Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Editorial: Forget this nonsense, for all dogs

A rural rebellion against microchip registration of dogs failed at the Cabinet table this week. Jim Anderton, Minister of Agriculture, put the case for farm dogs to be exempt from the law, which will require all newly registered dogs to have an identifying microchip embedded between their shoulder blades, but he was defeated. As the Prime Minister put it, no doubt with relish, there must be "one law for all".

That rhetorical device rather neatly immobilises the National Party on an issue that is generating some heat in the heartland. Farmers, who have a healthy resistance to petty regulation, are asking what purpose a microchip register of dogs will serve for them? Many an urban dog owner has asked the same question. If the National Party wants to take up the cry from its rural constituency it will need to argue not for a farm exemption but for a reconsideration of this law for all.

It is not too late to do so. Microchip registration was a proposal lying in wait for an opportune political moment. The moment came after a series of urban dog incidents, especially the mauling of Carolina Anderson, aged 7, in an Auckland park in 2003. The Government, under pressure to do something about unsafe dogs, decided to have a national register of dogs whose owners could be easily identified by an electronic scanner.

It has never been clear quite how that would avert dog attacks, stop them when they start, or solve any other problem. They would not be as good as a visible tag when it comes to spotting whether a dog has a current registration, and they would be no better than a collar tag when owners need to be identified. Those who do not register their ownership now will be no more likely to do so by microchip. And those who do register their dogs already come forward fairly readily if the dog gets into trouble.

The only advantage a microchip appears to offer is making more information available to officials with scanners. It might save them having to note a number on a tag and find the owners' name on file, which they will do mainly to enforce registration and the revenue their councils receive from it. For that small convenience all newly registered pups are to have a bean inserted in their bodies.

Farmers are possibly the last people who would be expected to object to that small indignity to an animal, accustomed as they are to tagging the ears of stock and branding them in ways much more painful than a tiny insertion in a dog's thick skin. But farmers are in a better position to resist needless rules. They defeated the "fart tax" on animal methane emissions long before the Government was forced to backtrack on its hopes of taxing carbon emissions as well. They are in the best position to challenge the pretext for microchipping because farm dogs are strictly trained not to savage animals, let alone people. Any farm dog that forgets that training is unlikely to live very long.

City dogs lead a more pampered life, and their problems lie with owners who don't ensure they are sufficiently trained or kept under adequate control. The Kennel Club, which says microchips will do nothing to improve dog control, intends to call for licensing of dog owners rather than dogs. It would be no bad thing if people had to do a course in dog behaviour and care before they gained the right to own one - in cities anyway. Farms already contain all the incentive owners need to ensure their dogs are not feral.

But the difficulty in exempting farms, as the Kennel Club points out, is that distinction between rural and urban life is blurred these days. Many a pet on a fringe farmlet may be a much loved hazard and left to stray. There probably has to be one law for all dog owners, provided it is really needed. Microchips appear to be no more than a bureaucratic toy.

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