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A technical officer voicing his opinion via an e-mail that went “viral” led to confusion over Government’s policy on the importation of cats and dogs from the United Kingdom.

Environment Minister Marc Bean yesterday clarified to the House of Assembly that there had been no policy change yet.

“Recent changes in the UK have required us to review our policy, but that work is just beginning. Should a change in our policy be required, I will advise the public in advance of any such change,” Minister Bean said.

But the Minister gave notice that a policy change is on its way.

He explained that, come January, the UK will bring its regulations in line with those of the European Union, making it easier to get dogs and cats into the UK from EU countries.

“This change has implications for Bermuda in terms of how we continue to view animals coming from the UK, and our response to the change can have wide-ranging effects.”

Mr Bean said the fact that the UK and a handful of other countries fulfilled international criteria for being rabies-free, meant that Bermuda could accept dogs and cats as young as three months from those countries without requiring any rabies vaccinations. “In contrast, animals from rabies-infected areas require dual rabies vaccinations and do not qualify for entry before age ten months.”

He said the UK is effectively lowering its standards by aligning with the EU regime.

“For us, the new protocol raises the question of whether it leads to an unacceptable risk of the rabies virus being exported in animals coming from the UK, given that such animals may have originated in the UK or travelled there from elsewhere.

“This is an important consideration as we currently receive approximately 200 animals per year from the United Kingdom. Come January 1, 2012, the UK and Bermuda laws combine to effectively open Bermuda to easily accept animals from 79 other countries.”

He continued: “The Government of Bermuda recognises that the changes in the United Kingdom policy represent a paradigm shift in global rabies control; a shift that may be accepted by some jurisdictions, but one that has already been rejected by others. We must now consider our response. We also recognise the existence of the Schengen Area, a block of 25 European countries that have eliminated internal border controls and checkpoints. Within this area, people, their pets and belongings move freely without controls.

“It is likely that the UK will join the Schengen Area at some point in the future. This raises the question of whether our import rules should be dependent on UK border control policy or whether we take ownership of the problem and impose our own import requirements, independent of the UK’s stance.”

He stressed the importance of keeping Bermuda rabies-free, saying that all who come into contact with a rabid animal would require treatment and that the unvaccinated animals would have to be euthanised.

And the Minister noted that dogs and cats imported from the US and Canada require vaccinations and have to be at least ten months. “We recognise that training and socialisation have implications for animal control and public safety.

But all of this must be weighed against the issue of preventing accidental introduction of the rabies virus.”

Bermuda’s feral cat population, with its proximity to human and pet populations, posed a particular risk should they become rabid.

“Government values our ‘rabies-free’ status, as it positively affects how our animals are received by other countries. While a change in our status may not affect most of our travelling animals, there is a segment of our pet population that travels overseas for various urgent veterinary treatments.

“It was the USA’s recognition of our rabies-free status that allows unvaccinated animals to travel there for urgent care. So our decisions could impact this privilege.”

The Minister continued: “Difficult import regulations present a barrier for persons entering with pets, be they visitors, guest workers or returning Bermudian students or families.

“This consideration does not mean that we must have an ‘open-door’ policy for all animals, but it does remind us that the implications of this issue are far-ranging.”

But he stressed that the overall objective is to prevent the incidence of rabies and maintain Bermuda’s rabies-free status.

“Leaving our legislation unchanged is not an option, as we will have legislation that is ineffective.”

The four options being considered include:

n adopting the EU protocol;

n sticking with the higher international standards;

n adopting a compromise protocol;

n establishing a “data-driven protocol irrespective of both the EU and OIE [World Organisation for Animal Health] protocols.

A letter written by Government veterinarian Jonathan Nisbett sparked a protest by pet lovers.

Mr Nisbett had advised a couple who had asked about importing a puppy, to hold off from buying one from the UK because of pending legislative changes.

At question time in yesterday’s House of Assembly sitting, Mr Bean was asked by backbencher Dale Butler to explain the confusion in the public arena.

“Through communication via e-mail, one of our technical officers gave their thoughts and it became viral,” Mr Bean said. He apologised to the public and said “all policy will come from the Minister and not from the technical officer”.

Minister of Environment, Planning and Infrastructure Strategy Marc Bean

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Published November 26, 2011 at 1:00 am (Updated November 26, 2011 at 6:28 am)

No decision on pet importation from UK yet

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