A recent media release stated: "Under the proposed laws the ACT would become the first jurisdiction in the country to recognise animals as "sentient...". The ACT has reportedly furthered it's intention to see animals legislatively recognised as sentient. But how is "sentience" being defined?
The same media article defined it this way:"Under the proposed laws the ACT would become the first jurisdiction in the country to recognise animals as "sentient beings" — the idea that animals are able to feel and perceive the world". (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-13/canberra-animal-laws-fine-owners-...)
For you, does it raise the question "Yes we know that animals feel, but what do they feel"?
You could start with the answer that animals feel "pain" and "distress". In fact, the law agreed that animals feel pain and distress 200 years ago - that's when the first animal protection law was introduced. That same acknowledgment continues to be clearly evident in jurisdictions that have animal protection law. In those jurisdictions the human caregiver broadly has a responsibility to protect animals from feeling pain or distress that the Courts consider to be unreasonable or unnecessary. But do animals feel more than pain or distress?
Have another look at the media article for answers to that question. There's a line in the article, for example, that says: "I know with my dog he gets very excited when we're about to go on a run". What's implied in that sentence is that animals feel excitement too. Perhaps it doesn't stop at excitement? Maybe animals experience emotions like joy, interest, and pleasure as well? The science of the Five Domains validates that animals indeed experience negative states (e.g. pain and distress) AND positives states (e.g. comfort, interest and pleasure). So why not define sentience in a way that takes responsibility for not just their negative states, but their positive ones as well?
Well, look at the concerns and confusion shown in the media article, associated with recognising animals as sentient:
- "...recognition of sentience was a good place to start enforcing animal rights:;
- "...It's more about protecting animals from people who can harm them, than giving animals better opportunities";
- "It could get in the way of the economy...Farmers spend money on the animal if it gets them more money, it's a profit thing, it's not a sentimental value, it's an economic value."
Do you agree with those views? All of them? Parts of them? None of it?
So does the law's recognition of animals as sentient go far enough in protecting them and giving them a good life? IAL Director Ian Robertson says that "the law can do more" to give animals a better life. "Given the inseparable relationship between animals and people," says Robertson, "it's helpful to recognise that better conditions for animals translates to enormous benefits for people too".
According to Robertson, Canberra is definitely on the right track in legislatively recognising animals as sentient, but "recognition of animals as sentient must be accompanied by a clear, up-to-date and practical definition to avoid becoming just a well-intended but impotent paper-tiger".
"Law is a "house of words" says Robertson, "so getting the right definition is critical to securing potetial benefits for people and animals alike. It follows that a definition that misses the mark will not only fail to secure those potential benefits, but actually risks making things worse by, for example, confusing sentience with notions of rights, existing protections, and property status".
How would YOU be defining "sentience" in society's rulebook (aka, "the law") to make sure it is clear, up-to-date, and makes a practical difference to the daily lives of animals?
In 2019 the Australian Capital Territory ("ACT") amended it's law to recognise sentience COMPLETE WITH a statement clearly setting out what "sentience" means: "The concept of animals as sentient beings reflects that animals have the ability to subjectively feel and perceive the world around them and are capable of experiencing both positive and negative states". (The words highlighted in bold are the key elements of a legislative definition of sentience).
The amendment puts the ACT at the current leader amongst all other jurisdictions in Australia and New Zealand in terms of a legislative recognition of sentience that is applicable and pragmatically effective in elevating standards of animal welfare, and addressing wider social, economic and environmental issues associated with the human-animal relationship.