Last week MPs, debating the EU Withdrawal Bill, voted to reject a clause recognising animals as sentient beings. It was a somewhat marginal vote, at 313 to 295, undoubtedly one of many quiet decisions being made behind parliamentary doors, but it caused a storm among animal rights groups.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the news of such a vote is a hoax: it seems an archaic conclusion and, for my part, I’m a little dumbfounded. The definition of sentience is a capacity to feel or perceive, and to suggest any animal doesn’t fit that description shows a level of obliviousness that I can’t quite comprehend. Our understanding of animals as compassionate, responsive and cognisant beings is growing all the time and a decision not to encapsulate this in UK law surely goes against all that we’ve learned. At best this decision is nonsensical; at worst it raises troublesome questions around animal welfare.
Those who rejected the clause tell us it’s covered by the Animal Welfare Act: but the Act doesn’t mention sentience. This worries me: when we deny animals’ ability to feel, we open the door to reduced rigour in wider welfare laws that are there to protect those animals. I’m of the mind that our duty of care is not limited to their physical state, as surely a quality of life is also dependent on factors that influence mental wellbeing.
Working in the agricultural sector, my immediate concerns relate to livestock farming. Sadly, the image many of us have of bright-eyed happy animals in lush green fields is far from reality all too often, as a shocking number of animals are still raised in intensive indoor farms. These animals don’t enjoy what I would consider a good quality of life, largely because they are unable to present natural behaviours like grazing, pecking, foraging, exercising or simply enjoying the air and sun. Animals in intensive systems aren’t necessarily unhealthy physically, but I would argue that their emotional health suffers. My concern is that, by disregarding their sentience, we suggest intensive farming is acceptable. This would be a huge step backwards.
Beyond farming, a rejection of sentience raises red flags for our treatment of animals across the board: zoos, circus animals, breeding, pet care services, wild animal encounters…we interact with animals, and have a direct impact on their lives, in so many ways. And if their mental wellbeing in these situations goes unprotected, where do we stand when our human influence causes distress? Morally we may still recognise that animals have both an emotional and conscious reaction, but legally would we be obliged to ignore it?
Ask any pet owner if their animal feels pain, grief, fear, joy: I can all but guarantee their answer will be an unhesitating “yes”. It’s hard to deny that a dog experiences delight when greeting its owner, or anxiety when that owner is gone for a long period of time. And most cat owners would tell you that their pet recognises human sadness or ill-health and responds to it with affection that could well be classed as concern.
The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Studies of animals in the wild have shown us the extent of their ability to care, grieve, play, problem-solve and much more. Elephants are a perfect example: they nurture and care for young with tenderness, have been seen grieving over lost family members, and are now known to recognise other individuals and families that they haven’t seen for years (as the old proverb goes, ‘elephants never forget’!) Anyone who’s been watching Blue Planet II has seen dolphins playing games in the waves or with pieces of coral, activities researchers have concluded they do for the sheer joy of it. And if you’ve visited a zoo and witnessed one of its residents pacing their enclosure, you will probably have questioned the emotional state of that animal.
I’m sure the MPs voting last week can’t have predicted that such a small decision would cause such a big wave, and I’m certainly not alone in calling for recognition of animal sentience to be formally recognised again. But with so much work still to be done to transfer EU law into UK legislation, it makes me wonder where else we might end up falling short post-Brexit…