Rewriting the rule-book from the roots up

International Animal Law ("IAL") is now a registered charity with a focus on seeing legislation recognise AND properly define animal "sentience".

Have you heard the old saying that goes along the lines "for every thousand working on the leaves, there is one working on the roots"? IAL takes the view that sentience - particularly recent discussions about sentience in law - is a potential turn-key for change that would elevate the standards governing the inseparable relationship between people, animals, and their shared planet

Law (aka "society's rulebook") governs that relationship with words. Indeed, law has been called "a house of words". Co-founder of IAL, Barrister Ian Robertson, call's law a "power-house" of words "because law has the power to stipulate what people must, or must not, do and applies penalties for non-compliance". Robertson says "in contrast to ethical and moral views, law can take away your money, your property and even your freedom". The qualifier, is that law needs to be clear in order to be understood by those who are subject to it, and applicable by those enforcing it. 

This means that legal definitions, either set out in legislation or developed through the process of legal precedent, are central to achieving that necessary level of clarity.

IAL has repeatedly presented to contrasting audiences to demonstrate that legislative recognition (alone) of sentience based on a defintion that animals "feel things" is a good start, but needs to provide a much clearer definition if it's to actually effect change to the daily lives of animals.

Like all definitions there are "essential elements" of sentience for it to be fit for legal purposes, and keep up with "good practice" and the "scientific knowledge" of the Five Domains. IAL advocates for a legislative definition of sentience that states: "Sentience means that animals experience negative and positive [physical, mental and emotional] states".

Co-founder of the IAL charity, legal academic Daniel Goldsworthy,  says that the impact of recognising the positive states of animals in addition to their negative states, will not mean that business will stop. Goldsworthy says "a full legislative definition of sentience that gives animals a life enjoyed rather than simply focusing on what they endure, would mean that today's standards of best practice would become tomorrow's standard practice". He goes on to state "it's important to realise that the better caregivers are already applying standards of best practice in a manner that provides animals with opportunities for pleasure - that validates that taking responsibility for an animal's positive state rather than just it's negative state, is realistic and attainable. Additionally, given their inseparable relationship, a full legislative defintion of sentience is a practical way of delivering enormous benefits, on a daily basis, to animals and people alike".

In 2019 the Australian Capital Territory ("ACT") amended its 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 full legislative acknowledgement-plus-definition of sentience that enables practical effective change, and mirrors the definition proposed by IAL.

The amendment puts the ACT as the current leader amongst all other jurisdictions in Australia and New Zealand in terms of moving beyond a 200-year-old responsibility for just the negative "things" that animals feel.

Victoria (Australia) is currently implementing reforms which are contemplating the issue of animal sentience. 

Goldsworthy says "The ACT has set the bar for other jurisdictions and it is anticipated that Victoria will also join the ACT in that leadership position. IAL hopes that other Australasian and international jurisdictions will join the ACT in rewriting the rulebook to ensure animals have a life enjoyed, not just endured".

For further information on animal sentience see:

  1. 'To feel or not to feel; that is the legal question' [2017] NZLJ 10, 13
  2. Improving animal welfare (Australian Veterinary Association)
  3. Sentience Position Statement (New Zealand Veterinary Association)
  4. Animal Sentience Workshop Report
  5. Defining “sentience” in the Animal Welfare Act 1999 (New Zealand)
  6. Environmental enrichment of dairy cows and calves in indoor housing
  7. The Lisbon Treaty: Recognising animal sentience
  8. How does animal legislation and the concept of sentience translate?
  9. Applying “Sentience” in the Animal Welfare Act 1999