.

Part 4 - Seizure, rehoming, impounding, sale or destruction of animals

Several parts of the proposed Animals Local Law create situations where animals can be destroyed even if they are not dangerous or mortally ill. Of greatest concern is the relationship between s 31 and s 35, which together give council officers the power to destroy an animal that has been found wandering at large more than three times in the past twelve months. The same power exists under s 43(1)(d). This power – to destroy animals simply on the basis that they have escaped or been let loose repeatedly – is directly contrary to contemporary values of Brisbane residents and seems to defy logic. It makes very little sense to kill an animal on the basis that its owner has failed to provide a secure enclosure for it. Subsections 35(1)(c) and 43(1)(d) should be removed and a greater focus on rehoming animals through partnerships with animal welfare organisations should be embodied in the written law.

Sections 41 and 42 also confer broader discretionary power on council officers to immediately (without notice) destroy any animal which they reasonably believe to be dangerous. While it’s important for council officers on the frontline to have the flexibility and autonomy to make tough calls in moments of crisis, BCC must ensure that all council employees who deal with animals (whether in the Animal Management, Invasive Species or Rapid Response teams) are adequately trained to make sound decisions as to when an animal must be immediately destroyed, and that they only use this power as an absolute last resort.

Council officers need thorough training in risk assessment, animal behaviour and handling, and more staff resources need to dedicated towards animal management so that council officers are not overworked and stressed out. The widespread availability of a range of tranquiliser guns and other non-lethal methods to disable an animal make it difficult to imagine a situation where immediate destruction would be the only option available to council officers, and these sections should perhaps be reworded to better reflect that.

Section 44 only gives owners two weeks to apply for a review of an animal destruction order. This is a very short timeframe considering that it can sometimes take owners who have lost track of their pet several days to learn about the council’s impoundment processes and find their animal in the system. Section 44 should be amended to give owners at least six weeks to apply for a review of a destruction order, and ideally I believe the waiting period should be significantly longer for animals whose owners have not been in contact with council and might be unaware that their animal is currently in a council pound. Obviously BCC doesn’t have the resources to hold impounded animals forever, however this can be addressed by developing better partnership arrangements with animal shelters and welfare organisations to ease and share the burden of temporarily housing animals while owners explore review and appeal processes.

Part 6 - Review of decisions and legal proceedings

The process for appealing a destruction order under ss 60 to 67 is complex and potentially costly, making it difficult for owners of low-education or low-SES backgrounds to fully avail themselves of their legal rights. Legal aid is generally unavailable for low-income pet owners who are appealing a destruction order, which significantly lowers their chances of having a fair hearing. The narrow timeframe (two weeks) is again unnecessarily tight and likely to be a cause of great anxiety for any resident who finds themselves navigating this process.

Section 65(2) sets up a strong bias against applicants in awarding costs, creating a situation where the applicant might have to pay council’s costs even in a situation where the appeal is successful and council is at fault. At a bare minimum, costs should follow the event, where if council is found to be in the wrong in having issued a destruction order, council should pay the owner’s costs. Ideally, owners who appeal a destruction order should never be liable for council’s legal costs even if the original decision is upheld, otherwise the threat of having to pay council’s legal costs if an appeal is unsuccessful could have a significant deterrent effect against residents on lower incomes, reducing their access to the entire appeal process.

Conclusion

Overall, the many specific flaws I have identified in the proposed Animals Local Law illustrate the broader concern highlighted at the outset that the ALL does not prioritise animal welfare and duties of care to animals in its approach to animal management.

There is currently growing distrust in some sectors of the community about Brisbane City Council’s approach to animal management, and this is exacerbated by the lack of public information and transparency regarding how the current local laws are enforced. Many elements of the new draft ALL confer broad and vaguely defined powers on council officers, with the specific policy decisions as to how those laws should be implemented in practice often made behind closed doors without further public debate or discussion.

For example, there is widespread public concern about the use of claw foot-traps to catch wandering animals, but rather than specifying what kinds of traps can or can’t be used, the ALL simply states in s 32 that council officers “may use any reasonable methods of capturing, trapping, controlling or sedating the animal” and “may use mechanical and tranquilising devices.” This lack of specificity fuels speculation about what methods council is or isn’t using, and further erodes public trust. A subsection should be added to specify that methods of trapping and capturing must be humane, and it may be appropriate for the local law itself to explicitly rule out certain kinds of claw foot-traps which are known to cause pain and suffering to an animal.

To address public concerns, Brisbane City Council should regularly publish the latest data on its website regarding how many animals have been impounded and destroyed, and specifically identify how many microchipped animals (if any) have had to be destroyed. BCC should publish more information on its website about what trapping methods council officers currently use, and what steps are taken to minimise the harm and stress each method might cause to an animal.

While I believe the current draft of the Animals Local Law has some significant flaws, I am nevertheless grateful to the council officers who have taken on the difficult job of drafting this local law, and I trust that the constructive suggestions I have offered will be incorporated into the final version of the ALL before it comes to council for adoption.

This draft local law requires substantial amendments and I would not feel comfortable supporting it in its current form.