Long before the Miss World crown was a mere glint in her eye, Linda Pétursdóttir was unafraid of speaking up. When she was ten years old, her family moved to Vopnafjörður on Iceland’s east coast where she remembers she immediately had to fight for her beloved pet dog’s very existence.
“There were no dogs allowed in the town, but I still brought mine, and one day it ran out without a leash. The mayor came and told my dad that if it happened again he would have to shoot the dog.” Any other girl might quietly yield to her elders—but not Linda. “When my dad came and told me, I said to him: ‘If the mayor comes here with a rifle, I’ll take it off him and I’ll shoot him!’”
She has always been a dog lover: today she has a cocker spaniel called Sterna. The pictures of other pooches she has kept through the years adorn the walls of her office at Baðhúsið, the Reykjavík beauty spa she has been running for almost two decades after winning Miss Iceland and Miss World beauty pageant crowns in 1988. And it is this that drives her to speak out for animal welfare, most recently campaigning for the rights of animals to be enshrined in the Iceland’s new constitution.
This October, voters in Iceland are set to be asked what they think of the draft for the new constitution—the product of almost two years’ work by the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly—before it returns to Alþingi for full discussion. Article 36 of the current draft explicitly states: “The protection of animals against maltreatment as well as animal species in danger of extinction shall be ensured by law.”
Linda is among the many animal rights activists calling on voters and parliamentarians to guarantee that this protection is built into the new constitution. “We have a very old-fashioned way of thinking about animals in Iceland,” she laments. “I used to live in Vancouver and there it’s like heaven for dogs. There are special beaches for dogs; outside the banks and cafes they have bowls of water; if you go to the petrol station they’ll give you a biscuit if you’ve got a dog in your car. We don’t have any of that here.”
Animal welfare laws
Linda works closely with Árni Stefán Árnason, a lawyer who specialises in animal rights and welfare. “It’s important to have animal rights in the constitution because a constitutional act is of higher authority than statute parliamentary law, but also because the law as it stands is not being upheld,” he says. “We have had animal welfare legislation since 1914, but authorities are not following the law as it stands. The law stipulates a two-year limit on jail-time for cases of animal cruelty, but in many cases anyone convicted only faces a minor fine.”
Like Linda, Árni has history of taking on the law and winning. “I got my first dog when I was about twelve or thirteen. My father was in the town council at Hafnarfjörður, and I made a deal that I would look after the dog if he worked to change the rules to permit dogs in the town.” The ownership of dogs in urban areas in Iceland was restricted for many years until surprisingly recently: “Dogs were restricted in some areas because of fears about tapeworm which they could carry and pass on to humans, potentially causing death.”
For activists however, the issues of animal rights in Iceland go much further than the quality of life for domestic pets. “Factory farming has been increasing rapidly in Iceland in recent decades, and this is our main target because the environments in which farm animals are kept are unnatural and they are made to suffer in tight spaces,” Árni says.
“I’m lending my voice to this campaign because it’s important to educate people about the way animals are being treated in this country. I would like consumers to ask themselves how their dinner ended up on their plate: the way animals are kept, how they are raised, how they are killed,” Linda adds.
“Some farmers insist that animals don’t feel things, that they’re not sentient beings, but they’re so wrong. I’ve been campaigning for animal rights for thirty-five years, and when I look into their eyes as they’re being taken to the slaughterhouse, I can tell that they sense something is coming,” Arni laments.
“Imagine if another race came from Mars that was more intelligent than human beings, and they saw us as animals. They put humans in factories, raise them, kill them and then grill them. What would their argument be to that?”
Persuading consumers to shoulder the higher cost of organic farm produce may seem a challenge, but they believe if consumers were aware of the treatment of animals in factory farms, they would probably reject the product.
Animal rights are already guaranteed in the constitutions of both Germany and India. Even after the public has its say on October 20, Linda and Arni will continue the struggle to make Iceland the next land on the list.