Deep, bleeding wounds, broken or amputated limbs, and a body in a state of chronic hunger that is bent under a merciless load: that is the usual appearance of cart horses encountered by the members of Israel's Horse Welfare Association.
On Wednesday of this week, as the international community marks World Farm Animals Day for the 20th consecutive year, activists in the association and in other local organizations will issue a call to protect the rights of animals.
They will be talking not only about horses but about other domesticated animals, such as sheep and cows, which are sometimes transported in conditions that cause them severe suffering, and geese, which are seriously deformed and injured when they are force-fed to produce foie gras, or goose liver.
Animal-rights organizations espouse a basic worldview that has the ultimate goal of eliminating the current uses that human beings make of animals, including the transport of heavy loads, which they believe is not justified in an era when a wide variety of mechanized transportation is available. However, in the majority of cases relating to farm animals, it is not a matter of fulfilling the demands of one organization or another, but simply of effectively enforcing legislation that is already on the books.
Eight years ago, the Knesset enacted the Animals Protection Law, which prohibits abusing and causing pain to animals. The Knesset was to append to the law regulations stipulating exactly how to treat animals in order to avoid cruelty, even when a horse, for example, is used to carry or pull a load, or when animals are raised as food for human beings.
There is an official in the Agriculture Ministry who is responsible for overseeing the Cruelty to Animals Law, and the Environment Ministry draws on the assistance of a police officer who is supposed to act to enforce the law. Nevertheless, in many instances animals are subject to unceasing cruelty and abuse.
In the case of the force-feeding of geese, the animal rights groups reached the conclusion that no regulations will be able to prevent the cruelty entailed in producing foie gras. They have therefore gone to the High Court of Justice in an effort to obtain a total ban on the force-feeding practice, on the grounds that it violates the Cruelty to Animals Law.
Horses and mules are perhaps the most pronounced example of the melancholy situation in which animals lack any form of basic protection, notwithstanding the existing legislation.
The horse protection activists and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals repeatedly receive calls to assist horses and mules that are severely maltreated by their owners.
They have documented horses with protruding bones due to malnutrition, but which are nevertheless forced to pull heavily laden carts, and mules that have been savagely beaten all over.
The organizations are not always able to come to an animal's aid because they are constantly strapped for funds and because they frequently encounter refusal on the part of local governments to help them move a horse at the end of its tether that has been abandoned by its owner or has been mauled.
Two weeks ago, a volunteer of the horse welfare group went to south Tel Aviv to treat a horse that was found abandoned. With the help of a local youngster, she began to walk the animal to an SPCA branch that has a barn. However, she and the youngster were attacked by a group of hooligans, who beat them and took the horse. In this case there happened to be a police car in the area, which took action to recover the horse.
Yet even after horses and mules are taken to a shelter, there is no guarantee that they will not be exposed to maltreatment again.
Horses and mules are considered "property," and as such they must be taken to the police after two weeks in places like an SPCA barn and are auctioned off.
In many cases, the original owner, who was cruel to the animal in the first place, is able to recover the "property." Only on rare occasions have animal rights groups succeeded in getting horses to safe places such as petting zoos.
As a society that decided to protect animals under the law, Israel needs to act more firmly to ensure that they are in fact protected.
A single policeman who specializes in this area is hardly enough; it is incumbent on the police to take seriously every complaint they receive on the subject.
It is urgently necessary to organize a system of horse ownership that will include accurate registration of the owner and supervision over the conditions of maintenance for the animal, as is now the case with respect to places where animals raised for slaughter are raised. What is needed most of all is a way to prevent the possibility that a horse that has been rescued from abuse will be returned to its torturers.
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