A pig looking desperately through the bars of a sow stall.

How laws are failing animals: codes of cruelty.

Have you ever wondered why hens can be packed into a single cage for their entire lives, when their suffering is so obvious? Or why mother pigs can be confined in cages so small they can't even turn around?

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated December 7, 2021

That laws protect the vulnerable is one of the most basic tenets of society. So, many people are shocked to learn that this isn’t the case for some of the most vulnerable and defenceless members of our community.

The stark reality is that — under Australian law — not all animals are protected. In fact, the law ‘protects’ or ‘exempts’ animals not by their capacity to suffer, but by their ‘value’ or ‘use’ to humans.

This means that an animal — whether a dog, a chicken, a pig, a rabbit, a sheep, and so on — is fully protected if they are valued as a ‘pet’ or ‘companion’. However, if you take that very same animal out of the domestic environment and place them for use in a farm or breeding facility (or even a research lab), then they lose important protections under animal cruelty laws.

Why? Because the law would no longer regard them as domestic pets or companions. Instead, they are defined as ‘production animals’ which allows decisions around their wellbeing to be balanced with industry interests.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Battery hens / chickens looking out from a crowded battery cages
While many jurisdictions around the world are phasing out barren battery cages, in Australia it remains legal to keep hens in cages for their entire productive lives. Hens experience chronic frustration in battery cages, unable to express important natural behaviours.

What are animal cruelty laws and how are farmed animals excluded?

Each State in Australia has its own animal welfare legislation. For example, in NSW it’s called the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 and in South Australia it’s called the Animal Welfare Act 1985QueenslandVictoriaTasmaniaWestern Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory each also have their own version of an ‘Animal Welfare Act’.

Each Act prohibits cruelty to animals. However, in each of these Acts there are ‘carve out’ clauses that exclude certain animals from the anti-cruelty protections if they are defined as ‘stock’ or farm animals, or animals used in research.

These ‘excluded’ animals are pulled out from the protection of the Acts and placed under industry Codes of Practice[1]. These Codes of Practice operate to exclude hundreds of millions of animals from anti-cruelty protections, most of them in factory farms.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A broiler chicken farm
Chickens raised for meat are crammed into sheds by the tens of thousands for their entire six-week lives. During this time sheds are not cleaned and are left to accumulate with pungent faeces which can burn the skin and lungs of the chicks inside.

It is these Codes of Practice (adopted by each State) that allow sensitive and intelligent mother pigs to be locked up in crates barely bigger than their bodiespiglets to have their tails sliced off and teeth cut without any form of pain relief; and egg laying hens to suffer their entire lives in battery cages where they can’t even stretch their wings.

Thanks to Codes of Practice, it is not only legal but ‘business-as-usual’ for millions of ‘meat chickens’ to suffer and die every year because they’ve been bred to grow so unnaturally fast that their hearts and bodies can give out at just a few weeks old.

These animals experience pain and suffering in the same ways as our beloved pets. Just like cats and dogs, they can have rich social and emotional lives, form strong bonds and seek out affection. Yet the Australian legal system actively and deliberately excludes these ‘farmed’ animals from protection against cruel treatment and denies them any quality of life.

How can this be when Australians love animals? We give our pets the best life we can, we fiercely oppose whaling, and are horrified by the killing of seals for fur. As a nation we abhor cruelty to animals, but few of us realise that legally sanctioned acts of cruelty to animals happen every day in Australia.

Who set these Codes of Practice? How could this happen?

Early in the 20th century, the States began exempting particular types of farming practices from the anti-cruelty legislation (for example, castration and dehorning of cattle). By the 1970s and 1980s, these exemptions became so widely accepted across general farming practices that industry and government moved to ‘codify’ them as ‘model blanket exemptions’.

At that time, animal welfare advocates did not have a seat at the table when it came to government regulation and policy-setting. The government department responsible for setting and regulating animal welfare was — and continues to be — the Department of Agriculture in each State. There is an inherent conflict of interest that exists here because the Department of Agriculture wears two hats: promoting and expanding the interests of industry; and animal welfare regulation.

Many legal and academic scholars have written extensively on this conflict of interest and resultant ‘legalised cruelty’ that persists. With some describing this system as the ‘fox being in charge of the hen-house’.

The primary reason for setting these Codes of Practice has been to ensure that animal industries remain as profitable as possible — no matter what the cost in terrible, and avoidable, animal suffering. The economic efficiency term for this is known as “economies of scale”. That is, increasing profits by lowering costs. This has led to the intensification — or ‘factory farming’ — of more than 500 million animals a year in Australia.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A mother pig with her piglets looking out from sow stall
The confinement of mother pigs in 'farrowing' crates is perhaps one of the cruelest practices that has been entrenched by our laws. These crates are barely bigger than the pig herself and deny her the ability to interact naturally with her piglets.
Image credit: Farm Transparency Project

Lowering costs to increase profits means:

  • more animals packed and confined in less space;
  • more antibiotic use due to increased illness and injury from the stresses of close confinement and over-crowding of animals;
  • cruel, unnecessary procedures such as beak and teeth cutting and tail docking — performed to reduce injuries caused if confined animals take out their frustrations on each other; and
  • no provision of pain relief for these procedures, or others routinely carried out such as castration.

Some of the Codes of Practice have over the past decade been updated as ‘Standards and Guidelines’, but continue to permit cruel and outdated practices.

Put simply, these Codes of Practice and recently released ‘Standards’ are frameworks for legalised animal cruelty.

Codes of Practice also cover animals used in rodeoscircuses, theme parks or those hunted for ‘sport’ — allowing them to be treated in a way that would be illegal if those responsible were accountable to actual animal cruelty laws.

Help shape a kinder world

For decades, animal protection groups have sought to change these outdated laws and practices only to come up against an invisible, impenetrable barrier… an inherited belief system — enshrined in law — that deems animals raised for food less worthy of kindness and protection.

As demand for animal products has grown, farms have become factories and our laws have forgotten that there are living, feeling beings inside them.

We may have inherited these systems, but we don’t have to keep them. We can be the generation that ends factory farming, that draws a line in the sand and declares that all animals deserve kindness and a life worth living.

As author and sustainable food advocate Anna Lappe once wrote, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want”. Every time you choose a plant-based meal over an animal-based one you’re helping to reduce the demand that has led to animals being treated so cruelly. You’re casting a vote for a kinder world for all.



[1] There is an Australia-wide strategy to review the Codes of Practice and instead implement nationally consistent Standards and Guidelines. This work is currently underway; however it simply pulls the State-based Codes into a national framework. The end result is that ‘production’ and ‘stock’ animals are still exempted under animal cruelty laws.