So according to Buzzfeed, a political story with the concept of animal sentience at its core has become ‘the most viral politics article of 2017’. There has been much written about the reporting and misreporting of the parliamentary vote on Caroline Lucas’ amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, but as far as I am concerned the raising of the profile of animal sentience is a very useful fallout and may in the long run prove beneficial for animal welfare - as long as all those who care about animals maintain political pressure on the topic.
Why, one might ask, is the concept of animal sentience so important? Is it not the case, as some who have defended the vote against Lucas’ amendment argue, that it is already covered in UK animal welfare law? Surely we should be reassured by Michael Gove and others’ indications that they want to ensure that ‘Brexit delivers not just for the British people, but for animals too’?
The concept of animal sentience is the recognition that animals experience emotions beyond simple pain and suffering. Their emotions and experiences are more complex than this; Broom (2006) defines a sentient being as ‘one that has some ability: to evaluate the actions of others in relation to itself and third parties, to remember some of its own actions and their consequences, to assess risk, to have some feelings and to have some degree of awareness’. Because of this, what we do to animals and how we make them live matters to them, because as sentient individuals, they experience their lives, and these experiences can be positive and negative. Sentient animals have an individual welfare that has importance to them irrespective of their use by, or impact upon, humans. The concept of animal sentience is an acknowledgement that animals have complex emotional lives, their own interests, and an individual value beyond their utility to us.
This is not, as some on the right of the political and media spectrum might claim, ‘loony leftist sentimentalism’. This is accepted science, and the incorporation of the concept into the European Union Lisbon Treaty of 2009 was a major win for animal welfare science and for animals. It provided a foundation for improvement of animal welfare beyond the simple avoidance of pain and suffering.
So surely, as claimed, the UK Animal Welfare Act (2006) acknowledges this? In actual fact, although the Act was good legislation for its time (now being over a decade old), it does not explicitly acknowledge sentience. The Act does recognise that animals have needs beyond the very basics of food and shelter, for example for company of their own kind, and it does focus on the avoidance of pain and suffering, but it does not recognise animal interests to the full extent compatible with the sentience concept. Perhaps even more worrying, the Animal Welfare Act (2006) only applies to domestic animals, not free-living wild animals, and animals used in research are exempted from its provisions under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Therefore the concept of sentience is not incorporated into UK animal welfare legislation, and withdrawal from the Treaty of Lisbon without Lucas’ amendment (or an alternative with similar effect) will deny UK animals this level of recognition and protection.
So what is the way forward now? It is very clear to me that despite claims to the contrary by those in government, UK animal welfare law does not explicitly recognise animal sentience. Action is required to incorporate the concept into UK law if we withdraw from the Treaty of Lisbon. If amendment to existing legislation is required, pressure must be brought to bear on government to make sure this happens before the UK leaves the European Union- assurances that it will be considered in due course are not enough. The good news is that the outcry over the voting down of Lucas’ amendment has hugely raised the profile of animal sentience as a concept, and politicians are having to respond. The recognition of sentience at the national level could also have a meaningful ripple effect in our regional and local politics. The Animal Welfare Party now has its first-ever councillor in the shape of Jane Smith (Alsager, Cheshire), who has pointed out that “enshrining sentience into UK law means that non-human animals would be able to be more fully represented in human decision-making at the local as well as national level; after all, every factory farm, abattoir, zoo, research laboratory and hunt fall under the auspices of one local council or another - and every one of them involves complex sentient beings whose rights must be considered”.
We must not see the keystone concept of animal sentience, at the core not only of improvement, but even mere maintenance of animal welfare, lost under the sheer weight of parliamentary time taken up by Brexit. If this does happen, and UK animals lose the legal acknowledgment of their sentience afforded to EU animals, the UK government stands open to the accusation that they place a higher priority on leaving the EU (and securing free trade agreements) than on protecting the welfare of sentient animals. In other words, entering a race to the bottom in animal welfare standards.
This would be a deeply shameful outcome for a country which once led the improvement of animal welfare in Europe.