Formal recognition of animals as sentient is a significant stride for legal protection of animals
In a recent phone conversation with my mentor, a British-trained barrister, I excitedly mentioned how pleased I was about ground-breaking animal law reforms in the UK. For the first time in UK law, animals will finally be formally recognized as sentient beings. I expected to hear something positive, but instead, my mentor sighed and then condemned how ridiculous it is that animal sentience has not already been legally enshrined in 2021.
I could not agree more. Sadly, in most of the world’s legal systems, including Canada, recognizing animals as sentient has not yet happened, and it’s overdue.
Formal recognition of animals as sentient in law is a significant stride forward for the legal protection of animals. It raises animals above the fundamentally flawed categorization as mere property. Sentience laws move animals toward inclusion to access justice. The inclusion of animals in legal systems worldwide is imperative to give animals protections, rights, or in some cases, to be noticed at all. Sentience laws show that humans must take responsibility toward animals seriously and help by implicitly acknowledging that animals can have feelings like joy, pain, fear, that they are aware, that they are living beings.
The May 2021 UK Action Plan for Animal Welfare recognizing animals as sentient is highly relevant in Canada and foreshadows possible legislative changes. Canada has already seen a burgeoning movement in the past few years to reform animal laws with the passing of shark fin bans, amendments to the Criminal Code for bestiality, banning cetaceans in captivity, and 2020, the introduction of the game-changing federal Jane Goodall Act aimed at protection of captive elephants, great apes, prohibitions on the import of elephant ivory and hunting trophies into Canada. Further evidence of recognizing animals is their recent inclusion in the broader definition of family violence in the Divorce Act.
The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in the UK sets out a host of new measures, essentially codifying respect for certain animals into law. The legislation is aimed primarily at companion animals/pets, but it also considers some other animals. These changes have been in the works in animal welfare circles for decades, and arguably the origins go even further back. The UK is somewhat of a world leader in animal law, including passing the western world’s first animal cruelty statute, Martin’s Act, almost 200 years ago in 1822. Shortly after that, Canada passed its first anti-cruelty legislation modelled on UK laws.
When we conceive of animals as sentient, they are then considered living beings via the implementation and formulation of new laws and policies. Without implementation, sentience, while a good label, remains symbolic. In 2015, the Quebec national assembly passed legislation defining animals as sentient beings. While there has been some improvement in animal welfare in Quebec, the change appears to be largely symbolic.
Recognizing animals as sentient in the UK should translate into some concrete animal protection measures, including more substantial penalties for animal cruelty.
APAW reforms include:
- banning the live export of live animals for slaughter and fattening
- possibly prohibiting the sale of foie gras
- microchipping cats
- addressing puppy smuggling
- establishing a task force on pet theft
- banning electric shock collars for pets
- banning primates as pets
- reviewing the importation of hunting trophies from endangered animals
- halting the import and export of detached shark fins
- transportation of farm animals
- restricting glue traps
- crackdowns on hare coursing
- plans to institute an expert animal sentience committee to advise on animal welfare policies.
On the downside, the laws apply only to vertebrates, mostly companion animals, not to cephalopods such as octopi, excluding many animals. I contacted my animal law colleagues at the UK’s Centre for Animal Law to get their take on APAW. While they welcome the new measures, they are concerned with how the legislation will be discharged and underlined problems with excluding groups of animals. They stated that the details would be critical: “Whilst we acknowledge the symbolic importance of recognising animal sentience in law, the real importance of this legislation… is in how to discharge the duty to take into account the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings.”
Despite its faults, APAW is still an excellent start and will keep the UK in line with other European states. Post-Brexit, there was a gap in the UK laws that this legislation fills. Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union: “…since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States…”
Sentience laws are on the rise worldwide. The UK is far from the first country to declare animals as sentient as there are approximately 30 other countries that formally recognize animals. Canada, however, is conspicuously absent from that list. Animal expert, CEO of Humane Canada, Barbara Cartwright, asserts: “Recognizing sentience of animal in our legislative framework is critical...” I’ve spoken with Canadian MP’s about including recognition of animals in legislation, and I am hopeful that we will be seeing some positive changes fairly soon.
Science has made it clear that there’s no rational scope for arguing that animals are anything less than sentient beings. It’s imperative to have laws that reflect this understanding. Canada’s got some legislative catching up for animals to create frameworks accounting for humans’ legal and moral responsibility toward animals and their interests. Now we have a blueprint to help.