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What value a horse’s life?

The welfare spotlight shone on horses in 2019, and, writes JUSTINE CURATOLO, of the Australian Equine Unification Scheme and Heritage Brumby Advocates Australia, there was some significant progress.  

Over the past few years, there’s been tremendous work happening in the background by advocates trying to bring about positive reform in the horse industry in Australia.

There have been meetings with politicians, legislators and key industry representatives; lobbying and advocating by groups in the horse industry to bring about change; and advocates working closely with the media to expose horrific and ongoing systemic acts of animal cruelty.

In addition, there have been submissions made and hundreds of letters and emails written to those in positions of power.

I know, because I’ve been part of this movement.  I’ve spent many hours after work and at the weekends writing submissions and letters to politicians as well as creating education campaigns on behalf of the Australian brumby. I’m a volunteer with two horse organisations, the Australian Equine Unification Scheme and Heritage Brumby Advocates Australia Inc, and I can certainly confirm what a busy year 2019 was in the horse welfare arena.

Most of the background work was done by volunteers – many of whom are already overburdened in their day-to-day life and have limited professional experience in how to bring nation-wide legislative reform to a mostly self-regulated industry that is not only well financed but also resistant to any interference which may impact their bottom line.

So honestly, it’s reasonable to ask the question a few months into 2020 was all the effort and time spent writing letters, submissions and emails worth it?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal YES. Absolutely it was worth it! For numerous reasons.

In 2019 there were a number of significant events (as a result of all of the above-mentioned hard work) that will shape the future of the horse industry within Australia and hopefully bring about positive change. Importantly, these events have created a culture of working towards a common goal across ALL areas of the horse industry with animal activists and, for example, the racing industry agreeing on the need for reform in certain areas.

Some of the significant events of last year were as follows:

Last April, the Federal Senate Enquiry into the feasibility of a National Horse Traceability Register for all horses began:

The Senate heard from stakeholders through a submission process as well as via open hearings. There was wide participation across all horse industries within Australia and internationally and the vast majority of submissions received supported a National Horse Traceability Register.

Consequently, the Senate report recommended the establishment of a working group, writing that: The committee is convinced of the merits of establishing a National Horse Traceability Register. ™  The report also noted the justification for the register as: ¦the absence of any clear data on the number of horses that exist in Australia. Further, there is inadequate information available about the location of horses or owner details. Existing industry registers are piecemeal and do not capture the entire industry. ™

It’s my hope, and the hope of many horse advocates, that a fully-functioning national horse registration system, enforceable through legislation, operating together with state animal cruelty laws and local council bylaws, would have the potential to end back yard breeding; allow prosecution of historic animal cruelty acts; prevent stolen horses going to slaughter and would also have significant bio-security benefits.

A National Horse Traceability Register could change the landscape and welfare for all horses across Australia and lead to improvements never before seen in this industry. Importantly, this register has the backing of the majority of the horse industry, including animal activists, breeder organisations and various state and federal authorities.

In July 2019 legal action was taken by the Australian Brumby Alliance against Parks Victoria in the Federal Court of Australia:

Five days of legal proceedings against Parks Victoria were heard in the federal court during July 2019, as the Australian Brumby Alliance (ABA) sought an order to prohibit Parks Victoria from their proposed action to eradicate ALL Bogong High Plains heritage brumbies and significantly reduce the Eastern Alpine Brumby population without first applying for approval from the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment.

The Heritage value of the Australian brumby was central to the case. The ABA argued that the iconic alpine brumby is an integral part of Australia’s Alpine living heritage and that Parks Victoria’s action would significantly negatively impact alpine Heritage values. Whereas Parks Victoria (a statutory body) consider the brumby a pest, in which case they are not required under the EPBC Act to gain Commonwealth permission to implement their action.

The ABA’s case is about recognising the brumby’s living contribution to alpine heritage and managing a safe, specific population number. We believe it is vital that brumbies continue living in their heritage homelands and that their contribution to our alpine heritage values is formally acknowledged.

It was argued in open court that there is a difference between living breathing things, such as brumbies, to a non-living thing. That is, brumbies provide a living link to our past social history – a link that once extinguished cannot be replaced. We are currently awaiting the judge’s verdict.

In October ABC’s 7.30 report revealed the ongoing systemic cruelty of ex-racehorses in the slaughter industry:

This media report caused an intense social media and industry response; it also triggered a police investigation into animal cruelty by the slaughter yard featured. Further, the Queensland premier announced an urgent parliament inquiry into the welfare of retired racehorses, stating: This inquiry will determine what more we can do to make sure that we have the best possible processes in place to end cruelty to animals in Queensland.

Racing Australia released a statement in response to the 7.30 report and made a number of commitments to improve the welfare of ex-racehorses, including: The national adoption of the prize money levy and introduction of a sales levy to help finance an expansion of national Thoroughbred aftercare programs. ™

By the end of the year, racing body representatives were attending horse sales and withdrawing from sale any ex-racehorses direct from the training stable.

In November the Good Weekend magazine in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age published a cover story on horse welfare in Australia:

Throughout the year, the then editor of HorseVibes, Candida Baker, had been working on a story on horse welfare. A number of stakeholders from different sectors within the horse industry, including myself, were interviewed.

The story, The Horse Rescuers ™, also highlighted the problems that horse charities are faced with by concentrating on the Victorian-based charity, Horse Shepherd, run by Anne Young. The story further brought home the importance of urgently improving the situation regarding cruelty to animals, and specifically the lack of accountability through a mismatched and piecemeal legal framework which is inadequate and continues to see cruelty towards horses, and their subsequent suffering.

In December the NSW and Victorian Parliaments established an inquiry into animal cruelty laws:

Horses have often fallen through the gaps in State animal cruelty prevention laws due to their changing legal classification across state borders and argument about their purpose ™. Depending on which state you are in, and the purpose of the horse at the time, horses have been historically classified as livestock, companion animals or an invasive species and therefore it is difficult to apply uniform legislative protection for them.

Furthermore, in Victoria, the RSPCA will only respond to individual acts of animal suffering so if there is suffering within a herd of horses, the matter is referred to the Department of Primary Industries, and there are often (well-documented) arguments between the two bodies as to who is actually responsible for responding. In the meantime the animal or animals – continue to suffer.

These inquiries allowed stakeholders to share their experiences and advocate for improvements for horse welfare in the state-based animal cruelty prevention laws, so there is real potential for an improvement as a result of these inquiries.

So what does this all mean for horses in Australia in 2020?

We achieved a lot in 2019, but there is much more to do! The significant events from 2019 mean that 2020 must be a year of leadership and action, in order that the events from 2019 are enacted and realised.

All of us who want an improvement in the welfare for horses in Australia must continue to advocate until the changes (a National Horse Traceability Register; tougher prevention of animal cruelty laws; the heritage value of brumbies recognised and rehoming ex-racehorses becoming the norm) have been legislated and any law-breakers charged. It is not enough to have a well-written protective framework of consequences if no guilty party is ever held to account by it, and therefore we must continue to advocate and agitate for change to occur.

Using a building analogy, 2019 was the year we laid the foundations for change. 2020 is the year we start to build on this change to make it real and lasting.

About the author: Justine Curatolo is the President of Heritage Brumby Advocates Australia, a non-profit organisation dedicated to advocating for the humane treatment, preservation and protection of the Australian Heritage brumby. She is also the Report Co-ordinator of the Australian Equine Unification Scheme, a collection of volunteers dedicated to initiating positive change in the horse industry in Australia. A full-time social worker, Justine has been voluntarily involved in horse welfare for many years.

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