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Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012
Animal Welfare Law left neutered
The friction between competing political parties no longer fortifies the effectiveness of lawmaking. If anything it confounds the process. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party has openly vowed to be legislatively uncooperative until the ruling Democratic Party of Japan calls an election, so in order to give the appearance of actually doing something, the DPJ passes any bill it can regardless of its value.
On Aug. 29 the Diet unanimously approved a revision to the Animal Welfare Law. The revision, which went into effect last Monday, mandates that puppies and kittens sold to pet stores cannot be less than 56 days old. This stipulation is said to be in line with animal welfare regulations in other developed countries and is meant to reflect the finding that animals taken from their mothers before they are weaned tend to have health and "behavioral" problems later on. The revision was adopted as a DPJ policy and is supported by the Japan Veterinary Medical Association.
However, the law will not change anything. Yorihisa Matsuno, a former DPJ lawmaker who worked on it, told the weekly magazine Aera that the revision as it was passed "has no backbone." The new amendment to the Animal Welfare Law states that breeders cannot sell animals to pet stores until the 56th day after their birth, but the amendment also has two added provisions. One says that during the first three years the revision is in effect, animals can be sold if they are at least 45 days old; and the second states that if the law isn't reconfirmed after this three-year probation ends the mandated cutoff period becomes 49 days rather than 56 days.
A lawyer with experience in animal welfare cases told Aera that the revision is "an extreme exception"; in essence, a law whose period of effectiveness essentially neutralizes the purport of the law itself. In 1983, this strategy was applied to a bill for restricting high interest rates on consumer loans when an industry-dictated provision was added that allowed restrictions to be implemented gradually over the course of eight years.
As Matsuno explains, the DPJ doesn't have enough votes in the Diet to pass all the bills it wants so it is compelled to compromise on some just so that it can point to achievements during a given session. The fact that the revision is meaningless is less important than the fact that it was approved at all.
Something similar can be said about the more controversial law that ups penalties for Internet users who illegally download copyrighted material, which also went into effect last Monday. Despite its dubious purpose and efficacy, the Diet discussed it for less than four hours.
Opposition to the animal welfare revision came from the pet industry, specifically breeders and pet stores. The younger an animal, the easier it is to sell, because it is considered cuter and more malleable. The lawmaker who led the attack against the revision was New Komeito's Michiyo Takagi, who says there is "no scientific basis" to the claim that an animal separated from its mother before 56 days is more prone to health or behavioral problems. She was apparently able to convince other lawmakers to vote against the revision unless it was watered down. When confronted by reporters, Takagi has denied that she has a relationship with the pet industry and, in fact, demanded that "this view be corrected" in the media.
Coverage of the revision emphasized its political ramifications and for the most part neglected to mention the ultimate goal of the bill, which is to reduce the number of animals being destroyed. That's ironic in a way, since it was the media that drew attention to the problem the revision was originally supposed to remedy. Animal welfare groups point out that many of the 200,000 animals put down at public facilities every year are pets whose owners do not want them any more, usually due to changing living circumstances but also because the animals have chronic health or behavioral "problems," which is to say they are no longer as adorable as they once were or didn't turn out to be as affectionate as expected.
The revision by itself would not have led to the desired outcome. It is chiefly symbolic of an intention that is being articulated by local governments, which perform the unpleasant task of shobun ("disposing") of unwanted and stray pets. This intention is characterized by the catch phrase "zero shobun," which more and more localities are taking to heart. Public shelters are called dōbutsu aigo sentā, or animal protection centers, though their main work is destroying animals, since only 10 percent of the pets that come into their possession are eventually claimed or adopted. Traditionally, these centers don't actively promote adoption.
But some centers now refuse to accept animals for disposal, most famously in the city of Kumamoto, whose radical change in policy in 2009 received nationwide press coverage. This past May Yokohama did the same thing, placing an emphasis on finding homes for strays and unwanted pets.
By itself this policy doesn't solve the problem, either. If a center refuses to take animals for disposal it's assumed the people who bring them in will find other ways of getting rid of them. But the media has been drawn to such stories because more viewers have pets themselves, and as a result the animal welfare movement has seen significant progress. The number of pets being destroyed at public facilities has dropped by 50 percent since the mid-1990s.
Experts know that the only way to achieve zero shobun is to prevent dogs and cats from being born in the first place, which means increasing public awareness of spaying/neutering and, more importantly, regulating commerce in pets, in particular among breeders. As it stands, anyone can be a breeder — you don't even need a license — and that's an issue only the central government can address, and only if it really wanted to.