27 November 2020

October saw two feral hunters in the South West fined after being charged by WA Police with animal cruelty. RSPCA WA’s Animal Welfare Policy Officer, Dr Michael Paton, explores attitudes towards pest control. 

The world of animal welfare is strewn with conflicts, inconsistencies and challenges which sometimes seem to defy common sense.  All farmers have personal experience with the control of a number of pest animals from wild dogs to grain insects. However, let’s not forget if we accept that animal welfare is an important consideration, there is not clear ethical delineation from your pet dog, through to wild rabbits, fish and octopuses (which show significant signs of intelligence and self-awareness) to insects and all the way to bacteria.  

One clear example of the dilemma when applying consistent animal welfare standards is demonstrated by the treatment of lab rats.  In an experimental laboratory where rats are kept for medical research, the welfare standards for these rats are governed by a strict set of criteria decided by an Animal Ethics Committee which considers any welfare risks the rats may encounter during their lives and ensures that those welfare risks are minimised where possible.  Meanwhile outside the pristine cages in the lab, any rodent that should invade the lab can be subjected to any trapping or poisoning to ensure its demise with very little, if any, consideration for their welfare. Although these ‘two rats’ have the same capacity to experience pain and distress, the law safeguarding their welfare allows two different standards of treatment. 

Our treatment of domestic and feral pigs is another example where the welfare standard for the farmed pig differs significantly to that of the pest. These different standards in no way reflect what pain or discomfort or fear these pigs experience but only how they are perceived and impact our lives. Animal welfare and how it is applied is, as always, a changing arena but the welfare of the animals we see as pests is an important consideration in a humane society.

Moving to more practical issues, what can farmers do to ensure they stay in front of these issues, maintain the best possible control of vertebrate pests, follow the appropriate codes and stay within the law? There are practical guides available, for example from pestSMART website and DPIRD

Model codes of practice outline welfare standards for controlling various species. Community programs are generally needed for effective control as most vertebrate pests are highly mobile and will fill the spaces left if only individual producers control animals on their land.

So like most aspects of animal welfare, there are challenges to overcome and information to process and put into practice.  With better understanding and knowledge, pests can be controlled in a way that is effective for rural communities and also meets the standards that most of the broader community accepts.