New Zealand's commitment to it's sentient animals: serious or merely symbolic?

 

spin doctor
noun: a spokesperson employed to give a favourable interpretation of events to the media, especially on behalf of a political party.
 
In October 2018, the next instalment of New Zealand's Animal Welfare (Care and Procedures) Regulations came into effect (www.mpi.govt.nz)
 
The word "care" is cleverly used. In fact, it's one of the words that's repeatedly trotted out when there is an intention to suggest that the spokesperson for a party, government, or organisation, is serious about animal welfare. "Responsibility" is another buzzword, and more recently, so is the recognition of animals as "sentient".
 
Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive or experience subjectively. (ie. the animal is not only capable of feeling pain and distress but also can have positive psychological experiences, such as comfort, pleasure or interest that are appropriate to its species, environment and circumstances). To state that animals are sentient accepts that they can experience positive and negative emotions. Putting another way, to state that animals are sentient accepts that they experience pain - AND pleasure.
 
In August 2015, New Zealand’s animal welfare legislation was praised for its legislative recognition of animals as ‘sentient’. It proved to be a hollow step forward, however. The legislators did not provide a definition of "sentience’ in the August 2015 Amendment, and went on record as saying that recognition of animals as sentient was "merely symbolic".  
 
Veterinarians are widely recognised as societies animal health and welfare experts. Upon recognising the legislative gap which had resulted from legislators failing to provide a definition of sentience in the Animal Welfare Act, the New Zealand Veterinary Association provided a definition for the veterinary profession, the public, and (hopefully) the politicians.
 
The Chief Veterinary Officer of the New Zealand Veterinary Association, Dr Helen Beattie, is on record as stating: "The inclusion of ‘sentience’ in the Act should not be merely symbolic but rather should set a new standard for society’s expectations of the ways animals are treated. As a country, we must move beyond minimum standards to focusing on positive welfare states and welfare enhancement. This should be consistent with scientific knowledge and current public expectations of ‘good practice’."
 
rhetoric

 

/ˈrɛtərɪk/
noun: language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content
Three years on from the August 2015 Amendment, what's changed? Nothing. Ignoring the position statement of New Zealand's veterinarians and many critics, the focus of New Zealand's law and its politicians is still on an animal's pain. And three years on, it's obvious that the rhetoric continues: "New Zealand has a reputation for good animal welfare standards....New Zealand relies on export of our animal products to consumers overseas — particularly meat and dairy....The new regulations are another step in the right direction, and we should be proud of our ongoing commitment to making life better for all creatures great and small".
 
paradox
/ˈparədɒks/
noun: a statement or proposition which, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems logically unacceptable or self-contradictory.
 
 
It's true that New Zealand governors need to maintain New Zealand's reputation for good animal welfare standards because that reputation is critical to persuading overseas buyers to buy New Zealand products. But it's a paradox for New Zealand governors to state that New Zealand is serious about animal welfare, and deserving of praise for legislatively recognising animals as sentient, while New Zealand's commitment to animal sentience remains unchanged as "merely symbolic".
 
 
For those who subscribe to recognising that animals experience not just pain but also pleasure, then there is a simple but arguably very effective solution to really "make life better" for New Zealand's sentient animals. The solution is to persuade New Zealand's current government to address the gap left by its predecessor by providing a legislative definition of sentience. The definition would appropriately go in section 2 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999, and state "sentience means that animals experience pain and pleasure". In law's powerhouse of words, that seven-word definition opens the door to enormous practical and positive effects on the daily lives of animals, as well as providing substantial secondary benefits to the safety and well-being of people. 
 
Put succinctly, it would ultimately mean that today's optional animal care and husbandry standards of "best practice" would be tomorrow's mandatory "minimum standards". In addition to protecting animals from unreasonable and unnecessary pain or distress ("negative states of welfare"), those responsible for animals would also be legally obliged to provide animals with "opportunities for pleasure ("positive states of welfare").
 
One more thing. It's important to realise that today's better farmers and pet owners are examples of those who are already voluntarily meeting those standards of "best practice". So advanced standards of animal care are realistically achievable...
 
 
... but of course, the commitment to animal welfare and the life experience of the animal would have to be genuine - rather than "merely symbolic".
 
 
 
 
More information on New Zealand's new regulations can be found on the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) website: www.mpi.govt.nz
 
Related websites include:
http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1999/0142/56.0/DLM49669.html
http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1806/S00354/the-animal-welfare-act-must-protect-animals.htm
http://www.animal-law.biz/node/1269
https://www.nzva.org.nz/news/407325/NZVA-statement-The-Animal-Welfare-Act-must-protect-animals.htm
 

Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive or experience subjectively. (ie. the animal is not only capable of feeling pain and distress but also can have positive psychological experiences, such as comfort, pleasure or interest that are appropriate to its species, environment and circumstances).