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Germany

One for the Animals

After years of debate, Germany's parliament voted Friday to become the first in Europe to include protection of animals in its constitution. Proponents say it will now be easier to enforce existing animal rights laws.

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Germany's constitution could soon alter the fates of cooped-up and miserable hens like these.

Demonstrators outside the Reichstag in Berlin staged an exuberant street theater celebration Friday as Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, approved a law making it the first country in Europe to include animal rights protections in its federal constitution.

Members of the international animal rights organization Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) and other groups, clad as their favorite furry forest friends and other wildlife,

Tierschutz Bundestag

Reichstag demonstrators

stood in front of a giant replica of the constitution to symbolize the entry of animal rights into the basic set of laws adopted by the German government in 1949.

With every major political party supporting the amendment, the Bundestag easily cleared the two-thirds majority required to approve the constitutional amendment. Leaders in Germany’s upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, have also signaled support for the measure, suggesting that its passage is assured.

Broad support

Members of the government coalition, led by the Social Democrats and Alliance 90/The Greens, and every other major party in the country collaborated to create the bill that adds the words "and the animals" to Article 20(a) of the constitution, which calls for the protection of the "natural foundations of life" for future generations. The amended text will be added this summer after being approved by the Bundesrat.

"With the constitutional anchoring of the protection of animals, (Germany’s) animal protection laws can finally be enforced effectively," said Ralf Sonntag, Vier Pfoten's campaign director.

A political U-turn

Three previous attempts to pass the constitutional amendment failed in 1994 and again in 1997 and 1998. The last effort was stalled in April 2000 after the opposition Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, argued that a change to the constitution would not bring any concrete improvements to animals’ living conditions.

Opposition Union bloc leaders, including Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber and Angela Merkel, dropped their objections following the popular uproar that came after a January ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court legalizing Muslim ritual slaughter.

The Karlsruhe justices issued a decision excluding Muslim butchers conducting ritual slaughter of livestock from a federal law requiring that animals be stunned before they are killed.

A long wait

Responding to the parliamentary vote on Friday, the head of the German environmental group BUND, Gerhard Timm, gave mixed reviews to the lawmakers.

"The animal world had to wait too long for this," he said. Nonetheless, he noted that the new amendment would make it easier for the government to pursue an ambitious agricultural reform policy that seeks to increase the percentage of overall sales of organically grown and raised produce and meats to 20 percent nationwide.

"Until now only egg-laying chickens have been set for government protection," says Timm. "However, the industrialization of poultry and swine raised for consumption has increased," he said, referring to chickens cooped up in pens small enough to be fodder for an Upton Sinclair novel and cattle squished together on insufficient feed lots.

Consequences for scientists?

In addition to agriculture, the new law could also have an impact on scientists and researchers.

In a Friday morning interview with the German public television broadcaster ZDF, shortly before hearings began in the Bundestag, Minister of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture Renate Künast said that the law was needed not just for the better treatment of animals, but also to ensure the future of certain animal species.

Künast also suggested that the amendment could make it easier for the government to limit the use of animals for scientific experiments in the future.

"What this now means is that the fields of research, education and religion must now carefully consider the nation’s duty to protect animals," Künast said. In some areas, she said, researchers would be required to provide compelling reasons for using animals in testing.

"We’re not trying to send scientists away," she offered, "but any good scientist is already in a position today to explain – this (research) has to do with cancer, Alzheimer's or AIDS. In those areas there is justification that you can’t provide for things like, say, headaches."

Despite considerable protections extended to animals through German law, Künast says a constitutional amendment is still necessary. "Even with our legal system, every law and every decree still needs protection, and that protection needs to come from so far above that it is named in the constitution."

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