Getting the monkey off your back: A positive solution for pets in Europe

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Getting the monkey off your back: A positive solution for pets in Europe
Chris Boland

Dear Commissioners Kyriakides and Sinkevicius,

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. So it is in Europe. As you work respectively, valiantly I may add, to tackle numerous animal welfare and biodiversity challenges, we are, sadly, reminded of George Orwell’s famous axiom.

There is almost something ironic, given the provenance of the quote, that whilst farm animals are to be the centre of attention of legislative proposals due in 2023, other animals risk being left by the wayside.

The European Union is, after all, the hub of a thriving global marketplace in animals, many of whom are neither seen, heard or spoken of – a trade so poorly regulated, so linked to criminal activity, so lucrative – that is worth over €20 billion annually: the exotic pet trade.

Driven in part by fleeting trends, the sale of exotic pets involves a staggering number of species, tens of millions strong – including amphibians, reptiles, mammals including primates, birds and fish –  in some cases captured from the wild, in most cases bred to be sold as pets around the world.

Methods of wild capture, and the subsequent transport for export, are all too often careless and traumatic, causing injuries and high mortality rates. In some instances, as is the case of the Barbary macaque, the high demand from the European market has driven a drastic decline in free-living populations with as few as 7,000 Barbary macaques thought to be remaining in the wild – a reduction by a staggering 80% in only three decades.

Even when bred in captivity, these animals are and remain nondomestic, meaning their physical, biological, and behavioural needs cannot be met when they are kept as pets. This is perhaps the most intrinsically cruel aspect of this business, leading as it does to severe physical and mental suffering.

Meanwhile, abandonments as well as accidental or intentional releases into the wild are common, with disastrous consequences for local biodiversity. For example, the semi-aquatic turtles that far too many Europeans have attempted to keep as “pets” represent a major invasive alien species in the EU and many other parts of the world, while a fungus first spread with the trade in exotic salamanders caused what scientists define a global “amphibian apocalypse”, having infected hundreds of different species of amphibians worldwide and driving at least 90 to presumed extinction.

Article 13 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union was not only a world first in acknowledging animal sentience in a constitutional text, it also gave legal form to a moral imperative. Sentience cannot be demarcated by policy area, and it consequently behoves all policy makers at European level to pay full regard to the welfare of all animals.

Aside from the fact that there is a body of case law from the Court of Justice citing Article 13 and animal welfare with regards to wild animals (last year’s ruling on glue traps for songbirds, to give but one example), these animals are traded solely for commercial purposes, something that is clearly covered by existing legal competence. So let us also dispense with any notions that this is not something that cannot or should not be dealt with at European level.

It should be no surprise then that 19 Member States and the European Parliament have called on you to act, through the introduction of an EU wide positive list: a register of animal species that can be kept, sold or traded as pets, based on a principle of precaution. Whenever an animal is not found on such a list, it is not legal to keep it as a pet.

Science-based, they are relatively simple but extremely powerful instruments, so much so that they have already been adopted by eight Member States (Belgium, Luxembourg, Malta, Lithuania, Cyprus, France, Slovenia and, recently, the Netherlands) and are currently under discussion in eight more. Data from Belgium, which adopted a positive list already 20 years ago, clearly indicates that the number of species traded as exotic animals has been dramatically reduced.

The political mandate of this Commission ends in a little under a year and a half, your terms in a little more than two years. However, in this remaining time, you have the power, the ability, even the duty, to do more to improve animal welfare for these animals, and to safeguard biodiversity, than many people could achieve in a lifetime. You can solve this seemingly interminable problem.

Please, commit to a Union positive list for pets as an integral part of the renewed Wildlife Trafficking Action Plan, either to be delivered as a standalone project, or through the forthcoming legislation on animal welfare. To the extent you can do so would allow for the unpicking of legal casuistry that has, hitherto, restrained ambition, whilst allowing our Union to become more humane – a word that seems to require its final vowel as never before.

Only then we will be able to say that all animals in Europe are equal.

I thank you.

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