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They may not be able to speak for themselves, but Colombia’s animals just won a major legal victory. On Wednesday, Colombia’s Senate unanimously approved a bill that changes the way animals are defined under the law.

From now on, animals must be considered “sentient beings.” Previously, the law had treated them as personal property.

The bill now goes before President Juan Manuel Santos.

Classifying animals as sentient beings provides them greater protections against cruel treatment, and the law establishes strict legal penalties for mistreating or abandoning animals.

Animal abuse carries a penalty of 60 minimum monthly salaries and up to three years in prison, while abandoning a pet carries a fine of 20 minimum monthly salaries.

Police will also have the authority to confiscate animals they suspect are being abused.

Cultural expression or cruelty?

During discussion in the Senate, a proposal to bar public funding from events that involve harm to animals — such as bullfights — was scrapped out of concern that it could derail the larger bill. Similar efforts have failed in the past.

Bogotá outlawed bullfights in 2012, converting the iconic Plaza Santamaría into an artistic and cultural venue. The ban, pushed by Mayor Gustavo Petro, was broadly popular, with more than 87 percent of residents supporting the move, according to a poll from the National Center for Consultancy.

But a high court challenge reversed that prohibition, arguing that bullfighting is a form of “human artistic expression.”

Nevertheless, Bogotá’s Mayor-elect Enrique Peñalosa made it a campaign promise to continue the ban. Even though the Constitutional Court ruled that bullfighting couldn’t be prohibited outright, Peñalosa argued that the city had the authority to decide how the Santamaría plaza would be used.

Several other countries, states and regions — even including parts of Spain — have banned bullfighting over the past decade.

Wednesday’s law prevents abuse of bulls, chickens and horses, of course. But bullfighting, cockfighting and rodeo are classified as cultural activities and therefore protected under the Constitutional Court ruling.

Bogotá also tried to outlaw horse-drawn carts on city streets under the Petro administration.

The carts were traditionally to collect trash and recyclables from sidewalks. But animal rights supporters argued that the horses were forced to carry heavy loads on dangerous streets and often without appropriate medical care.

A 2013 law allowed so-called zorreros to turn in their horses in exchange for a motor vehicle or as much as $23 million pesos to start a small business.

Since then, many have taken advantage of the offer, although at least 400 horse-drawn carts may still be in use according to a July investigation by the University of Applied and Environmental Sciences (UDCA).

New animal cruelty protections could conceivably reduce that number significantly if authorities can prove that horses are working in unsafe or inhumane conditions.

“The declaration of animal sentience and the penalization of their mistreatment are big advances for our country,” said Representative Juan Carlos Losada, of Bogotá, who had first proposed the bill.

Indeed, changing the definition of an animal from property to a feeling, conscious being is a dramatic legal shift. And it opens the door for further legislation that would provide even greater protections for both pets and wild animals.


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