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Inflicting ‘unnecessary suffering’ on animals is outlawed in South Africa. Yet, more than ever before, suffering is inflicted on animals - legally. What does this mean for animals, now and in the future?

Dr Birgitta Wahlberg PhD in public law, Researcher Åbo Akademi University, Department of Law Biskopsgatan 19, 20500 Åbo, Finland

Turkeys stand a metre high at slaughter age yet they are crushed into crates like the orange one shown here, a mere 40cm deep.

This picture shows well that the bird can’t change the position in the cage/box. The birds are also noticeably stressed.

These cages are not in use anymore in Finland.

These are among the questions that Finnish Lawyer Dr Birgitta Wahlberg hopes to help resolve in her international research on the legal status of non-human beings. She is currently in South Africa under the mentorship of Professor David Bilchitz, Director of The South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law (SAIFAC) at the University of Johannesburg.


Louise van der Merwe, editor of Animal Voice, interviewed Dr Wahlberg about her vision for animals.

Animal Voice: Dr Wahlberg, you are in South Africa for the next six months to investigate the legal status of animals as part of your post-doctoral global research on why the law seems to be failing the welfare of animals so drastically.


Dr Wahlberg: Yes, legislation in many countries, including the whole of the EU, recognises the sentience of non-humans.  Yet we use more animals and cause them more suffering today than at any other time in human history.   

Thus we need to clarify the status of non-humans, in legal terms, and to deepen the discussion of their use for human purposes. Are they subjects? Are they objects? Do they have rights of their own? Do they have an intrinsic value that goes beyond their value for humans? And does this create obligations for humans towards non-humans and the generations to come?  To assist this process, the Global Journal of Animal Law (, to be launched in May, will be dedicated specifically to taking these discussions forward.


Animal Voice: One of the contradictions in the South African Animals Protection Act is that animals may not be ‘maimed’, kept in ‘inadequate space’ or subjected to ‘unnecessary suffering’. Yet our farmed animals are completely unprotected by this Act.  Big Business profiteers, with impunity, from atrocities committed on billions of farmed animals every day.


Dr Wahlberg: Yes indeed. In most countries the aim of legislation for animals is to promote their welfare and prevent their ‘undue’ or ‘unnecessary’ suffering. But in practice, what is ‘undue’ suffering or ‘unnecessary’ suffering? “Necessity” requires a reference point – necessary in relation to what? Industries using animals may argue that given actions are necessary due to economical, technical or culinary reasons. Furthermore, welfare laws make use of the term “unnecessary” without precision, which may offer the general public a misguided perception concerning welfare criteria.


Animal Voice: Your doctoral thesis was on the Legislation and Supervision of the Welfare of Farm and Slaughter Animals. Please tell us about some of your research.


Dr Wahlberg: Yes. As an example, male turkeys can stand one metre high, yet standard practice has them crushed into crates only 40 cm high for transport to slaughter. The birds cannot move or change their positions and they become injured, which is not in accordance with the legislation. Furthermore, the crates undoubtedly cause them suffering and impact badly on their welfare.  In 2004, the vet at a Finnish abattoir where turkeys were being slaughtered made the decision that transporting turkeys in these standard crates caused undue and unnecessary suffering.  According to the preamble to the Finnish Animal Protection Act ‘unnecessary suffering’ is, inter alia, suffering that can be avoided or predicted. In this case the suffering could easily have been avoided either by reducing the height of the turkeys (slaughtering them at an earlier age), or by heightening the crates.


Of course, the abattoir authorities were incensed by the vet’s complaint, claiming that:

  • The crates (or standard practice) did not cause suffering

  • The same crates were used throughout the EU

  • It would be uneconomical to change the crates or standard practice in general


However, the court upheld the vet’s decision and the abattoir was ordered to pay a fine. BUT, nine years later, in 2013, the same crates are still being used and the vet who made the decision in the first place, was dismissed from the abattoir years ago. The only thing that has changed is that the turkeys are even bigger nowadays.


Animal Voice: So one could say that economic considerations trumped the welfare of the turkeys?


Dr Wahlberg: Actually, in this case it is an act of defiance on the part of the abattoir not to put into force the decision made by an animal protection authority which had gained legal force. Unfortunately, we should note the same kind of obstinacy in Europe generally, concerning the implementation of and compliance with EU-legislation.  This has to be taken as a serious legal and social matter. The significance of the enforcement and control of compliance is also something South Africa should be aware of when developing its legislation.


Animal Voice: Do you think animals are better protected now than, say, a century ago?


Dr Wahlberg: In every era, we look back in history with a sense of disbelief at the atrocities humans have inflicted on non-humans or on other humans. For instance, at the beginning of the 19th Century, we vivisected on dogs without pain killers or anaesthesia and today we say: “How could they have done something so cruel?” But right now, we castrate piglets and dehorn cattle every day without pain killers or anaesthesia and in addition, we eat them.

I argue that humans and non-humans are all beings and the law should reflect this fundamental fact.  It is not a case of humans versus non-humans. It is a case of legislation reflecting the common thread that binds us, in that we are all beings.


“If we think about the history of humankind, it is relevant to understand that most atrocities...

  • were legal

  • were standard practice

  • were pre-planned and systematic

  • objectified certain categories of beings whose suffering was of secondary consideration


Today, it is relevant to understand that generally the meat industry...

  • is legal

  • is standard practice

  • is  pre-planned and systematic

  • objectifies certain categories of beings whose suffering is of secondary consideration


So what is the difference? Our atrocities have just taken another form.

Animal Voice: Do you think the suffering will ever stop?


Dr Wahlberg: Actually no, but I believe we should take responsibility for the fact that our own lives and our own decisions hold the power to diminish the suffering. We need to use our energy and strength of spirit to powerfully focus on relieving the cruelties committed on billions of non-humans all around the world, every day.  

We all have many opportunities each day to make better choices and change our customs, on behalf of the animals and for the benefit of our own health and well-being. Together we can make a change, but we need to start today – regardless of what others are doing.


It is not a question of how much they can suffer, nor what they can feel. It is all about that they Are.


Wahlberg JFT 1/2011:66

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