Michael Gove has excelled as environment secretary since his appointment after last year’s general election. The war waged by his department on harmful microbeads used in cosmetics products was long overdue. His decision to place a ban on the sale of new fuel combustion motor vehicles in 2040 was a balanced and sensible one. He has even taken the wind out of Nigel Farage’s sails to some degree by making himself the Brexiteer voice of British fishing and agriculture.
Continuing this run, Defra finally announced that electric shock collars for cats and dogs are to be banned in England under new legislation. Celebrating the development, Gove said: “We are a nation of animal lovers and the use of punitive shock collars cause harm and suffering to our pets. This ban will improve the welfare of animals and I urge pet owners to instead use positive reward training methods.”
This latest bill is the most recent of a string of successful moves, reigniting productivity in a stale and sterile government department. It unequivocally outlaws the use of so-called training devices, which often stun animals with up to 6,000 volts of electricity and sometimes spray noxious chemicals. Similar measures had already been implemented in Wales and Scotland; a parallel in England had been a long time coming.
An RSPCA survey previously found that five per cent of all dog owners in the UK admitted to using the shock collars, a small enough sector to avoid provoking widespread anger among pet owners but also a large enough group to justify legislative action. Since there are around nine million pet dogs in the country, hundreds of thousands will benefit from the absence of these horrific collars which can, according to Dogs Trust, deliver a very high voltage for up to 11 seconds.
As ever, though, the activist lobby was not satisfied. Though it welcomed the legislation, the RSPCA complained that electric containment fences had not also been banned. While it is true that there are viable alternatives to these fences and that they “can compromise cat and dog welfare”, as a spokesperson put it, there are limitations to what can be achieved in one fell swoop.
A 2014 poll by The Kennel Club, for instance, found that 74 per cent of the public would support a government ban on electric shock collars. Such a clear majority in favour of an outright proscription gives Gove a very clear mandate to implement the measure and penalise the minority of pet owners who persist with discipline using this draconian method. Conversely, a government consultation found that half of the 7,000 people surveyed opposed a similar ban on electric containment fences.
Gove made the right decision by choosing not to outlaw the electric fences. While there is a vast array of alternative non-shock training devices available, the same is not necessarily true of containment tools. Savvy dogs and cats are adept at squirming into places they shouldn’t be. If those fences were banned, lazy owners might resort to yet more unpleasant methods of keeping their pets in check. Moreover, as lobbyist Ian Gregory points out, such a ban would be counter-productive as they prevent hundreds of thousands of animal deaths in road accidents.
The banning of electric shock collars is a long overdue and wholly commendable step forward in animal rights. Here’s to hoping that the enormous workload of Brexit and the Tories’ power struggle don’t begin to impede the tremendous work that Michael Gove and his team are doing at Defra.