NGO: Billions of animals still suffer, 25 years after Israel passed welfare law

Rights group Animals Now says key to improving livestock conditions is transferring responsibility from Agriculture Ministry to Environmental Protection Ministry

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A newly hatched chick. (Animals Now)
A newly hatched chick. (Animals Now)

Just over 25 years since the Knesset passed the far-reaching Animal Welfare Law,  large gaps remain between the letter of the law and its implementation, and as a consequence billions of animals in Israel are still suffering unreasonably, according to a report published Monday.

The main conclusion of a review by the not-for-profit rights group Animals Now is that responsibility for the law must be transferred from the Agriculture Ministry, which represents farmers’ interests, to the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The report (Hebrew) notes that large sectors of the Israeli public are animal lovers, with a quarter of households owning a pet.

The country is a world hotspot for vegetarians and vegans, and animal rights activists have scored many successes, including prohibitions on force-feeding of geese and ducks and on isolating the calves of dairy cows.

In addition, there are now restrictions on the extent to which pigs can be kept in farrowing crates — small metal cages in which pregnant sows are immobilized for weeks.

But, continues the report, “most [livestock] animals in Israel suffer from severe abuse and remain defenseless.”

It cites hens as one of many examples. Most egg-laying hens in Israel are still squeezed into crowded cages whose use is already forbidden in 36 countries, the report points out.

Furthermore, the practice of starving them for 10 to 14 days to force the the whole flock to molt (change feathers) quickly and return to laying also continues, despite it having been banned in Israel several years ago. In nature, birds like this replace their feathers gradually and often at the start of winter, during which they concentrate on molting and keeping warm and temporarily stop laying eggs.

Hens in cages. in Israel. (Animals Now)

The live shipment of calves and lambs to Israel for fattening and slaughter is given as another example of continuing animal abuse. In a record high, nearly 700,000 animals were shipped to Israel last year, despite repeated government promises over the years to reduce the numbers.

There have been frequent stories of abuse before, during and after the shipments. The Agriculture Ministry has even admitted as much.

In November 2018, the Knesset green-lighted a bill in its preliminary reading to gradually reduce livestock numbers being imported into Israel and to stop such shipments completely within three years, moving entirely to the import of chilled meat. But the bill has since been held up by the lack of a functioning government — the result of two inconclusive elections, with a third election planned for March 2.

The Agriculture Ministry is mainly responsible for animal welfare inspections, which creates a conflict of interest because the ministry is also charged with furthering the Israeli agriculture industry, which obviously seeks to profit, the report says.

A live shipment of calves to be fattened and slaughtered. (Animals Now)

In what it describes as a “serious indictment of the Agriculture Ministry,” Animals Now charges that the ministry not only drags its feet in enforcing the law but actively ignores it and tries to stop all initiatives to improve animals’ quality of life.

The issue of Agriculture Ministry responsibility for animal welfare has appeared in state comptrollers’ reports over the years.  Former attorney general Yehuda Weinstein expressed support for moving animal welfare to the Environmental Protection Ministry. In 2015, the government passed Decision 833 (Hebrew), which left responsibility in the hands of the Agriculture Ministry, but ordered a long series of improvements.

But, says the report, despite the many years that have elapsed since the law was passed, the repeated commitments made to the High Court and numerous government decisions on the matter, the Agriculture Ministry has not even issued regulations for the implementation of the 1994 law that would determine the minimum standards for  holding livestock. “In practice, hundreds of millions of animals remain without any protection,” the report says.

The organization claims that on too many occasions, reports about animal abuse are not followed up and indictments against abusers are rare. Several cases of animal abuse at slaughterhouses brought by the organization to the media’s attention have not led to any convictions.

Scene from a Haifa slaughterhouse in an expose by Animals. (Animals Now)

The organizations’ many recommendations include moving responsibility for animal welfare to the Environmental Protection Ministry, stopping live shipments of animals for slaughter, and doing away with cages for poultry.

A statement from the Environmental Protection Ministry said, “The ministry is willing to take upon itself the subject of animal welfare — but all of it, including livestock and pets.”

The Agriculture Ministry failed to respond.

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