By Corina Pons
MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's parliament on Thursday passed a new animal rights bill that has stirred controversy as it excludes hunting dogs and other animals used in traditional rural activities, and which critics say panders to the country's powerful hunting lobby.
The law will overhaul the treatment of domesticated and wild animals in captivity, ban the sale of pets in shops, impose prison sentences on animal abusers, and turn zoos into wildlife recovery centres.
In a last minute u-turn, the junior ruling coalition partner Unidas Podemos, which had advocated for the inclusion of hunting dogs, backed the law in order for it to pass and asked those fighting to protect hunting dogs for forgiveness.
"To leave hunting dogs out of this law is to leave abusers unpunished," Social Rights Minister Ione Belarra, of Unidas Podemos, told lawmakers, adding: "We have come as far as we can with the strength we have".
An intense debate has raged for weeks within Spain's left wing-coalition after the main ruling Socialists backpedalled in December on regulating hunting dogs, fearing the issue could push rural voters toward right-leaning parties in a general election this year.
Spain's hunting industry is worth an estimated 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion) a year and has a powerful lobby.
The Royal Spanish Hunting Federation, which represents 337,000 hunters, had argued that some sections of the bill, aimed at reducing the number of abandoned animals, would in practice legislate the disappearance of hunting with dogs.
The Socialists nevertheless hailed the law as a "historic advance" and argued that it would protect all animals from mistreatment and abandonment despite not specifically addressing hunting dogs.
About 167,000 dogs were abandoned in Spain in 2021, many following the end of the hunting season, according to Barcelona-based Affinity Foundation.
Dog rescue groups say the law was important to prevent owners from abandoning their canines no longer fit for hunting.
A few charities are coordinating foreign adoption of abandoned hunting dogs such as 'galgo' greyhounds.
(Reporting by Corina Pons, additional reporting by Belen Carreno, editing by Andrei Khalip, Alexandra Hudson)