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Last Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006, 06:11 GMT
Dutch raise animal rights to new level
By Alix Kroeger
BBC News, the Netherlands

Dutch animal rights MP Marianne Thieme
Marianne Thieme hopes she will inspire others across Europe
It has been a busy few weeks for Marianne Thieme. Ten days ago, she made history as one of two animal-rights candidates to win election to the Dutch parliament.

They are the first animal-rights MPs anywhere in the world.

On Thursday 30 November, she and her fellow MP, Esther Ouwehand, were sworn in as MPs. Now their real work begins: to persuade the next government (which has yet to be formed) to adopt animal-friendly policies.

"I miss compassion in our society," Ms Thieme says.

"When I look at animals, they are innocent. We are treating them like they are things, like they are bicycles. That's not what we have to be as human beings. We have common sense and moral awareness, so we have to use that as well."

In its manifesto the Party for the Animals (PvdD) says protection for animals should not be defined by the market.

It wants to abolish the biotechnology industry and promote organic agriculture instead. It calls for an end to industrial farming practices such as castration and tougher penalties for those who abuse animals, as well as an end to ritual slaughter without anaesthesia.

Progressive reputation

Ms Thieme, 34, a lawyer by training, was one of the founders of the Party for the Animals in November 2002. The party only narrowly missed winning a parliamentary seat in January 2003. Now it has made the breakthrough.

The Netherlands, famously liberal, has turned to the right in recent years on questions of immigration and integration. But the PvdD's success shows that in other areas it is upholding its reputation as one of the most progressive countries in Europe.

Parrots at the NOP parrot sanctuary near Eindhoven, Netherlands
The Netherlands has once been hit by an outbreak of bird flu

But what makes the Netherlands such an animal-friendly country? Even Britain, famously a nation of animal-lovers, has not elected any animal-rights candidates to parliament or other assemblies.

The Netherlands is a small country, one of the most densely populated in the world. The pressures on its environment are plain to see.

Partly as a result, there is a lot of support for, and interest in, organic farming. The market for organic food is substantial.

But the Netherlands is also one of the largest producers in Europe of intensively farmed meat.

In 2003, the Netherlands was hit by an outbreak of bird flu. Thousands of birds, including pets as well as farm birds, were slaughtered. There have also been outbreaks of mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth, and most recently the cattle disease bluetongue.

Dark side

The Ridammerhoeve organic goat farm is in the Amsterdam woods within earshot of planes taking off from Schiphol airport. Despite this, it is the picture of a rural idyll.

Chickens scurry through the yard. Pot-bellied piglets root around in the straw. Its herd of more than 100 goats produces milk used to make cheese, butter and other products. The farm is also open to visitors, especially children.

"For a lot of children, it's surprising that the milk is coming from a goat or a cow. They think milk is coming from a bottle and not from an animal," says Willem Dag, who runs the farm with his wife, Corine Riteco.

The NOP parrot sanctuary near Eindhoven, Netherlands
The Netherlands is still showing its progressive credentials

Both of them like the idea that the Party for Animals is now in parliament. But Ms Riteco has reservations: an animal, she says, should be protected but not treated the same as a human being.

The Dutch animal-rights movement has its dark side. In 2002, an animal-rights activist murdered the populist politician Pim Fortuyn. The killer, Volkert van der Graaf, wanted to protect vulnerable groups in society, such as immigrants and Muslims.

The Party for Animals is founded on a principle of non-violence. "Gandhi said that the moral progress of a civilisation can be measured by the way it treats its animals," Marianne Thieme points out.


At the NOP parrot sanctuary near Eindhoven, staff and volunteers can measure that progress daily. More than 3,800 birds are housed there.

Some are handed in because the owners can no longer care for them. Others are rescued from abuse.

Last Saturday, Dutch customs officials at Schiphol airport uncovered a shipment of 80 smuggled birds. More than half had died en route from Mexico. Customs brought the survivors to the NOP refuge, where they are now recovering.

"We're a small country," says the sanctuary's founder, Tonnie van Meegen. "We don't have much but we live with what we have."

He thinks the Party for the Animals will be able to make a real difference.

"I believe when we have a voice in the parliament, talking about what is happening with birds and animals, the other members of parliament will hear that.

"When you never hear something, you don't know. But when you hear it, you give it your mind and you give it your heart."

Ms Thieme hopes the success of the Party for the Animals will encourage other similar parties across Europe. But she offers some words of advice.

"They must realise they are pioneers, and that nine out of 10 won't understand what they're doing. But fortunately, a lot of people don't want to be nine out of 10 anymore."

Vote fragments Dutch politics
23 Nov 06 |  Europe
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20 Nov 06 |  Europe
Liberalism under pressure
05 Jun 06 |  Magazine

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