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Teaching the public of the need to protect animals' welfare should not be difficult if done properly
People in this predominantly Buddhist country [Thailand] like to think that compassion for all living things is very much part of their social norm and one of the positive attributes that distinguish them from other societies. The problem is that there is little correlation between such self-praise and everyday reality. Too many people do not give much thought to the importance of animal welfare in general, or specifically the need for humane treatment in the use and exploitation of animals as food, beasts of burden, scientific experiments and entertainment.
One has only to visit a fresh market to see the general lack of awareness about cruel treatment of live animals that are sold for food. Fish wriggle in a thin layer of water all day, frogs are skinned alive and then left quivering to a slow death as an advertisement of their freshness. Many people find such sights disturbing but decide that there is nothing anyone can do to change the tradition. Even though such traditions starkly contradicts Buddhist teachings, which, while advocating mutual co-dependence between humans and animals, also require humane treatment and responsible use and consumption of animals.
But old habits die hard.
Animal-welfare advocates, who have spent years trying to persuade an apathetic public that Thai society must shed this unsavoury aspect of its culture, felt there was a need to bolster their campaign with tough new laws to compel people to change their behaviour and deter would-be offenders.
The country's first comprehensive legislative package, recently completed by the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TSPCA) and Mahidol University's Faculty of Veterinary Science, offers hope that protection of animal welfare and humane treatment of animals can become more widely accepted in this country.
The legislation, which covers domesticated, wild, commercial and laboratory animals, provides harsher punishment for people who torture animals or fail to meet minimum standards of welfare for animals in their care. People found guilty of such offences could face fines of between Bt10,000 and Bt100,000 and/or a jail term from six months to five years.
This is a great jump up from the puny penalties of a maximum of one month's imprisonment and/or a fine up to Bt1,000 currently prescribed by Articles 381 and 382 of the Criminal Code.
For the first time, torture of animals as a criminal act is being defined. It includes beating, forcing an animal to work or perform tasks beyond its physical capacity, neglecting to provide medical treatment when sick and confining animals in tight spaces, causing pain, disability or death.
In addition to detailed and specific definitions of torture, experts involved in the drafting of the law also provide a general guideline for animals' welfare and protection against torture based on the "five freedoms". These are freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress.
Children must be taught in their tender years to be sensitive to animal welfare and take responsibility for their pets. Market stall-keepers have to be persuaded to adopt more humane practices in handling live animals and preparing them for sale, without causing unnecessary pain and suffering.
These are big steps for a society that has hitherto been quite unaware of such concepts and there will be a lot of adjusting to do in terms of attitude and practice.
Well-meaning animal-welfare advocates need to make sure that whatever public awareness campaign they have in mind to sway public opinion must be well thought out. Thai people have proven time and again that they are quick learners, quite sensible and receptive to new ideas. Persuading them to be kind and more attentive to the needs and welfare of animals should not be too difficult. After all, it needs to be pointed out that animals and all living things have their rightful place in the environment and the world. And for the privilege of making use of other species, we humans have the obligation to ensure good stewardship of animals.
Originally published in Thailand's The Nation newspaper.
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