Sunday 25 February 2018

Online sale of fighting pups is infuriating animal lovers

The two pit bull terrier puppies were a sorry state. The photograph showed them being held up to the camera by the scruff of the neck, grasped by the tattooed hands of the person who was selling them. Their ears had been cropped illegally to make them look more aggressive.

In the background of the photo, a bare concrete yard could be seen, littered with dog faeces. The puppies were advertised as as having "a great future as fighting dogs".

It's these types of online advertisements for dogs that infuriate animal lovers. The owner of these pups has no interest in the welfare of the animals: he is selling the animals to make a profit, and his main interest is the cruel, illegal activity of dog fighting.

Somebody took action when they saw this advert: they contacted the Gardai and the ISPCA. Unfortunately, by the time the authorities followed up the case, the advert had been taken down, and the mobile phone number was an anonymous, pay as you go SIM card that had been disconnected. It seemed that the person selling the pups had experience in avoiding being tracked down by the law.

It's stories like this that have led to calls from animal lovers for online advertising of pets to be banned. It seems obvious that the ease with which any animal can be sold, with no restrictions, leads directly to the perpetration of cruelty. If people were no longer allowed to advertise animals online, they would not be able to contact prospective buyers, and the cruel trade in abused animals would then stop. Or would it?

The truth is that people have always bought and sold animals. The only thing that has changed is the way that transactions are publicised. Originally, people would have simply sent word around the local community that they had animals for sale. Community notice boards might have then been used.

Then newspapers and magazines became the most popular way of spreading the word. Over the past twenty years, the internet has become the market-leader for animal sales. While it's true that it's now easier than ever to disseminate photos and information about pets for sale, it's really just an extension of a long-established practice.

Could online advertising be banned? It's hard to see how this could happen. The internet is global, and criminals have evolved ways of bypassing restrictions. With a few clicks of the mouse, it's easy to learn how to make your online presence anonymous, and you can then sell and buy anything you want, with minimal chance of being tracked down. Websites are used to sell illegal drugs already: if online animal sales were banned, they would simply move underground.

So can anything be done to stop the obvious cruelty cases like the pit bull puppies?

Luckily, the main animal online classified site in Ireland is already taking a pro-active, responsible stance. The advert that I mentioned at the start of this article was on an overseas-based, relatively unknown site. The market leading site in Ireland has strict guidelines that prevent the posting of such adverts. They monitor animal adverts continually, addressing any complaints immediately, taking down the advert where necessary. Any person who is suspected of being a "puppy farmer" is banned from advertising on the site (e.g. if they have too many breeds of puppy for sale, or if they are advertising too often).

The website also passes on information to the Gardai and the ISPCA if investigations for animal welfare issues are needed. Furthermore, the website gives 50% of the revenues from dog adverts towards projects involving education on animal welfare, and animal rescue groups are allowed to advertised animals needing homes free of charge on the site.

Despite this enlightened approach, many animal lovers remain sceptical about online advertisers, and further steps are being taken to introduce an organised type of self-regulation.

Animal welfare groups in Ireland are currently working on setting up the Irish Pet Advertising Advisory Group (IPAAG) to engage with the on-line industry in Ireland, developing local guidelines for sellers and buyers to ensure that welfare of the animals being advertised is protected. The market-leading online advert site in Ireland has already committed to comply with whatever IPAAG recommends.

In the UK, the Pet Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG) was established in 2001, and has become a useful model for other countries. The group, set up by vets and animal welfare organisations, has set up detailed guidelines for advertising, and the main online advertisers have agreed to comply with these.

It may not be perfect, but it means that gross abuses of animal welfare and illegal adverts are kept out of the mainstream. PAAG also works to raise public awareness of the need to act responsibly when buying pets from websites, publishing online guides to buying dogs, cats and other animals.

The group has worked closely with government, and last year received full endorsement from the UK Department of Agriculture for their recommended minimum standards for online advertisements. It's hoped that the Irish equivalent of this advisory group will be equally successful.

I've just spent ten minutes browsing the dog-for-sale adverts on one of the main online advert websites in Ireland: I'm pleased to say that I found many photos of contented puppies and adult dogs, as well as dozens of links to healthy rescue animals that also need homes. In mainstream online Ireland, at least, there's no sign of the cruelty of the type suffered by those pit bull pups.

Enniscorthy Guardian

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