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Austria bans docking and choke chains

DOGS CANNOT be docked or even be restrained by choke collars under animal protection laws passed by the Austrian parliament last week. Even chickens gain greater protection and it will no longer be legal to keep them in cages.

The legislation, the strictest in the world, has been under discussion for more than two decades. It also stipulates that it is illegal to place animals in the care of minors, to display pets in shop windows or to use wild animals in circus acts or other spectacles.

Cattle may not be tethered with rope, and it is no longer allowed to use electric shocks to train animals, or to dock their tails or ears – applying equally to dogs and other livestock. Some politicians wept as the law was passed by a comfortable majority following a five-hour debate, while others waved soft toys in celebration.

Animal rights groups welcomed the changes, but the country's farmers reacted angrily, arguing that forcing them to keep only free-range chickens would increase prices and lead to a flood of eggs from foreign battery hens. Fritz Grillitsch, the president of the National Farmers' Association, called for compensation for farmers.

He said: "While we welcome aspects of this law, what pains us is the ban on cages, which is an attack on farmers, their families and their livelihoods."

He said Austrian consumers had a duty to rethink their behaviour by buying local products even if they became more expensive because of the new law.

Even some animal rights activists gave warning that the law could fail animals if it led to the import of animal products from countries with poor rights records. Despite strict protection laws, many animals are imported annually into Switzerland and Germany and kept secretly in substandard conditions.

The law which will come into effect next January, will set fines of between £1,400 and £10,000 for animal cruelty. Inspectors will patrol the country and make random checks to ensure that the law is implemented correctly.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel said the law was a "pioneering example" for the world on how to treat animals, adding that he would push for similar laws to be implemented across the European Union.

The animal protection spokesman for the Socialists, Ulrike Sima, said it was a "day of joy" for Austria and her counterpart for the Greens, Brigid Weinzinger, said the law signalled that "Austrian society has bettered itself".

The most controversial aspect of the law concerned the slaughtering of animals according to religious practices. The far-Right Freedom Party, the main supporter of the law, had called for a total ban but, under a compromise deal, the rules now state that suffering must be cut from "three minutes to just a few seconds" through the administration of tranquillisers.

The British Government is planning to introduce its own Animal Welfare Bill before the next General Election, although whether it would utilise any elements form the Austrian legislation remains to be seen. Animal Minister Ben Bradshaw has already publicly stated that he has a more relaxed attitude towards tail docking of dogs.