Does a commitment to animal welfare require a declaration of animal sentience? (New Zealand)

The following is an opinion piece written by, and kindly forwarded by, Chief Executive of the Auckland (New Zealand) SPCA. In his article, Bob Kerridge states:


"There is a fundamental, and crucial, step that must be undertaken to test the sincerity of the sentiment that ‘animal welfare matters’, and that is to declare all animals as sentient beings".

 

THE SENTIENT CHALLENGE
 
A few weeks ago the Herald editorial featured the heading ‘Animal Welfare can no longer be overlooked’, triggered somewhat by the furore over the alleged mistreatment of animals during the filming of The Hobbit, fuelled by the International animal agitators PETA.
 
It was not so much the editorial content of the editorial that struck a chord with me, but rather more the headline. The notion that animal welfare is often overlooked in so many things is very real, as evidenced by the many battles I have found it necessary to fight to seek fair justice and ultimate protection on their behalf.
 
Just as the sentiment of that headline excited the animal welfarist within me, there have been other signals through the year that suggest important attitudinal changes to animals may be on the way. In a communication the Prime Minister he stated : ‘(I) assure you that animal welfare is an absolute priority for my Government’. That assurance may have a certain amount of truth to it with the emergence of an important paper from his Department of Primary Industries, (MPI), as a forerunner to a review of the Animal Welfare Act (1999), entitled Animal Welfare Matters.
 
However, why is it that I still feel a certain degree of scepticism, in that these words may well be empty platitudes which may do very little to enhance the lives of animals in New Zealand.
 
The question must be asked : What can we do to turn those words into action ? 
 
There is a fundamental, and crucial, step that must be undertaken to test the sincerity of the sentiment that ‘animal welfare matters’, and that is to declare all animals as sentient beings.
 
The English word ‘sentient’ comes from the Latin, dating back to 1632, meaning to perceive or feel, to be capable of awareness or physical sensations. In theology and metaphysics it is used to describe the precious value of all life, as sentients are all alive and feeling beings ‘with conscious perceptions which are capable of experiencing pain and suffering’. There is no justifiable reason why animals should not be included given those descriptions.
 
The 18th Century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation wrote of animals : ‘The question is not, can they reason, nor, can they talk, but, can they suffer?’ Andrew Linzey, Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics notes that people rarely argue that animals do not suffer. ‘Rather, they argue that animal suffering matters less, if at all, because animals are different to human beings’. The moral relevance of that has to be why should we differentiate humans from other animals on the grounds they are humans, when both
are sentient beings capable of feeling.
 
If at this stage you are feeling a little uncomfortable being asked to consider animals as being no different to ourselves, in the sentient sense, and in their ability to feel pain, just as we do, they are.
 
The recognition of animal sentience is Internationally recorded having been written into the basic law of the European Union in 1997, carrying a legally-binding protocol recognising animals as sentient beings, and requiring the Union, and its member states, to ‘pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals’.
 
Accordingly, not only do we have an ethical and moral reason to traverse this path, but also, it would seem, we have a legal obligation as well.
 
So, when it comes time to review our Animal Welfare Act, a declaration recognising animals as sentient beings should be way up there, right at the beginning, with the contents to follow reflecting the true essence of our obligation to animals.
 
With that philosophy fully enshrined in our Act, no-one would even countenance the killing of dogs to test party pills, so the users of this non-essential ‘recreational’ drug can feel ‘safe’, as has been suggested.
 
Come to think of it, why would this new law allow the continued suffering of 327,674 animals annually, such as was recently reported, to undertake animal experimentation, when alternatives can be sought to replace the need for it.
 
And would we tolerate a further ten years of the on-going cruelty inflicted on over three million layer hens in battery cages, to then move them to colony batteries in very similar circumstances, such as their recently released ‘code of welfare’ suggests ?
 
And that’s just the beginning!
 
If animal welfare really matters we would not have laws that allow such practices, and others like them, to exist, in recognition of the sentient nature of all life, both human, and animal, to ensure that they don’t.
 
Bob Kerridge is Executive Director SPCA Auckland, National President Royal New Zealand SPCA and Founder/Patron New Zealand Companion Animal Council