Animal sentience

In 1859 Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in a storm of controversy. For the first time, he had demonstrated that humans were evolutionary descendants of non-human animals. We would never look at animals in quite the same way.

With the knowledge that animals are not merely neighbours, but relatives, we began to question the way we treated them. Could it really be the case that animals think, feel and suffer in a similar way to humans?

Arguably, this landmark text marked the first step in what has been steady walk towards the acknowledgment of animal sentience and the need for animal protection.

Key events in animal welfare:

  • 1859: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is published.
  • 1958: The American Humane Slaughter Act is passed.
  • 1976: The European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes is passed.
  • 1992: Switzerland becomes the first country to include protections for animals in its constitution.
  • 1997: EU Protocol recognizes animals as sentient beings and requires countries to pay “full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”.
  • 2010: EU Directive “on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes” is introduced, one of the most stringent ethical and welfare standards worldwide.
  • 2013: EU bans testing cosmetics on animals.

Animal welfare in the news

In the last week of November social media exploded in response to reports that the UK government had failed to recognise animal sentience. There was a lot of anger, followed by a great deal of confusion.

What actually happened and what does it all mean for animal welfare in the UK?

The vote was in relation to an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. More specifically, it resulted in the decision to not incorporate Article 13, which is part of an EU treaty recognising the fact that animals can feel emotion and pain.

Some media organisations interpreted this event as the denial of animal sentience. Cue the public outrage. On hearing this news, some suggested that politicians were the ones lacking sentience!

Subsequent reports on the vote, painted a more balanced picture and the ‘insentient’ politicians in questions rushed to defend their position.

With the furore over, what conclusions can be made? Well, though not as grave an many first thought, last month’s vote is a step backwards. By failing to incorporate Article 13, we revert back to a 2016 law. The main difference is that the duty of care no long lies with the state, but with the owner of the animals.

London, 29 October 2016. The Animals Rights March in organized by London Vegan Action to rise awareness about cruelty and bad influence on the environment of meat production. Por dominika zarzycka |
London, 29 October 2016. The Animals Rights March in organized by London Vegan Action to rise awareness about cruelty and bad influence on the environment of meat production. Por dominika zarzycka |

Animal welfare around the world

These recent events got us thinking about the different aspects of animal welfare and how provision differs around the world.

Central to animal welfare are The Five Freedoms. This is an outline of the five basic rights afforded to animals under human control and was developed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Freedom from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury, and disease; from fear and distress; and to express normal behaviour.

The best place to go for an overview of animal welfare in different countries is theAnimal Protection Index. This interactive website allows you to jump from continent to continent, comparing the various indicators of animal welfare provision.

Countries are scored within seven bands (A-G), with A representing the highest scoring and G the most room for improvement.

Take a look at the World Animal Protection website to see how your country compares!

Theme of protectionUKSpainUSARussia
Animal sentienceACDF
Universal Declaration on Animal WelfareBEEG
Laws against animal sufferingADCD
Animals used in farmingABDE
Animals in captivityBBCE
Animals used for recreationBECE
Animals used in scientific researchABCE
Welfare of wild animalsBCCE
Education on animal protectionFDDD

Looking ahead

From a historical viewpoint, the trend is very much towards greater recognition of animal sentience and improved provision of animal protection. However, as we’ve just seen, legislation is not consistent from one nation to another. And even within countries ranking highly for animal protection, some aspects are completely neglected. In the UK, for example, there is no legislation for the educational component of animal protection.

Having said this, last month’s emotional response to the changes in UK animal welfare laws is nothing if not reassuring. It’s an issue the public really care about and the criticism politicians have received, rightly or wrongly, keeps the pressure on government. Already, the UK government have promised that legal changes will be made to ensure that animal sentience is recognised.

So, while some countries are doing better than others, there’s room for improvement in every context. We all need to stay informed, voice our concerns and keep walking in the right direction.

Punta Arenas, región de Magallanes / Chile - January 18 2016 - Chilean gaucho herding sheep at Patagonia. Por Pablo Rogat |
Punta Arenas, región de Magallanes / Chile – January 18 2016 – Chilean gaucho herding sheep at Patagonia. Por Pablo Rogat |

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