General Election 2015: We have the votes to bring in politicians our animals deserve

I was never into politics. As a geeky, unconfident, teenager whose main (only) priority was becoming a vet and helping animals, politics was just something that happened to other people, and most importantly never to animals – so why should I interrupt my biology homework to find out more?

When I look back at how naive my attitude was then, compared to what I know now, it’s clear how many animal lovers out there – or indeed anyone who’s lost confidence in our democracy – could feel the same way, thinking we’re just wasting our time trying to operate within the system; resulting in massive and nationwide voter apathy.

Recent scandals e.g. expenses, and countless frustrating MP interviews with journalists on our screens day-in, day-out – avoiding questions, ducking answers, and basically appearing as untrustworthy as they possibly can – especially odd behaviour before a General Election don’t you think?

So, with this week’s General Election I wanted to share a few thoughts, experiences, and why indeed we must all vote, if not for our well-being, then at least for the animals – after all we are their voice.

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With so much animal welfare in both national news and flooding our social media timelines, it’s important to understand which party will deliver the best results for our animal friends. This week we all have a golden opportunity to be personally responsible for bringing in a government that will do better for the animals than what we’ve had for the past five years under this coalition.

Animal welfare issues I’m talking about include the controversial badger cull, fox hunting, wild animals in circuses, and of course puppy farming and its consequences i.e. the sale of puppies in pet shops. It’s also worth making the point that our ‘nation of animal lovers’ is not alone in suffering issues designed to exploit and cruelly treat animals; with bullfighting, dolphin slaughter, and trophy hunting happening on a daily basis abroad too.

Puppy farming, for those unaware of this disgusting practice, involves the often large-scale commercial production of puppies where profit is prioritised over welfare. Mostly located rurally, these living hell-holes supply often sick, diseased, even dying puppies to third parties e.g. pet shops, garden centres, and private dealers posing as breeders.

Shockingly most puppy farm breeding establishments are fully licensed by Councils and local authorities; totally legal, dark worlds of intense cruelty, pain, and suffering, with untreated mammary tumours, dental diseases, ear infections, eye infections, skin infections, genetic diseases, and wounds, all commonplace.

Puppies or ‘products’ from puppy farms are removed from their mothers far too young then distributed across the UK to sit on display in various types of shop window. Consumers, meanwhile, are advised “our puppies don’t come from puppy farms”, i.e. an industry based primarily on consumer fraud and cruelty. With the UK’s current massive overproduction of dogs and resulting surplus of rescue dogs, many of which are euthanised daily even though totally healthy, there’s really no justification for puppy farming whatsoever.

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As some of you are aware, in the last couple of years I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Westminster meeting politicians, ministers, shadow ministers, and their assistants. I’ve attended receptions, events, group meetings, sub-group meetings, meetings about meetings, and everything else in between. I’ve met Cameron at No. 10, and been totally overwhelmed as a spectator to PupAid’s e-petition debate which took place in the House of Commons last September; a result of collecting over 100,000 animal loving signatures in only six months.

The debate was about banning the sales of dogs and cats without their mothers’ present e.g. pet shops, a direct link between third party sellers and irresponsible dog or cat breeding practices. After all, no responsible breeder would ever give their carefully bred puppies or kittens to anyone else to sell.

With all the scientific evidence we have nowadays about young animals and how they’re reared – including an essential golden period of socialisation in their first three months shaping their emotional templates to deal with whatever life throws at them – this was the perfect opportunity for the government to finally make a significant contribution to ending puppy farming. Yet, despite a majority of MPs voting for a ban, they (DEFRA) failed to act.

Although MPs from across the political spectrum all spoke out in favour of making it illegal to sell puppies and kittens in pet shops, minister George Eustice, speaking for the government declined to make this change, even though every animal welfare organisation (including RSPCA, Dogs Trust, Battersea, Kennel Club), as well as huge public support were demanding the exact opposite.

Of course it was later revealed that the trade body, Pet Industry Federation (PIF), had contacted MPs days before the debate asking them to ignore the professional ‘see puppies with their mothers’ advice given to all prospective dog owners by respected welfare organisations (and even the government’s own website), asking MPs to vote no or abstain from voting for a ban instead. Pet Industry Federation were (and still are) saying that it’s totally acceptable for puppies and kittens to be sold without their mums. Luckily Pet Industry Federation’s email fell on deaf ears with those MPs but it is likely to have influenced DEFRA.

The ‘Trade versus Welfare’ argument isn’t unique to puppy and kitten buying but must be flagged, as some will blame trade’s relationship with government for many anti-animal (or indeed anti-human) legislative decisions that are made. After all, it’s usually investment in facilities and law enforcement that improves welfare, involving useful money that eats into company profits and local authority budgets.

A few months ago Pet Industry Federation’s CEO, Nigel Baker, promised both in person and via a recent letter to the pet press, to meet up with me/PupAid to discuss how we could all work together. I’ve still not heard anything since, apart from yet another general new improved public reassurance that selling puppies and kittens in pet shops is perfectly acceptable.

However after demanding they tell us who’s selling pups responsibly via this route, Pet Industry Federation has repeatedly failed to divulge this list of ‘Quality Standard’ pet shops. The more the outdated concepts behind Pet Industry Federation’s latest audit are completely (and easily) debunked, the less chance they have of being seriously received by anyone, especially the government.

The trade and its supporters will also argue that the government will never change its mind. ‘Pet shops have a right to sell puppies’ they’ll tell you. Then by the same token so do markets, but the fact is they don’t, it’s illegal. Therefore if it can be made illegal to sell puppies in markets then it can be made illegal to sell them in pet shops.

Furthermore, progress being made in the U.S. and Australia is a lesson to our country that that pet shops don’t have a right. If the trade thinks no government will implement a ban, then the mind boggles what they must have thought before a ban on using humans as slaves was ever considered.

Another gem from the pet trade is ‘you do not improve standards simply by introducing laws’ comparing puppies sold in pet shops to laws about alcohol, vehicles, or smoking. Saying although laws exercise some control of activity they don’t prevent people getting drunk, having accidents, or dying of smoking related diseases.

No, but what the law does do is effectively ensure that the majority of people now wear seatbelts, the majority of smokers wouldn’t dream of lighting up inside a public place, and the majority of people would think twice about drink driving.

Getting drunk is not against the law, having an accident is not against the law, and dying of a smoking related disease is not against the law. What the trade fails to appreciate is that there is a huge difference between making something illegal and expecting the public to do the right thing.

Make it illegal to buy a puppy without the mother being present and the majority of puppy purchases would not buy a puppy without the mother present. Advise people to always ask to see the mother and the majority of people will forget and just go with the flow (heart over head). Also most of the time us humans are responsible for our own actions, animals don’t have that option, relying on us to choose for them.

Overall a fairly depressing scenario, because at the end of the day it’s our politicians (and local authorities) who have the ‘power’ to tackle the problems, both at puppy farm and retailer levels; but don’t actually have any obligation to use that power.

Some politicians and trade body representatives will always blame the ‘poorly educated’ public not researching properly, or that incoming compulsory microchipping regulations will improve traceability to a point where puppy farmers will be affected. But the fact is that as far as the public’s concerned, if it’s legal, i.e. selling puppies in pet shops, then a) why is it bad, and b) why should it be avoided?

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Yes, the law allows for the sale of puppies in pet shops, it also allows for it to be outlawed through setting conditions to individual pet shop licences (as stated in DEFRA’s letter to all English Local Authorities sent out post-September’s debate). But what is absolutely clear, is that when councils have tried to eliminate and control the sale of puppies in pet shops by setting conditions or introducing the Swindon Model Licence Conditions for Pet Shops, they have been scuppered by none other than the trade!

There is absolutely no difference between third parties selling puppies advertised online, imported pups from Lithuania, and any other pet shop – they are all pet shops! Get the basics right for goodness sake. And they all operate from premises of some description that are all ‘licensed and inspected’.

Getting rid of the only legitimate market for this trade is the only real way anything is ever going to change. Like it or not, to end puppy farming, engagement in the political process is needed, alongside education of the buying public, and all the other threads that make up the campaign.

Effective activism requires us all to use our votes wisely. If in doubt, take a look at what’s happening in Australia: in the state of Victoria, the election of a new government, with a committed new Minister, Jaala Pulford, has fast tracked legislation that is anticipated will “break the business model” of the puppy farms in the state. It’s always the politicians that have the powers to change things. And we have the votes to bring in the politicians our animals deserve.

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Back to the UK and an overview of our main parties reveals the Labour Party’s ‘Protecting Animals’ manifesto is filled with pledges to end many existing ways animals suffer in the UK, including puppy farming. An urgent review of legislation is acknowledged. And, having personally met up regularly with MPs Angela Smith, Maria Eagle, Rob Flello, Luciana Berger, and Kerry McCarthy, I’m consistently impressed with their ambition and attitude to ending animal cruelty.

The Liberal Democrats have also made a positive manifesto commitment pledging to “review the rules surrounding the sale of pets to ensure they promote responsible breeding and sales”.

Caroline Lucas MP was true to her word with the Green Party manifesto including a specific pledge to “end puppy farming by banning the sale of young puppies unless the mother is present”.

Finally, UKIP focuses on tougher jail sentences for people convicted of animal cruelty.

All of this is more than the Conservatives have said they’ll do, or indeed have done in the last five years, leaving them virtually isolated in making no reference to sale and breeding regulations in their manifesto whatsoever.

This is especially frustrating as over the last couple of years I’ve sat in many meetings opposite DEFRA ministers, who repeatedly claim that everything’s OK. Well guys, from the battery farmed dogs’ and their dying puppies’ and heartbroken owners’ points of view, it really isn’t – it’s not even close. I must add however there are some pet-friendly Tory MPs including Simon Kirby, Tracey Crouch, and David Amess, who’ve always supported PupAid’s aims.

I recently spent a day observing a licence renewal case of a pet shop in London (lucky me eh?). The pet shop asked the council if they could sell even more puppies, but were denied due to repeated breaches of their pet shop licence. Surely repeatedly breaking the law as well as compromising animal welfare should mean their licence will automatically be refused when next applied for? Sadly no one’s holding their breath.

Finally let’s not forget what we all can achieve ourselves.

Start your own campaign. Organise an awareness/charity events. (BTW: This year’s PupAid is 5th Sept in London). Use your social media channels wisely. Most of us are on Twitter and/or Facebook so we all have a voice regardless of how many friends or followers we have.

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Join fellow campaigners like Peter Egan and Brian May, and engage with charities and groups all working hard to make a difference. Start, sign, and share petitions, promote posts about animal welfare, use hashtags, i.e. be an active part of raising awareness, potentially influencing legislation and changing public behaviour. We may not have the money to donate to every charity/campaign we’d like to, but we can certainly ‘give’ in other ways by sharing all this information far and wide.

One of the best examples of this is phenomenal animal welfare hero, and PupAid supporter, Ricky Gervais and his war on trophy hunting. Not only is Ricky an outspoken celeb who influences millions on animal welfare (including raising puppy farm awareness and promoting rescue dog adoption on a weekly basis), but he keeps the conversation going, resulting in related blogs, posts, news stories, even publicly engaging with the perpetrators, i.e. huge populations of people being made aware – all feeling part of the fight against animal cruelty.

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As well as puppy farming campaign groups here in UK like PupAid and brilliant CARIAD, there are also committed groups in the States (highlighted by forthcoming movie documentary Dog By Dog), and in Australia by the incredible Oscar’s Law. Animal welfare is a global issue now and we can all proudly get involved and make a difference – for free.

So please vote on Thursday if not for humans then do it for animals. And if on Friday we end up with a Conservative government for another five years, pretty much guaranteeing even more ineffective badger culls, wild animals continuing to be exploited in circuses, having the hunting ban repealed, and puppy farming prospering with the dismal current status quo for dogs continuing; this will undoubtedly mean animal welfare/justice would again not be prioritised.

Along with my fellow animal welfare campaigners I’ll be bitterly disheartened if this is the result, but not defeated, as I’m in this fight to end puppy farming for as long as it takes; which, if the right set of politicians are elected, could make it a significantly shorter fight, than if we get a repeat of anything like what we’ve experienced in Westminster for the past five years.

Post-election I’m very much looking forward to returning to Westminster whatever the result, excited about keeping the pressure on by helping those most vulnerable animals without a voice, working with ethical caring MPs, and remaining an active part of parliamentary groups determined to positively change the future for the UK’s animals – and your support will of course, once again, be greatly appreciated.

Marc Abraham BVM&S MRCVS Founder PupAid.

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