The Importance Of Sentience In Animal Legislation
“Sentience” is the ability to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively. For many years it was a commonly held notion that animals were not sentient. This was used to excuse what was often the horrendous and torturous actions of humans against animals. In some parts of the world, the lack of recognition of sentience in animals remains a widespread and firmly held belief. Yet, over recent decades, scientists working in the field of animal sentience have proven what many of us instinctively knew about animals’ feelings – that they perceive life around them and experience what happens to them.
Comprehensive studies have shown that many animals can feel negative and positive emotions, such as pain, suffering, joy or pleasure. Even complex feelings that were often thought (by some people) to be unique to humans, such as grief, empathy and jealousy, have been proven in some species. With this in mind, it is clear that science has a key role to play to inform and support the construction of laws protecting the welfare of animals.
For example, numerous cases of interspecies friendship have been reported across the animal kingdom, helping highlight that non-human animals experience emotions in a similar way to humans. In a 2011 TED talk, Professor Frans De Waal, a pioneer in animal empathy, explained how primates and other mammals tend to opt for behaviors like reconciliation and cooperation, underpinning a “moral sense” approach. Last year a study was published reporting observations of play behavior in fish (1). And in 2012, Custance and Mayer’s study found that dogs show an empathic-like response to distress in humans (2).
Animal protectionists often instinctively dislike scientists that work with animals, assuming that studies involving animals cause them suffering. While this is true for a great many animals used in science, however, it is not always the case. Many investigations can be carried out in situ or do not need to induce mental and/or physical harm. And when scientists are working in an ethical manner to show sentience in animals we should be sure to support and promote their findings.
Thanks to the results of scientific studies and due to the hard work of animal advocates, a growing number of countries have recognized sentience within their animal welfare laws over recent years. Some have specifically stated it as the rationale behind affording legal protection to a broad range of animals. Tanzania’s Animal Welfare Act 2008 specifically acknowledges that “an animal is a sentient being,” and says that “a human being has a moral obligation to care, respect and protect an animal.” It classes “animals” as all vertebrates and invertebrates other than humans.
The inclusion of sentience language in animal legislation should be welcomed by animal advocates because it strengthens the protection offered. Such legislation is likely to result in the development of policies that prohibit human interactions that cause negative emotions in animals, while encouraging circumstances that result in positive emotions. Over recent years, sentience language has been working its way into some significant national laws. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Law on Animal Protection and Welfare 2009 states that the law applies to all animals with developed senses and nervous systems for registering sense stimulants which can lead to feeling pain. Also in Europe, Norway’s 2009 Animal Welfare Act “applies to conditions which affect the welfare of or respect for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, decapods, squid, octopi and honey bees. The Act applies equally to the development stages of the animals referred to in cases where the sensory apparatus is equivalent to the developmental level in living animals.”
Traditionally, many countries state within their main animal protection law that causing the “suffering” of animals is prohibited. But each of those laws are only applicable to the types of animals it includes as protected by the legislation. Often, they only cover a very limited range of animals, such as “domestic animals” or a specific list of animal types, or they provide exclusions that omit protections for large groups of animals (e.g., animals used for food and research). As sentience is proven across wider range of species, the significance of these laws is severely restricted as they do not have the flexibility to adapt to the revelations of science.
It is important that animal protection laws are applicable to as many non-human species as possible, and science’s confirmation of sentience in more animals is assisting this legislative progress. Slovenia’s 2007 animal protection law states that it applies to all animals with senses that respond to external stimuli, and that have developed a nervous system to feel pain. This Act is applicable to vertebrate animals and other animals in relation to the level of their sensitivity, in accordance with established experience and scientific knowledge. The U.K.’s Animal Welfare Act 2006 also states that the law’s definition of “animal” may be extended by regulation to include invertebrates or animals at earlier stages of development, where there is scientific evidence that the animals are capable of experiencing pain and suffering. Likewise, Switzerland’s federal council is authorized to expand their animal welfare law to include other animals if they are also found to be sentient.
Once a country recognizes and appreciates that animals are sentient beings, deserving of legal protection that minimizes any harm they experience, this understanding should underpin and reflect in the construction of their laws. The simple insertion of sentience language in key texts can ensure legislators base their formulation of policy on preserving animal welfare, and that the public are certain as to the necessity for protection. It also serves as a reminder to enforcers of animal laws of the importance of their role; though it is worth noting that in many countries there is a serious lack of adequate enforcement of animal law, even where the legislation itself is well written.
Science continues to reveal the wonders of the animal kingdom and the complexities of emotions they experience, but there is a long way to go to prove – at least scientifically – sentience across a wider variety of species. Further humane scientific studies are needed to ensure that all sentient beings are acknowledged. And animal advocates must encourage legislators to formulate laws and develop policies that reflect these developments in science, so that even more animals are protected to a greater degree. We must ensure that changes to the protection of animals is supported by science, but that it is not scientists who tell us when society can start to treat a particular species better. The default in all cases should be that no harm can be caused to any animal unless they are categorically and unequivocally proved non-sentient.
1) Burghardt, G. M., Dinets, V., Murphy, J. B. (2015), Highly Repetitive Object Play in a Cichlid Fish (Tropheus duboisi). Ethology, 121: 38–44.
2) Custance, D., Mayer, J. (2012). Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study, Animal Cognition, 2012 May 29.