Controversial animal welfare bill passed
The National Assembly has passed a bill whose stated objective is to fight animal cruelty, maltreatment and neglect but which has provoked a major controversy in Slovenia, pitting animal rights activists against farmers and veterinarians. A constitutional review of the bill is likely.
Put forward by a group of coalition MPs rather than the Agriculture Ministry, the amendments to the Animal Protection Act introduce solutions such as temporary barns for animals seized due to neglect or torture and mandatory in-house video surveillance in slaughterhouses.
But the most controversial provision, which provoked protests by farmers in spring, involves what was originally termed authorised animal protection advisers, representatives of animal rights groups that would be involved in inspection procedures.
Through subsequent amendments the term advisers has been changed into qualified informants, that is persons primarily involved in detecting and reporting animal torture or neglect, in raising awareness and in cooperation in inspection procedures.
To qualify for such a position, a minimum of 40 hours of training will be required for a job that involves detecting and reporting cases of animal torture and neglect. Their powers will include checking on the animal welfare and their photographs will be part of official procedure.
If they disagree with the authorised veterinarian's decision in certain procedure, they will be able to initiate a review before a three-member commission.
Farmers have been heavily opposed to the solution, as have veterinarians, who have argued that the qualified informants would in effect act as their supervisors even though they are far less qualified than veterinarians themselves. They see it as degradation of their profession.
To alleviate some concerns, the original provision was watered down by the relevant committee to state that these persons will not be allowed to enter private property or photograph persons. However, the veterinarians have already indicated they will challenge the bill at the Constitutional Court.
The bill's lead sponsor, Social Democrat MP Meira Hot argued in parliament that veterinarians would in fact gain power, because they would be the ones training the qualified informants.
She said that proof of abuse would only be collected in the presence of a veterinarian and in a public area, without private land being accessed.
Other provisions in the bill, which has also been heavily criticised by the parliament's legal service and the opposition, include a ban on dog chains and a ban on the use of all animals in circuses.
The government endorsed the changes, but Agriculture Minister Irena Šinko said they contained solutions that would be hard to implement. Among other things, the criminal code will have to be changed so as to define neglectful maltreatment of animals as a criminal act.
Andrej Kosi, an MP for the opposition Democrats (SDS), said that animal abuse must be prevented, but Slovenia already had relevant institutions for this job. He also expressed discomfort with qualified informants observing what went on on private property, albeit from a public area.
Vida Čadonič Špelič, an MP for the opposition New Slovenia (NSi) who is a veterinarian, said the objective of the changes was good, but the means was not. "If we want the law to work, it needs to be worded right," she said, pointing to a 14-page report by the parliamentary legal service.
The changes must be worded in such a way that animal abusers will be brought to court and found guilty and not in a way that will allow lawyers to find loopholes, Čadonič Špelič said.
Meanwhile, animal rights activists have said that while they have cooperated with veterinarians so far, in some cases of maltreatment their warnings have not been heeded.
The bill was passed by 52 votes in favour and 17 against on 20 September, but may likely be vetoed by the upper chamber, which means it will need to return to the lower chamber, but the majority there is sufficient to override the veto.