Whether you have pets at home, work in the agriculture sector, enjoy fishing, or simply appreciate our unique and vibrant native species – animal welfare is an important subject to many of us.

The South Australian Government is updating the Animal Welfare Act 1985 to ensure the laws governing animal welfare are supported by science, consistent with contemporary practices and in line with community expectations.

Reforming the Act

In early 2023, consultation was undertaken to gauge community views on the current Act and identify opportunities for improvement. The feedback received has informed the development of a range of reform opportunities.

The reforms include:

Modern legislation often includes ‘objects’ that identify general aims or principles that help the reader to interpret its intent. This can be particularly helpful for a magistrate in making decisions during court proceedings. Since 1985, society’s understanding of animals and their welfare has changed and it is proposed that ‘objects’ be included in the Act to reflect this.

Most Acts have a ‘purpose’ that states what it is principally about. The Act’s current purpose is ‘an Act for the promotion of animal welfare and for other purposes’. Other proposed changes to the Act will ensure it is both about the protection of animal welfare and the prevention of harm.

Animal sentience refers to an animal’s ability to perceive, feel and have both physical and psychological experiences. Those experiences can be positive, such as pleasure, or negative, such as pain and fear.

The Act defines ‘harm’ to mean ‘any form of damage, pain, suffering or distress’, and defines ‘serious harm’ to mean ‘harm that consists of, or results in, serious and protracted impairment of a physical or mental function’. The concept of sentience is already implied in the Act but there is an opportunity in the reform process to ensure it is recognised more clearly, which was a key theme of the feedback received during the initial community consultation process.

The Act currently defines ‘animal’ as a vertebrate (animals with a spinal cord) other than a human or a fish.

Most other Australian states and territories already include fish in their legislation, or they are in the process of doing so. Some jurisdictions also include some invertebrates, such as cephalopods. All jurisdictions that have adopted this definition continue to enjoy healthy and well supported commercial and recreational fishing sectors.

Expanding the definition in SA’s Act would bring it into line with other states and territories and support a contemporary understanding of animal welfare. South Australia will look to broaden the definition of animal by removing the exclusion of fish as well as including cephalopods (such as squid, octopus and cuttlefish) for scientific purposes.

The intention is that commercial and recreational fishing and aquaculture industries in South Australia will not be unreasonably impacted by this change. The review will consider how interstate mechanisms could be applied within South Australia’s legislation to ensure aquatic-based industries activities are not unduly affected.

South Australia is one of the only states and territories that does not currently have proactive care requirements for animal care, rather action can only be taken once ‘ill treatment’ has occurred. This provides limited opportunities to address neglect prior to an animal being harmed.

A duty of care provision in the Act would be a positive obligation for an owner to provide them with base care requirements, such as appropriate and adequate food, water and living conditions.

The use of animals for teaching assists to develop the skills and techniques of the next generation. The use of animals in scientific activities is still a fundamental part of the development of therapies, medications and understanding of our environment.

Reforming the licensing and administration for the use of animals in this sector will increase the accountability of those who use animals for scientific purposes, those who are directly and indirectly responsible for animals, as well as those who supply animals for scientific purposes.

The review will contemporise penalties for breaches of the Act. New offences and penalties will be defined through the legislative reform, providing greater ability to act against those who harm animals.

The powers of inspectors will be updated and administrative provisions expanded to enable enforcement and provide a full suite of appropriate actions and tools to deter offending generally.

Together these changes will improve the ability to enforce and administer the Act and provide greater opportunity for interventions or punitive actions commensurate with the severity of the offence, ultimately better protecting the welfare of animals.

The Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (AWAC) carries out an important function by providing independent advice to the Minister across a range of matters relating to the welfare of animals.

Updating the Act presents the opportunity to review the composition of the committee, as well as processes such as recruitment. Membership of the committee will be reviewed to ensure it has an appropriately diverse range skills and individuals.

The state government committed to work respectfully with shelters to create a licensing system with appropriate conditions, so that everyone who takes an animal to a shelter for rehoming and care can be confident that they will be treated well.

An animal shelter licensing system, together with an introduced ‘duty of care’ provision, obligates those who operate shelters to ensure animal welfare standards are being met. An animal shelter licensing system will improve the level of oversight of, and accountability for, those operating under a shelter licence.

Next steps

Reforms 1–7 will form the basis of the first phase of amendments which is anticipated to be completed by mid-2024. These are also summarised in updating the Animal Welfare Act – overview of reform areas (phase 1).

Key stakeholder discussions are currently underway to refine these changes and work through any potential impacts. This will inform the drafting of the Bill.

Consultation on the draft Bill will be undertaken through YourSAy and is anticipated to take place in April - May 2024. More information will be made available here.

The development of an animal shelter licensing system is set to be undertaken separately and is anticipated to be completed by mid-2025.

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