New Thai law against animal cruelty puts burden on humans

A rescued stray cat is placed in a cage at a shelter. The new law puts a burden on well-meaning folks who feed strays, making them the animals owner and thus responsible for medical care.

Thailand is one of several countries that has never had a sterling reputation for recognising animal rights but now the lives of beasts, both big and small, is all set to improve thanks to the promulgation of a long-overdue law against animal cruelty.

While the subject has come under discussion several times over the years, governments have come and gone without taking any action.

Today, thanks to lobbying by animal welfare groups, the Prevention of Animal Cruelty and Provision of Animal Welfare Act BE 2557 (2014) came into effect on December 27, just one day after the National Legislative Assembly voted on its adoption.

"The Act is very new and as it became effective immediately, a lot of people do not know what it covers. Even the prosecutors have not yet grasped its coverage," Roger Lohanan of the Thai Animal Guardians Association told participants at a discussion session for animal welfare activists on Ratchadapisek Road earlier this month. "It thus depends on us as citizens to report animal cruelty, help the prosecutors enforce this act and spread an understanding of this Act to others."

Animals with owners have enjoyed some kind of protection for years though they were only considered as "possessions". Stolen dogs, cats and cattle are usually reported to the authorities but the crime is classed under general theft and penalties, when imposed at all, are negligible when a negotiable fine can be reached. Moreover, these laws have only protected animals from outside threats and not from mistreatment by their own guardians. And despite frequent reports of mistreatment, torture, abandonment of pets by owners, none of these actions have until today been punishable by law.

Animals without owners have fared even worse. Strays often face starvation, are fully exposed to all kinds of risks from traffic, as well as mistreatment and being rounded up for the illegal meat trade. Now they too are protected, though the law will not delight anyone who is trying to help.

The new act does not include wild animals, which are covered by the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act. While a laudable law that has done much to protect the Kingdom's wildlife, it has failed to look after those animals that have been poached or sold as pets or as food.

According to the new act, animals protected by law are defined as those "raised as pets, as animals for work, as beasts of burden, as friends, as livestock, as performing show animals, or for any other purpose, no matter with or without owners".

The legislation not only seeks to prevent cruelty and torture but also requires owners to provide them with proper health care and living conditions. Violations are considered a criminal offence and punishment is a maximum Bt40,000 (S$1,663) fine and/or two years in jail.

While cruelty is of course subjective, the Act narrows it down to approximately 20 key acts, namely beating, stabbing, burning, scalding, starving, poisoning or any actions that causes the animal physical or mental suffering, pain, illness, disability or possibly death. Cruelty in the eyes of the law also includes abuse of working animals, such as those used in entertainment shows, cats and dogs in pet cafes and zoos as well as over-exertion of old, sick or pregnant animals, or animals that are far too young to work. Bestiality is not only frowned upon by society, is it also illegal.

Even adventurous foodies can be charged with a criminal offence, as menus with live vertebrate are illegal, as is trading in and consuming dog and cat meat. Feeding live prey to snakes, crocodiles or other animals is also prohibited by law, so any attractions that advertise "live feeding" shows - and they are many - should be reported to the police

As with any law, there are exceptions. Animal cruelty does not include killing of livestock for food, in the event of an epidemic or euthanasia of the mercy killing of terminally ill or fatally injured animals by certified veterinary doctors.

Killing animals according to religious ceremonies or beliefs and animal fighting according to local custom, such as cockfighting, is still permitted. Docking a dog's tail or cropping its ears is permitted for certain breeds, but only if a recognised veterinary surgeon certifies that the procedure will not harm the animal. Most importantly, killing of any animal in self-defence is allowed though it is important to provide evidence.

Another important part of the new legislation covers animal welfare. For example, owners of animals are now required by law to "raise, nurture and keep the animals in appropriate conditions with good health and sanitation and with sufficient food and water". In this case, the term "owner" is deemed to cover all family members, domestic help as well as any friends assigned to take care of a pet.

"This part is open to interpretation and will be difficult to enforce," Lohanan warns. "The word 'proper' is very subjective and people do things differently according to the knowledge they have. In this case, if we receive a report of mistreatment - such as dogs and cats in breeding mills, questionable care for elephants in entertainment shows and so forth - we turn to veterinary surgeons for medical examination. And if there's evidence that the animals are being kept in unfit conditions, we can then report this to the police for further action, which might include payment of a fine or even confiscation of the animals."

The Act also makes it clear that should the animals under the care of an individual become get sick or are injured, proper care as well as medical treatment must be provided. It's a section of law that also applies to the hundreds of kind-hearted folk who take care of strays.

"There are many decent people caring for stray dogs and cats, feeding them and giving them shelter, and that automatically makes them the animals' owners. While it's nice of them to help, the law now obliges them to take responsibility for sick and injured animals, which could be costly. We can only ask them not to abandon these helpless animals but instead turn to the many animal welfare organisations and associations who will raise the funds required or contact the authorities to manage the problem."

Pet owners who dump unwanted dogs and cats at temples can now be charged with abandoning and endangering the animal.

"But just like any other crime, you need evidence and proof to make a case and arrest the offenders," Lohanan stressed.

"You might feel the urge to dial 191 the minute you hear your neighbour beating the dog, but be a little patient and collect some evidence. Take a short video clip or pictures of the dog. This will make it easier for the law to intervene."