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The EU election results represent an opportunity to take animal protection seriously ǀ View

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One of the outcomes of the EU elections which has gone under the radar is the critical issue of animal welfare. As the elections have shown, this is a subject which increasingly matters to millions of Europeans who vote accordingly.

In the run-up to the elections, 1,004 candidates signed Eurogroup for Animals’ #Vote4Animals pledge, of which 115 new MEPs were elected. That means approximately 1 in 7 members of the European Parliament have committed to work towards better animal welfare legislation on a number of important issues, including improving general standards throughout the EU.

Luckily for them, they will get a chance to start working on living up to their promise right away. The European Commission recently published a roadmap to evaluate the EU Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals 2012-2015. One of the main points to be covered by the evaluation will be whether the strategy has appropriately responded to animal welfare needs and problems up until 2018. Our view is that it hasn’t.

Patchwork regulations

It certainly hasn’t when it comes to the welfare of wildlife in private ownership, specifically the trading and keeping of exotic, non-domesticated animals as pets. The exotic pet trade is a pan-European industry involving millions of animals. However, there is very limited EU legislation covering the welfare of pets, including exotic pets. A report just published by Animal Advocacy and Protection (AAP) reveals that national legislation on exotic pet keeping in the EU member states are spread across different legal texts, covering issues from species protection (taken from the EU Wildlife Regulations) to the protection of native biodiversity (taken from the Invasive Alien Species Regulation).

The existing patchwork of regulation ensures there is no clear consensus to determine which species are allowed and which are not, let alone which welfare requirements should be adhered to. The most striking conclusion of the AAP report is that private ownership of the vast majority of the 5,488 known mammal species is not regulated in the EU. Even species with extraordinarily complex care needs, such as primates, are allowed as companion animals in many EU member States.

In its Animal Welfare Strategy, the Commission admits that one of the few pieces of EU legislation addressing the welfare of captive wildlife, Directive 1999/22/EC on zoo animals, “contains provisions that are too general to have practical effects.” Yet, this directive at least mandates that animals should be accommodated “under conditions which aim to satisfy the biological and conservation requirements of the individual species (…).” Astonishingly, when it comes to the needs of individual species being privately kept as pets in the EU, none of this applies - with severe consequences for the welfare of millions of exotic pets in European homes.

Consumer information

Moreover, this legislative fragmentation raises doubts about consumer protection and the presence of a level playing field. Where the EU strategy aimed at providing consumers and the public with appropriate information with regard to animal welfare, evidence points to a widespread lack of knowledge among prospective exotic pet keepers. Consumer education is failing across Europe, and with it responsible ownership. Moreover, AAP’s research shows extreme differences in the species allowed or banned in different EU member states, as well as in neighbouring countries. This gives rise to varying conditions between EU countries, as well as the possibility that individuals are unwittingly acting illegally when they purchase an animal in a country where that species is prohibited due to a lack of awareness.

Thankfully, the Commission seems aware of these loopholes and is intent on identifying ways to rectify them. As it notes in the roadmap, “There are areas where no specific legislation exists and the existing general requirements are difficult to apply. There might be room for simplification by introducing more precise stipulations in the general rules addressing common underlying drivers of animal welfare.”

Positive List

When it comes to the common problems posed by the exotic pet trade at the EU level, the most holistic, effective, concise, transparent, enforceable and economically feasible way to regulate it would be a Positive List of species allowed as pets throughout the Union, using what Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have already done nationally as a blueprint. Whether a standalone piece of legislation or as part of an integrated EU framework, such a List would help achieve several goals of the EU Animal Welfare Strategy, including “increasing transparency and adequacy of information to consumers on animal welfare for their purchase choice.”

The EU Positive List already has a considerable number of allies in the new European Parliament, with at least 94 newly-elected MEPs representing a wide variety of political groups committing to supporting its adoption. As stated in the strategy, the “treatment of animals relates to ethics and is part of the Union’s set of values.” We at AAP call on the new European Commission to put these values to work and take the opportunity provided by the evaluation of the Animal Welfare Strategy to highlight that the welfare of wildlife in private ownership has not been addressed and deserves urgent attention, and use this as a stepping-stone towards the adoption of an EU Positive List for pets.

Raquel García-van der Walle is the Head of Public Policy at Animal Advocacy and Protection (AAP)

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