Leading Article: Technology of the microchip will not end animal cruelty

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The Independent Culture
THE CURRENT boom in animal-based docu-soaps, with the plethora of programmes such as Animal Hospital, Animal Police and Wildlife Police, has brought one unexpected benefit in its wake - other, that is, than a boost to the career of Rolf Harris.

The sight of ducks going under the anaesthetic and of iguanas in slings has made us much more conscious of animal welfare and correspondingly more willing to report incidents of cruelty to the relevant authorities. This, rather than any underlying surge in sadism, seems to be the reason why the number of convictions for cruelty rose by 17.5 per cent last year.

We should welcome the success of such prosecutions, and the increasing willingness of magistrates to use heavy penalties. But, as the RSPCA has emphasised, the perpetrators of many of the most horrific crimes remain unprosecuted because they cannot be traced. The RSPCA believes that, by encouraging the use of microchips to tag pets, the incidence of animal cruelty will be reduced because owners will be linked to the creatures in their care. The RSPCA may be overstating its case.

"Chipping" is, of course, a good idea and has already been embraced by many responsible owners. It makes for a more responsible ethos of pet ownership and it helps to trace stray animals.

The decision by the Government to launch a pilot scheme for "pet passports", whereby chipped animals with inoculations become exempt from this country's onerous quarantine regulations, has given the existing voluntary schemes some extra impetus. Some 700,000 animals are now fitted with microchips.

But, useful as all this may be, it is impossible to envisage that those owners who are most likely to neglect or maltreat the animals in their care would go to the trouble and expense of having their pets chipped.

The only circumstances in which you could imagine their doing so would be if chipping were to be made compulsory, backed up by the law and some hefty deterrents. It would also have to be backed up by heavy policing. How else could you detect the absence of an invisible chip than by frequent spot checks by the constabulary or by local authority dog-catchers?

It is hard to justify devoting vast new resources even to so worthy a cause as animal welfare when there is so little prospect of the guilty being caught.

The Government is setting up a working party on the permanent identification of dogs, via microchips or tattoos. It should be given every encouragement to devise a workable scheme that overcomes the many valid objections. But we should be under no illusion that its deliberations are likely to bring an early end to cruelty to animals.