By Corina Pons
MADRID (Reuters) -A draft law aimed at strengthening animal rights in Spain is exposing divisions within the ruling Socialist Party's electoral base amid warnings it risks outlawing hunting with dogs.
The proposed law would overhaul the treatment of domesticated and wild animals in captivity, with plans to ban the sale of pets in shops, convert zoos into wildlife recovery centres and impose prison sentences for abusers.
However, Spain's ruling Socialist party, which introduced the draft in 2022, was forced to back pedal last month after an outcry in rural areas that have historically represented a key voter base ahead of elections at the end of this year.
The Royal Spanish Hunting Federation, which represents 337,000 hunters, has argued sections of the bill, aimed at cutting the number of abandoned animals, would effectively legislate hunting out of existence.
Fearing the issue could push rural voters toward right-leaning parties in a general election later this year, the Socialists in December defied their coalition partner, the far-left Podemos, and submitted a last-minute amendment to exclude hunting dogs and other animals involved in traditional rural activities.
In Spain, dogs are used to track or catch animals such as deer, wild boar and rabbits. The hunting industry generates more than 5 billion euros ($5.42 billion) a year in economic activity, figures from Deloitte show.
"We care a lot about the countryside, we understand hunting," Socialist lawmaker Begoña Nasarre, who is also the mayor of a village in northeastern Spain, said in a committee session in parliament. "We want to legislate for everyone."
Backers of the bill say most dog abandonments occur in the countryside. About 167,000 dogs were abandoned in Spain in 2021, many following the end of the hunting season, according to the Affinity Foundation, a Barcelona-based non-governmental organisation.
"This is a huge step backwards," Rocio Arrabal, 36, director of a rescue foundation in southern Spain, said of the amendment. "The hunting lobby has more power than us."
Spain's Socialists have traditionally enjoyed strong support in rural areas. Alongside their historical rivals, the People's Party, they have secured the majority of votes in towns and villages with less than 2,000 inhabitants, according to official electoral data.
But the Socialists must also compete with Podemos for left-leaning urban voters concerned about animal welfare.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's party relies on votes from junior coalition partner Podemos - as well as from Catalan and Basque nationalist parties - to push through legislation in parliament.
Sergio Garcia Torres, a Podemos official who drafted the bill, said the Socialists must retract the amendment, arguing that it could fail to pass in a February parliamentary session because the exclusion of working animals means it no longer addresses the root causes of animal abandonment.
"We expect the Socialist party to return to the consensus," Garcia Torres said. "There is no guarantee of parliamentary support to take the law forward if you exclude hunting dogs."
Jose Maria Mancheño, the president of the federation of hunting associations in Andalusia in southern Spain, said the failure to understand the role hunting plays in the countryside demonstrates how some Socialists have evolved into a more urban force.
"The Socialists in my village see it as normal for me to go hunting on Sunday, but a Socialist in Madrid might not see it as normal," he said.
IMPOSSIBLE TO COMPLY
The bill proposes that owners must train pets, including dogs, to avoid harming other animals. It also obliges owners to acquire permits for breeding animals - clauses hunters and dog breeders say would be almost impossible for them to comply with.
Spain's main veterinarians' association said the bill also asks too much of pet owners by, for example, preventing an animal from being put down if the possibility of palliative treatment exists.
"As it stands, it is easier to euthanise a person than an animal," Maria Luisa Fernandez, president of the association, said.
Pablo Salido, owner of Daisy, a greyhound, said he feared her days as a hare courser could be over if the law includes rural animals.
"They just want to limit and prohibit, without knowing what they are talking about," the farmer said at a December competition in a field in Castilla La Mancha, in central Spain.
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(Reporting by Corina Pons, Miguel Gutierrez and Nacho Doce; Editing by Charlie Devereux and Sharon Singleton)