Are Irish people angry enough about reports of animal cruelty?

Keith Kelly

Dogs Trust Ireland’s announcement suggests an indifference to animal welfare in Ireland.

Last month’s article in The College View talked about the announcement by dog welfare charity Dogs Trust Ireland of 394 requests to take in surrendered dogs between Christmas Day and the final day of January. The charity’s announcement shocked dog lovers nationwide and made for tragic and appalling news around the country, particularly for those who live and work with dogs on a daily basis.

It represented a 33% increase in surrenders to the charity on the same period last year. In their official statement, Dogs Trust Ireland attributed the increase to “owners not having enough time to spend with their dog and difficulties finding pet friendly accommodation.”

Typically, the dogs are acquired as Christmas presents for children or other family members without the necessary planning to ensure an adequate settling-in period, increasing stress on both owner and pooch. “Wait until the festive season is at an end, after the New Year and please, adopt rather than buy a dog or puppy,” the charity says.

Puppy farm capital

But a major source of these discarded dogs is the underground practice of illegal breeding establishments on what is commonly known as puppy farms.

This is surprising considering 98% of Irish people consider their pet a family member, and Ireland is internationally regarded as the puppy farm capital of Europe. This fact threatens to undermine the legitimacy of that unbreakable romanticised relationship with our animals alluded to above.

According to the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISCPA), there are over 120 puppy farms in Ireland producing 30,000 puppies per year.

The ISPCA says this number suggests that minimum animal welfare standards are not being guaranteed. Dogs Trust Ireland PR and Communications Manager, Corinna Fitzsimons, told The College View that the charity took in 161 victims of puppy farming between 2021 and 2022.

She describes how the dogs “would hear our footsteps and get into little piles in a corner and avoid eye contact. They would shake, they would run away.”

Speaking on the physiological impact of puppy farming practices on dogs, veterinary surgeon Mark Coulter describes the level of damage to breeding bitches as a result of neglect suffered on the farms. “Bitches who are bred again and again often lose weight and have parasite problems, worms, a lot of fleas, ear mites.”

ISPCA’s 2022 in figures:

9,317 calls for help received by their National Animal Cruelty Helpline

2,562 investigations carried out by ISPCA Inspectors

1,148 animals seized or surrendered and taken into ISPCA care (682 dogs, 246 cats, 45 Equines, 175 others)

21 cases finalised in court 

Since the introduction of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013:

132,590 calls have been received by the ISPCA National Animal Cruelty Helpline

29,030 investigations carried out by ISPCA Inspectors

9,243 animals seized or surrendered and taken to the ISPCA care

124 cases resolved in court

What is legislation?

Article 12 of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 states that one cannot “do, or fail to do, anything or cause or permit anything to be done to an animal that causes unnecessary suffering to, or endanger the health or welfare of, an animal”. At present, maximum fines of €10,000 increased from €5,000 in 2021, apply to individuals guilty of illegally breeding and selling dogs on puppy farms.

For more serious offences, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine says that punishments can extend to six months imprisonment and “up to €250,000 and/or imprisonment up to five years.”

However, Fitzsimons expresses her dissatisfaction with the application of fines which often fall well below the €10,000 figure, claiming “they’re basically being fined less than they make from selling one puppy, so that’s something we want to change.”

Margaret Moran, former Chairman of Homes for Unwanted Greyhounds, recalls a harrowing example of the depravity of animal abuse involving an old greyhound bitch who was no longer required for breeding on a greyhound puppy farm.

“We had a lady who was walking on a beach in county Kerry who rang to report that she found a greyhound dead on the beach with a concrete block tied around its neck.” Moran calls for toughening of punishments against puppy farmers in Ireland and stresses that leniency against animal abusers only condones the transfer of their violent tendencies to wider society. “We need to educate our judges. Does anybody actually understand the link that exists between cruelty to animals and violence towards human beings?”

A wider problem

The epidemic of abuse and substandard animal welfare in Ireland is also reflected among horses. This is evidenced by incidences of horse deaths by abuse and neglect which have been reported by national media in recent years. In 2017, seven decomposing horses were found in a field in Tipperary, believed to have died from malnutrition, beside which stood a lone foal. Last year, Dublin City Council’s Animal Welfare Unit reported the discovery of four mutilated horses near Ballyfermot.

According to figures from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, there was a steady decrease in the numbers of horses seized and euthanised across all county councils in Ireland from 2015-2020. Limerick County Council saw the greatest number of horse seizures in the country each year during that period.

Despite the encouraging downward trends in seizures, 20,000 horses have been euthanised in Ireland between 2010-2020. This represents 70% of all seizures carried out under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013.

Recorded instances of animal abuse appear to far outweigh what is publicly reported by the media. This suggests the urgency of legislative reform has not been proportionate to the true extent of animal abuse in Ireland. This may be due to insufficient media reporting and a resulting general lack of public awareness to push the issue.

Will punishments be harshened?

The College View contacted the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for comment on the adequacy of current animal welfare legislation and whether there are plans to toughen punishments against offenders.

The Department responded by describing current penalties for abusers as “proportionate and progressive” and “fit for purpose.”

In relation to potentially increasing punishments for puppy farmers, the Department referenced existing legislation, The Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010, under which it said violations are punished with a “Fixed Payment Notice, Improvement Notice or, in extreme cases, a Closure Notice.”

On the question of harshening punitive action for equine welfare violations, the Department responded simply that it “develops facilities for urban horse populations… by supporting initiatives educating young people in the care and welfare of horses” in collaboration with local authorities.

Keith Kelly

Image credit: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times