The Animal Welfare Law was passed 17 years ago, but the Agriculture Ministry, which also represents farmers, has done little to enforce it. Now the environment minister is petitioning to take over protecting friends both furry and flavorful.
By Shlomit Tsur

A particularly cruel death is meted out to 11,000 baby chicks each day in Israel: They are thrown live into a machine that crushes and tears them apart. Four million male chicks are put to death every year by this method, which is carried out under the complete protection of the law, for the simple crime of not being able to lay eggs.

The regulations governing the slaughter of animals in Israel – which are supposed to ban the destruction of baby chicks by this method – were prepared by the Agriculture Ministry and passed by the Knesset in 2002, eight years after the 1994 Animal Welfare Law was passed.
Pig farming

Pig farming.
Photo by: AP

But relief will be long in coming. In order for the regulations to be put into effect, the agriculture minister must sign them. Yet the two men who have served the post the longest over the last two decades – Yisrael Katz (Likud ) and Shalom Simhon (Labor ) – did not sign them.

Even if the regulations had been signed, there is no one in the agriculture ministry to enforce them. For many years the ministry budgeted only one staffer to be in charge of this matter, Dr. Deganit Ben-Dov, although it has recently allotted her an assistant.

The Zeiler Committee released a report in March 2010 sharply criticizing the delay in authorization of the regulations and the severely limited human resources devoted to it by the ministry. “Important regulations that were to grant additional meaning to the law have been delayed for a long time,” the report read. “Animals are left in cruel distress while being transported, in closed cages and in other situations. There is no address for complaints and no one to deal with them.”

The report also mentions that Ben-Dov has “given up” trying to carry out her charge in light of the great difficulties and lack of support from her superiors in the ministry.

While the position is one of enforcement, she does not have the personnel to carry it out – the four employees who were to fill the jobs have never been hired.
The cat guards the chick

It’s not just foot-dragging by the Agriculture Ministry that’s keeping the law from being enforced. The ministry, which also represents farmers, is up to its neck in conflicts of interest. Yet animal treatment policy has been left in the ministry’s hands for decades.

Now, however, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud ), is demanding that this authority be transferred to his office.

“The law and its enforcement should be concentrated in one office,” Erdan told TheMarker, “Environmental protection ministries around the world deal with protecting the environment: among other things, nature and animals too.”

Erdan is especially angry about the fact that the Agriculture Ministry also oversees prevention of cruelty to household pets.

“This is a subject to which [agriculture] is completely unconnected,” Erdan said. “Unlike farm animals, in which they have a clear interest, what does the Agriculture Ministry have to do with house pets?”

All the Environment Ministry wants to achieve is to prevent abuse. “People who are capable of torturing animals are capable of abusing human beings as well,” Erdan says.

“As far as I’m concerned, animals are helpless creatures exactly the way babies are, and there is no room today for crowding chickens into cages on trucks in 42-degree weather, or confining dogs in municipal pounds in cages a few dozen centimeters wide.”
Animal Rights Lobby agrees with Erdan

MK Eitan Cabel (Labor ), head of the animal rights lobby in the Knesset, has joined the campaign to transfer this responsibility to the environmental protection ministry. “The current framework of the Animal Protection Law under the jurisdiction of the agriculture ministry is like letting the cat guard the cream,” he said. “We are talking about an office that represents agricultural financial interests and this is extremely problematic. At this rate, the reforms advanced by the ministry will end in 2020. Supervision by the Agriculture Ministry causes great harm to animals at the level of criminal negligence, and it is best that the Knesset change this situation as soon as it returns from recess.”

The current agriculture minister, Orit Noked (Labor ), is not convinced that there is a conflict of interest.

“In a situation in which most of the violations take place in the agricultural sector, it is reasonable that the ministry entrusted with the issue is the one responsible for the farmers. We can enforce the laws that apply to them,” she said.

Former MK Avraham Poraz, who sponsored the law, says he never intended for the Agriculture Ministry to oversee its enforcement.

“Although my intention was that the law would be under the jurisdiction of the environmental protection office, I was forced to compromise, and it was given to the agriculture ministry,” Poraz said.

Poraz petitioned the High Court in 1999 against the agriculture minister for failing to put the law into effect, but when he was appointed interior minister in 2003, he was forced to withdraw the claim after he received a letter from the attorney general saying that one minister could not petition another one.

Today the Environmental Protection Ministry funds an entire unit in the police force, with 12 officers assigned to enforce environmental laws, including the animal rights law, even though the ministry does not have jurisdiction.

Erdan recently added two more police officers who will deal only with the enforcement of the animal rights law.

“In 2010, we invested NIS 5 million to pay for police services and aid to the local authorities. Just recently we gave NIS 3 million to the Dimona municipality to upgrade its dog pound, where dogs were being held in disgraceful conditions,” Erdan said.

Erdan’s image as an animal rights protector was dinged recently when 5,000 Web surfers joined a Facebook page to protest his decision to renew permission to shoot abandoned dogs. Erdan says that when he entered the ministry he learned that “nature preservation rangers shot stray dogs in order to prevent the spread of rabies, but without clear regulations. I announced that I would not renew permission and the shooting of dogs be stopped.”

Afterwards, some claimed that rabies was been spread because of the ban on shooting stray dogs. Erdan renewed permits for 60 days, and permission has not been given again since.

Baby chicks are not the only farm animals suffering a bitter fate. A few weeks ago, the investigative Channel 2 program Kolbotek uncovered a particularly cruel industry involving swine being raised in Israel for breeding and food. The show documented the holding of pigs in facilities which did not allow them any freedom of movement. The only stimulus in such restraining pens is the curly tail of the pig in front of them, and so they have a tendency to chew on them, wounding their neighbors. According to the investigation, operators of pig pens take the piglets after they are born, extract their teeth and cut off their tails – and all this without anesthesia.

Haim Fadlon, the head of the environmental protection unit in the police force, viewed the program and immediately approached the Agriculture Ministry – responsible for the raising of pigs in Israel – saying that he would like to open a criminal investigation against pig breeders.

“Unfortunately, the ministry said that this is how pigs are held in Israel, because there are no regulations on the matter, and so it is legal,” Fadlon said. “This is extremely frustrating; there is a built-in conflict in the fact that the Agricultural Ministry supervises the Animal Welfare Law on farms.”

In the case of the piglets, the ministry also dragged its feet in an astounding fashion. In 2003, it formulated regulations for the raising of pigs, and when they are put into force they are expected to improve the conditions in which they are held.

But a long time has passed since then, and the regulations have been frozen by the ministry. Only recently, when the Anonymous for Animal Rights organization threatened to file a petition to the High Court against the Agriculture Ministry, did the ministry say it would advance reforms in the industry.

There are many more examples: chickens that have stopped laying eggs are put to death by being thrown into a large hole and crushed. Avi Pinkas, founder of an organization agitating for farm animals’ rights, has tried for years to advance legislation that would mandate relatively quick and easy deaths using electricity.

After a television program on the subject was aired in 2001, public pressure on the ministry grew and regulations were formulated in 2002. But the agriculture ministers did not sign them, and they have been gathering dust on their respective desks for nine years.

The office of former Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon responded that “The director of veterinary services advised not signing them because they were insufficient. Simhon has never delayed regulations about animal welfare.”

The offices of former Agriculture Minister and current Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz reported that “he is unfamiliar with the subject.”

The life of egg-laying hens, who live in tiny cages, is even harder: Only 440 square centimeters per bird is the norm in Israel. Because of the cruelty of such small cages, they have been outlawed by the European Union starting in 2012, which has moved on to “enriched” hen houses – without cages, and where the birds may move freely. This trend is becoming stronger in the U.S. as well.

And in Israel? It is now 17 years that the regulations determining conditions for egg-laying hens have not been formulated. Four years ago, in the wake of a breakout of avian flu, then-Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon said that he would pursue hen house reforms. But that reform, it turns out, improves conditions only slightly.

Living space will be increased from 440 square centimeters to only 550, while the space allotted by the EU 10 years ago, and to take effect next year, is 750 square centimeters. According to Israeli reforms, only in 2022 will hen houses in Israel offer a living space that large.

Companies in the business, including Agrigo, say that an enriched coop costs NIS 124 per bird, in contrast to NIS 127 per bird for a 550 square centimeter cage, and NIS 158 per bird in a 750 square centimeter cage.

The Agriculture Ministry claims that the price of enriched cages is higher than that of the current tiny cages.

“Coops will be constructed within the parameters of the reforms, and according to standards comparable to those in the rest of the world, which take into account the principles of animal welfare,” the ministry stated. “As to the cost of building enriched coops, ministry statistics show that the larger the cages, the higher the costs.”

In a rare move, animal rights organizations and chicken farmers have joined together against the reforms, each one for its own reasons. Hen raisers say the reform will allow large companies to control the larger farms and that they will lose their livelihood, while animal rights organizations claim the new regulations do not go far enough.

They have even petitioned the High Court against the reforms, demanding that it not be authorized until the Agriculture Ministry enforces its regulations according to the law. The petition was accepted and the High Court gave an interim order blocking the reforms until such regulations are instituted.

Erdan supported the petition. “I discovered that these cages are not much less cruel than the ones that exist today, and we informed the High Court that we demand the minimum by European standards,” he said.

Since the interim order was put in force, the Agriculture Ministry has attempted many times to authorize a draft of the regulations, which would in effect enshrine the conditions in the reform, in the Knesset’s Education Committee, which has jurisdiction over the matter, but without success.

“Since the Animal Welfare Law was passed, no regulations have been instituted regarding the housing of farm animals,” says attorney Michael Sfard, who represents the organizations petitioning against the Agriculture Ministry.

“This fact alone is proof that the ministry is not up to the task the legislature has placed on it.”

According to Sfard, “Today there are wholesale violations of the Animal Welfare Law. The initiative to transfer jurisdiction to the Environmental Protection Ministry is important, but it should not end with pets, because household pets represent the smallest minority, and are least likely to be abused. The difficult problem is with farm animals.”

Noked says the delay in formulating and authorizing reforms is out of her hands. “Things get stuck in government offices and I don’t know the reason in this case,” she said. “Overall, I would be happy to sign the regulations into force after I have studied them, and I am a quick study. … I have not yet developed a final opinion and there may be changes.”

“The office carries out diverse activities in everything concerned with animal welfare, both at the level of inspection, enforcement, legislation and regulations, as well as at the level of advancing reforms. In order to do so, it operates the animal welfare branch, which includes two full time employees: Dr. Deganit Ben-Dov and Nirit Tsipori. In addition to them, many ministry units are active in the advancement of the animal welfare law, including a plant and animal inspection division which numbers 76 inspectors.

“As to the preparation of regulations, the office has been working hard in a continuous process, with the priority on the most urgent ones. The preparation of high quality regulations is a complex task which involves a great deal of responsibility, and so it takes time. The office is also working diligently now on regulations regarding swine. These will be put into effect within the framework of reforms in the pig industry.”