Attitudes to Animal Welfare

The following is an excerpt from: [Olsen, P. (1998) Australia’s Pest Animals: New Solutions to Old Problems. Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra and Kangaroo Press, Sydney

‘The Australian and New Zealand Federation of Animal Societies [Australian component of which is now called ‘Animals Australia’] is concerned about the interest of all non-human animals and is amazed at the treatment of these animals once they have been labelled by our community as pests. A lack of public debate enables much of this treatment to persist when reform is possible and well overdue.’ (Oogjes 1995)

Today it is no longer acceptable to treat animals as objects without rights. There is an increasing expectation amongst many sectors of the community that all animals, including pests, will be treated humanely. Aside from the moral obligation, failure to adequately consider animal welfare can cause major problems for pest control. It may lead to bans on the introduction and use of certain techniques. During 1992 and 1993, the proposal to introduce myxomatosis to New Zealand for rabbit control sparked a major, protracted and often bitter debate (Oogjes 1995). The importance of animal welfare was recognised in the extensive treatment it received in the recent assessment of the costs and benefits from introducing rabbit calicivirus disease (RCD) into Australia (Munro & Williams 1994; BRS 1996).

Failure to improve the humane treatment of pest animals can also have major implications for trade. For example, there has been pressure by animal welfare organisations to ban the live export of goats, most of which are feral.

The National Consultative Committee on Animal Welfare (NCCAW), which is composed of both government and community representatives concerned with animal welfare, recognises that pest animals cause extensive environmental and agricultural damage and that their numbers need to be controlled. NCCAW also understands that a judgement on the humaneness of a pest control program must take all factors into account, not just animal welfare. They further recognise that in some cases it may not be possible to guarantee the humaneness of control methods for each pest animal although this should be the goal (Wirth 1995).

Pest control might be acceptable to the community in one place but cause great concern if it is carried out elsewhere, as this quote from the Director of the Australian and New Zealand Federation of Animal Societies demonstrates: ‘Rabbits dug burrows, fed in the open and were more or less contained by feral cats, some winter flooding of burrows (and consequent death of kittens), and the occasional piecemeal control by land managers. But some cat control and a dry year recently led to the announced need to reduce rabbit numbers to restore the other values of the area. There was a storm of protest from those living close to the land. You see the land and the wild rabbits were situated in the middle of Centennial Park in Sydney. Right under the noses of members of the public that usually do not even consider what their country cousins are doing to rabbits in the semi-arid or grazing areas of New South Wales (Oogjes 1995).’

Often it is the pest control method that causes most animal welfare concerns. NCCAW concluded that people concerned about some pest control methods are not always well informed about them and that better information and more open debate might overcome their objections. An integral part of successful pest management is also a strategy for increasing public awareness of the need to consider animal welfare concerns in the context of the costs and benefits of control.

Any control should be appropriately planned and coordinated using the most effective, humane methods available (Bomford 1992a). Where practicable, it should also aim to reduce the need for extensive ongoing treatment (Braysher 1993). Land managers have, at best, five potentially cost-effective strategies to reduce pest animal impact, each with different animal welfare implications:

  • killing or removing by poisoning, shooting or trapping;
  • exclusion of pests;
  • biological control;
  • habitat manipulation;
  • other management practices (e.g. enterprise substitution or cultural practices such as changing the timing of lambing).

It is not possible to quickly develop new, humane techniques to replace those that are questioned on animal welfare grounds. Nevertheless, animal welfare groups expect pest controllers to be able to show that the animal welfare costs from control can be justified in terms of the production and environmental gains. In other words, if techniques are used that cause pest animals to suffer, the resulting reduction in pest damage must be clear.

Cage traps for pigs are considered humane as long as the traps are checked regularly and the trapped animals humanely destroyed. Using dogs to control pests such as feral pigs is considered to be inhumane, not only because of the stress of capture and injuries inflicted on pigs prior to death, but also because of the high risk of injury to the dog (Choquenot et al. 1996).

Shooting from helicopters is an effective control technique for several pest species and, partly due to the influence of animal welfare groups, the professionalism of shooters is generally very high. Shooting from helicopters is considered to be acceptable provided that control operations are conducted by trained marksmen and that there is a follow-up inspection for any injured animals. Although it can be humane, shooting pests from the ground has limited pest control potential for smaller pests, such as rabbits and foxes, because in most situations it removes only a small proportion of the population (NCCAW 1992; Saunders et al. 1995; Williams et al. 1995).

Another relatively humane method of controlling pests such as feral horses, donkeys, and goats is mustering, usually for sale for meat. However, the necessary live transport of wild animals such as feral horses and goats to abattoirs can cause suffering, especially when they travel long distances (NCCAW 1992; Dobbie et al. 1993).

The humaneness of poisoning is variable because of differences in poisons and variation in the pest species’ response. Some poisons, such as yellow phosphorus (CSSP) and chloropicrin – used on feral pigs and rabbits respectively – are inhumane and should be phased out (Williams et al. 1995; Choquenot et al. 1996).

Concerns over the suffering caused by myxomatosis are one reason that, in 1993, the New Zealand government decided against the introduction of myxoma virus to control rabbits. Rabbit calicivirus disease is considered to be more humane, in part because it kills more quickly and the rabbits show no signs of suffering.

It is important that governments and other organisations responsible for pest animal control ensure that animal welfare concerns are appropriately considered, put into perspective and effectively communicated to the community. Most States and Territories have comprehensive animal welfare legislation. Relevant State and Territory agencies and national bodies such as NCCAW and the RSPCA have an important role in safeguarding the welfare of animals, including pests, by developing Codes of Practice for the control of animals. Pest management should be consistent with these codes, which include the Subcommittee on Animal Welfare’s Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, Feral Livestock Animals (1991).

The guidelines expressed in the Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes (NCCAW 1992) apply equally well to pest control: ‘Pain and distress cannot easily be evaluated in animals, and therefore investigators must assume that animals experience pain in a manner similar to humans. Decisions regarding their welfare in experiments must be based on this assumption unless there is evidence to the contrary.’


Bomford, M (1992a). Report: Vertebrate Pest Control and Animal Welfare. The Animal Welfare Unit. Department of Primary Industries & Energy, Canberra.

Braysher, M (1993). Managing Vertebrate Pests: Principles and Strategies. Bureau of Resource Sciences. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

BRS (Bureau of Resource Sciences) (1996). Rabbit Calicivirus Disease: a report under the Biological Control Act 1984. Bureau of Resource Sciences, Canberra.

Choquenot, D, McIlroy, J & Korn, T (1996). Managing Vertebrate Pests: Feral Pigs. Bureau of Resource Sciences. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Dobbie, WR, Berman, D McK & Braysher, ML (1993). Managing Vertebrate Pests: Feral Horses. Bureau of Resource Sciences. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Munro, RK & Williams, RT (eds)(1994). Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease: issues in assessment for biological control. Bureau of Resource Sciences, Canberra.

NCCAW (National Consultative Committee on Animal Welfare) (1992). Vertebrate pest control and animal welfare. A report of the National Consultative Committee on Animal Welfare. February, 1992.

Oogjes, G (1995). Considering the animal’s interests in the ‘pest control’ debate. In: Proceedings 10th Australian Vertebrate Pest Control Conference, pp 298-302. Department of Primary Industry and Forestry, Hobart.

Saunders, G, Coman, B, Kinnear, J & Braysher, M (1995). Managing Vertebrate Pests: Foxes. Department of Primary Industries & Energy. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Williams, K, Parer, I, Coman, B, Burley, J & Braysher, M (1995). Managing Vertebrate Pests: Rabbits. Bureau of Resource Sciences & CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology. Bureau of Resource Sciences. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Wirth, HJ (1995). Vertebrate pest control and animal welfare – the National Consultative Committee on Animal Welfare view. Unpublished paper presented at the 10th Vertebrate Pest Control Conference, Hobart.

Last updated: November 11, 2010
We are currently in the process of updating our site and soon we'll be bringing you a whole new way of navigating the information to find exactly what you need.

Follow our social media channels for updates.