Animal sentience. What does the life of an animal mean?

Posted on 01 November 2019 by

Steve McIvor

In the recent Queen’s speech, the government restated its commitment to consider animal welfare and sentience when creating and implementing new laws. This of course, is great news. World Animal Protection, alongside 41 other animal welfare charities have been campaigning for sentience to be recognised in law, to replace the EU regulations which will cease to apply in the UK after Brexit. It’s a step in the right direction, but we must constantly strive for better lives for animals. Every day I read another horror story about how animals have suffered extreme cruelty at the hands of humans, and I wonder – how did we reach this point?

As the CEO of a global animal welfare organisation, I’m acutely aware of the many abuses of animals, and how they have been reduced to little more than commodities. If you’re not convinced, consider this. Our latest study took a snapshot of the situation between 2011 – 2015 for Africa’s wildlife, focusing on the most traded ‘big 5’ and ‘little 5’ animals. We found that over a million larger animals including zebras, elephants and hippos lost their lives - many in barbaric ways - just so their skins could be used in fashion and décor. Also, over 1.5 million small animals, such as tortoises and parrots, were snatched from the wild and exported for the exotic pet trade, destined to spend the rest of their lives in display tanks or cages. That’s if they survive the perilous and traumatic journey, and many don’t.

These new findings all go against a bleak backdrop of more cruelty. Every day up to 3,000 elephants kept in captivity are forced to give people rides or perform in shows to crowds of tourists. Industrial farming causes misery to around 50 billion animals. Misery so severe that sentient animals such as pigs are confined in gestation crates so small they can’t even turn to bond with their piglets. This breaks my heart given their intelligence is comparable to that of the dogs who often get to share our homes. The scene is also grim for big cats - around 6,000 tigers languish in cages in China alone, awaiting their fate to be processed into medicine. In South Africa farmed lions are released in confined areas, so gun-toting trophy hunters can kill them for ‘sport’ – because apparently, it’s ‘just a bit of fun’.


Our recent short film sought to draw deeper attention to the widespread abuse, cruelty and mistreatment of animals. Here, our follow-up making of film sheds more light on some of the issues at play in the vital relationships between people and animals and the suffering and cruelty endured by animals.

Does the life of an animal mean nothing at all?


The lives of animals

What we are doing to animals never fails to astonish me, because people around the world also believe they love them. Care for them. Look at them. Keep them. Dress them up. Train them to talk. Teach them to do tricks. Stare at them in a tank. Use them as photo props. Peer at them behind bars. Watch them fight. Eat them. Hunt them. So, where does that line between care and cruelty get crossed?

We as humans can generally distinguish right from wrong, good from evil. But it seems we’ve lost our way, and we have reached the point where the life of an animal often means nothing at all. So, I wonder – how will generations to come, judge us?

It seems that right now, we’re at a turning point. We’ve reached that stage, where shameful behaviour towards animals has crept into our everyday lives.

For centuries the meat and dairy industry in industrial farms has prioritised low costs for consumers but that’s come at a high price for the welfare of animals. Many will never see the light of day, most will never walk on grass, some will have painful mutilation procedures such as beak clipping and teeth removal – millions are guaranteed a miserable life. This is suffering at scale. But now, we are starting to see a shift – as more people become aware of this suffering and demand higher welfare products or cut down or cut out animal-based food products entirely.

Overseas travel has grown, and with it, wildlife experiences are widely documented on social media. But this again has meant that animals have paid the price, with dolphins kept in barren concrete tanks to be used in shows, tigers drugged to be used as photo props for selfies, and people wanting to ride elephants for the authentic experience. But again, we are starting to see a shift. The popularity of these experiences has started to decline, with over 230 travel companies now ditching elephant entertainment tours.

As for ‘man’s best friend’ – dogs are rounded up and culled – by electrocution, poison, or beatings, often in the name of rabies prevention, despite countless studies showing this is both cruel and ineffective in tackling the disease. Mass dog vaccination schemes and humane population management though do offer an increasingly adopted solution.

We need to bulldoze over our current approach toward animals and start again. We need to rebuild in a way that acknowledges animals as sentient beings – not simply ours to do with as we please. We know that more and more people are recognising animal sentience as the evidence continues to stack up. And we know that so many of the wrongs commited to animals aren’t malicious or intentional – in the most parts, they’re driven by ignorance and careless curiosity.  

We, as humans, are causing immense suffering on a global scale. But we have an amazing opportunity, to be the generation that made change happen and create a more harmonious world for people and animals. So please, next time you engage in any activity involving an animal – ask yourself – what does this mean for the animal?

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