New law is good news for Austria's wildlife

Austria's new animal protection law puts the country high on the list of European nations regulating the fate of their animals, after a compromise was struck with Jewish and Muslim groups and small-scale breeders.

The law change signals an end to the use of wild animals in circus acts, as well as banning battery-farming of chickens from 2009.

When parliament unanimously adopted the law last week, albeit without fully satisfying animal rights' activists, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel fulfilled an electoral promise to forge "a pioneering role" for Austria within the EU.

But the bill that sets new rules for Jewish and Muslim slaughterhouses ran into controversy before being passed.

The far-right Freedom Party sought to have traditional Kosher and Halaal animal slaughter rites banned altogether, arguing the practices amounted to cruelty.

But this suggestion was met with fierce opposition from rabbis representing Austria's 6,700 Jews, and would also have affected its 300,000 Muslims who likewise use the practice under which animals are bled so that their meat conforms to religious rules.

Under a compromise, the Freedom Party, a member of the governing coalition, won the concession that animals would receive an anaesthetic during the traditional slaughtering.

Austria's 10 rabbis argued that the right to freely follow a religion is laid out by the constitution. They also denied that the practice was cruel to animals.

Michael Buchner, of the Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) animal rights' association, said the "agony of the animal will last several seconds and not several minutes".

He conceded it marked some progress but that the issue only concerned a very small number of the animals killed in Austrian abbatoirs and had been politicised.