Thailand, which has suffered a bad rap for animal cruelty in recent years, is going to pass a new law that stiffens the penalties for such acts. The problem is, it's too vague.
So say animal welfare activists appealing to the kingdom's appointed legislature.
On the surface, the Bill is a boon for the myriad groups trying to prevent baby elephants from being beaten into submission before being paraded in front of unsuspecting tourists, for example, or to stop dogs from being rounded up and killed for their meat.
The latter practice has been the target of a high profile campaign by welfare group Soi Dog Foundation, which roped in British actress Judi Dench as well as stars from the period TV series Downton Abbey to drum up support for a ban on the dog meat trade in Thailand.
According to the draft submitted to the National Legislative Assembly, those who are cruel to animals face up to one year in jail and a 20,000 baht (S$788) fine. This a major step up from the 1,000 baht fine and one month's jail term that animal abusers face under current laws.
But the Bill - which the legislature passed on in its first reading last month and will debate again in the next few weeks - does not define what constitutes a "cruel" act.
It also makes exceptions for religious or traditional practices, or for animals normally used as food.
This leaves the dog meat trade in ambiguous territory.
"I could turn around and say it's normal for me to eat elephant steaks. Who is to define what's 'normal'?" says Soi Dog co-founder John Dalley.
While eating dog meat is rare in Thailand - where dogs are more often seen as pets - small communities in the country's north-east have done so for years. The region's Sakon Nakhon province is also a hub of export of the dog meat headed for Vietnam, where dogs are more widely eaten.
In 2011, the Thai Veterinary Medical Association estimated that 500,000 dogs are exported from Thailand to Vietnam or China every year. Of late, it is believed that traders are slaughtering dogs within the country and smuggling the meat out instead.
The business has been condemned for its brutality, where dogs are beaten, packed into cages and then starved before slaughter. In a four-minute clip uploaded on YouTube in July, Dench says: "I didn't know that these innocent creatures are crammed into cages so brutally that their bones often break."
Animal welfare groups argue that the Bill as it stands does little to educate Thais on how to treat animals better.
"It's like a law that tells people you cannot drive too fast, but doesn't tell people what is too fast," says Mr Kiatiyos Lohanan, the founder of Thai Animal Guardians Association. "We would have to wait for the harm to happen before taking action."
This is unlike Singapore or British laws, for example, which warn that someone who "cruelly beats, kicks, ill-treats, over-rides, over- drives, overloads, tortures, infuriates or terrifies" an animal faces penalties.
The Thai Animal Guardians Association was among the coalition of animal groups that submitted a petition last week to make the upcoming law more specific. It was accompanied by 60,000 names gathered online.
In response, a member of the sub-committee looking at the Bill, Mr Suthep Limlamool, who is also a legal adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, told the Khaosod daily: "We want the law to be open for some cases."
Wildlife is a big tourist draw in Thailand but the kingdom has long been in the spotlight for questionable practices.
The furry, doe-eyed and endangered slow loris is peddled as a photo prop on the streets of Phuket and Pattaya. Last year, American singer Rihanna posted on Instagram a photo of herself holding the creature, which went viral on the Internet and sparked a crackdown on the trade.
In northern suburbs of Bangkok, the Pata Zoo sits on top of a department store, with a gorilla, tigers, leopard, flamingoes and dozens of other species all crammed into small cages.
In Chon Buri province, about 80km south-east of Bangkok, Sriracha Tiger Zoo has made headlines by taking piglets from a sow to nurse with a tigress, and doing the equivalent swop with tiger cubs.
Meanwhile, rogue trainers have been known to separate elephant calves from their mothers and "break them in" by beating them or even starving them, so they would be compliant when mature.
Even for animals considered as food, Mr Kiatiyos has come across troubling practices, like when a vendor cut the legs off a live chicken to fry and left the bird in agony overnight because there were no buyers for other parts of its body.
Mr Kiatiyos thinks it is not too late for legislators to raise their concerns and send the Bill back for major amendments.
"We will try to rally till the last minute," he vowed.
This article was first published on November 9, 2014.
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