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Tough animal rights laws enacted in Austria

/ Source: The Associated Press

Hens will be free to run around barnyards, lions and tigers will vanish from circus acts, and Dobermans will sport what nature intended — floppy ears and longer tails — under a tough animal rights law adopted Thursday in Austria.

The anticruelty law, one of Europe’s harshest, will ban pet owners from cropping their dogs’ ears or tails, force farmers to uncage their chickens, and ensure that puppies and kittens no longer swelter in pet shop windows.

Violators face steep fines

Violators will be subject to fines of $2,420, and in cases of extreme cruelty could be fined up to $18,160 and have their animals seized by the authorities.

Lawmakers, some holding stuffed toy animals, voted unanimously to enact the law, which takes effect in January and will be phased in over several years. Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said Austria was sending a stern message to the rest of Europe and the world about respecting animals.

“Austria is taking the role of pioneer,” Schuessel told parliament, vowing to press for similar legislation across the European Union. “This new law will give both producers and consumers a good feeling, and it lifts animal protection to the highest level internationally.”

It’s the latest example of how the animals rights issue is gaining attention across Europe:

  • The European Commission has proposed a sweeping overhaul of EU regulations on transporting livestock across the continent to give more protection to the hundreds of thousands of animals that are shipped daily and to prevent deaths and abuse.

  • In March, Hungary’s parliament banned cockfighting and the breeding or sale of animals for fighting, and it made animal torture — previously a misdemeanor — a felony punishable by up to two years in prison.
  • Last summer, the region of Catalonia, which passed Spain’s first animal cruelty law in 1988, banned the killing of abandoned cats and dogs in animal shelters and raised fines for cruelty to as much as $24,200.
  • Italy is considering a law that forbids sending horses to the slaughterhouse after their competitive careers are over, and Germany plans to phase out mass farming of caged chickens by the end of 2006.

Austrians’ love for animals dates to imperial times, with the famed Lipizzaner stallions pampered as a source of national pride.

Circus animals, chickens, puppies to benefit

Aimed primarily at poultry and other livestock, Austria’s new law also outlaws the use of lions and other wild animals in circuses and makes it illegal to restrain dogs with chains, choke collars or “invisible fences” that administer mild electric shocks to confine animals.

The measure enjoyed the support of all four main parties in the National Assembly, where Minister of Social Affairs Herbert Haupt drew laughter by holding up a stuffed toy dog while addressing lawmakers Thursday.

Haupt, a veterinarian, had pushed for the law since the 1980s. It still needs the president’s signature, a formality given its unanimous passage.

“Animals and consumers are the clear winners with this law,” said Ulrike Sima, a lawmaker specializing in animal protection issues for the opposition Socialist Party.

A key provision bans the widespread practice of confining chickens to small cages on farms and makes it a crime to bind cattle tightly with ropes.

Pet owners and breeders no longer will be allowed to crop puppies’ ears or tails, a common practice with certain breeds such as Doberman pinschers. Sweden has banned the practice since 1989.

Invisible fences are out, too, though they’re nowhere near as ubiquitous here as they are in U.S. suburbs.

'A first step in the right direction'

“This is a first step in the right direction,” said Andreas Sax of the Austrian animal rights organization Four Paws.

Sax said the law won’t do enough to improve conditions for cattle and pigs, who often are injured in cramped pens with slatted floors, and he criticized some sections he said were too vague.

The Austrian Farm Federation opposed the law, arguing that it will increase costs for farmers and could lead to more imports of poultry from countries with looser restrictions.

Chicken farmers will be allowed several years to phase in the new rules. Those who recently invested in new cages will have until 2020 to turn their birds loose to run free inside fences.

The law calls for creating an animal rights ombudsman to oversee the treatment of animals on farms and in zoos, circuses and pet shops. Austria has an estimated 140,000 enterprises that breed or sell animals.