Setting standards for animal use amidst concern over rights

The long use of animals for labour and entertainment in Thailand finds itself at the crossroads as concerns over animal rights and welfare have become better known.

Left to right: A monkey that is trained to gather coconuts and ducks flock for rice fields pest control.

Whether training monkeys to gather coconuts, ploughing with buffalos or letting loose hundreds of thousands of ducks into paddy fields for pest control, Thais have developed a sophisticated dependence on animals to facilitate human activities. These agrarian-intensive relationships are even more pronounced by the commodification of animals for tourism.

Yet reactions from the public and rights groups seem to be widely different, depending on many factors, based on principles and sentiments. This causes confusion and disagreement among people and can also demonize the human-animal relationship, destroying the livelihoods of people who still need animals to earn a living.

Distinguishing rights and welfare

Dr Ramesh Boonratana, an Associate Professor at Mahidol University, said that there are no known laws regarding animal rights. It is still simply an idea or a concept that “espouses that animals should not be exploited for human purposes”. What animal rights activists believe is that animals should be given the same rights as humans.

“Animal welfare is about the humane treatment of animals – whether captive wild animals in zoos, farm animals, pets, or those free-ranging no-ownership cats and dogs,” he said. “Hence, depending on the countries – some may have animal welfare laws, most do not.”,

In Thailand, the Animal Welfare Act was enacted by the National Legislative Assembly in 2014. This Act ensures the protection and rescue of animals from abuse and mistreatment from their owner. 

Anyone who does not provide a standard quality of living for an animal will face penalties under Sections 31-35 of prison for up to 2 years or a fine of 40,000 baht or both. This Act also brings more awareness and sets standards for how animals should be treated in the country.

Nancy Gibson, the Chief Executive at Love Wildlife Foundation, further expounded on this difference by saying that animal rights are what we think animals should have, whether they are held in captivity or not.

“Animal welfare is more about when animals are already being kept and how you are treating them in captivity. So animal rights does not necessarily have to be an animal in captivity itself,” said Gibson. 

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) standards are internationally recognized and are regularly updated with evolving scientific knowledge. These standards are set up to improve animal health and provide a safe international trade of both animals and animal products. The measures put in place also help to detect, report and control pathogens that could be transferred across borders. 

According to OIE, animal welfare means the physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it lives and dies. Animal health is greatly emphasized in the OIE Terrestrial Code, reiterating that the relationship between animal welfare and animal health is critical.

A comparison of the international definition of animal welfare and the Thai Animal Welfare Act does not reveal much difference. They define animal welfare as taking care of an animal, keeping it in proper condition and in good health, and providing an adequate home, food and water. However, even though Thailand now has this Act, many have criticized it for being too broad and not being specific enough. This leaves room for people to interpret it differently.

Shifting forward sighted

When asked about Thailand’s progress in animal protection, Gibson said that it is all about perception, “because the perception of what is right and what you should or should not do with animals is very different.” But she adds that the laws are changing and that people are slowly understanding what should and should not be done to animals.

Ramesh said that many cultures have ‘long-standing’ traditions. But this does not mean that the traditions that are detrimental to the well-being of humans, animals and ecosystems should be continued.

Gibson further adds that Thai culture in itself does not prohibit international standards from being applied in the country, but certain individuals do not want to accept these international standards because they are too “far ahead”.

She gives the example of the UK and the US, who have also committed animal exploitation, “but their journey is kind of farther ahead, farther along than in Southeast Asia. I guess for this region, they’re slowly getting into that transition. So it's not about the culture actually, so if anybody says it's the culture, I don’t think it's really valid.”

In regard to the Thai tourist industry, Ramesh said that all the animals that are used for shows and rides are wildlife and that they should be banned. He also said that there should be a clear understanding of what constitutes “abuse and use” and it should be addressed on a per-case basis because it will be different for wild animals compared to farm animals.

Bamaejuri is a Prachatai English intern from Mahidol University International College (MUIC)