Why sentience is at the heart of animal welfare

Posted on 24/11/2017 by George White

The UK Government has promised to preserve animal sentience in UK law after Brexit. Here's why this is so important.

Do animals feel pain or experience emotion? Thanks to Brexit, the subject of animal sentience has dominated the headlines this week.

It was initially (and misleadingly) reported by some publications that MPs had voted to leave animal sentience out of the EU Withdrawal Bill, effectively denying that animals are sentient beings. The Government has been forced to clarify and defend its position, giving reassurance that the sentience of animals will be protected by UK law after we leave the EU (which currently enshrines animal sentience under Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty).

The public outcry in response to those initial reports reaffirms the fact that we are a nation that holds dear the idea that animals are feeling, thinking creatures.

But having scientific evidence of the sentience of animals is what enables organisations like ours to argue that their welfare should be protected. It is the moral basis for the laws that exist today providing protections to animals, and what we use to lobby governments and industries to go further to reduce the suffering of animals on farms, in communities and in the wild.

Here are just some examples of how animal sentience is at the heart of our campaigning work.


Dogs can read human emotions

Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated by humans over 15,000 years ago, so it’s no surprise that we feel such a close connection with our four legged friends. But did you know that dogs have learned to distinguish between positive and negative facial expressions on humans? With such a powerful bond, we feel a sense of duty to protect dogs around the world. That’s why this Christmas we’re focusing on homeless dogs in Romania. Find out more about how you can support our partners to treat sick and injured dogs and keep them safe while we find them new homes: www.worldanimalprotection.org.uk/homeless-dogs-suffering-winter


Using sentience to take on the bear bile industry

Having the scientific evidence to demonstrate that animal cruelty is taking place has been particularly crucial in our work to protect bears. Since the 1990s World Animal Protection has been working to end bear cruelty and exploitation in captivity and in the wild, which has seen the organisation tackling exploitative practices such as bear baiting, bile-farming, and dancing bears.

When taking on the bear bile trade in Asia, it was our rigorous scientific evidence, combined with horrific undercover footage, that enabled us to successfully challenge the industry’s assertions that their practices were humane. While working to end these atrocities, we also support sanctuaries that provide refuge for the bears rescued from exploitation and abuse. You can visit one of these sanctuaries as part of our Volunteer with Bears trip.


Pigs enjoy listening to music

Research into the sentience of pigs has shown that these are smart, sociable animals, who even enjoy listening to music. Like dogs, they wag their tails in enjoyment, and hold their ears back when they are distressed. Incredibly, these reactions have been observed in pigs even when they are witnessing other pigs experiencing something positive or negative, showing that they are highly empathetic. The upshot? That pig farms, where pigs are housed in close confinement, cannot meet even the basic needs of these complex creatures. That’s why we’re using our sentience research to demonstrate to farmers and governments how they need to improve their practices.


Fish are more complex than you might think

We often tell forgetful people they have a memory ‘like a goldfish’, but in fact fish have been shown to retain positive and negative memories associated with their environment. You only need to watch Blue Planet 2 to get a sense of the complexity of the lives of fish and other marine animals – something we are only beginning to understand. Researchers have found that fish displayed a preference for a certain side of their tank when they had been rewarded by food in that area in the past. They have also been observed demonstrating behaviours that suggest they are bored when they are alone, indicating that they have social needs.

The sentience of fish and other marine animals, and their right to be protected from suffering, is one reason we launched our Sea Change campaign. Through this work we are aiming to eliminate ghost fishing gear from our oceans, which causes untold suffering to marine animals. Find out about our latest activity here: www.worldanimalprotection.org.uk/sea-change-action


Elephants are self-aware

How do you measure an animal’s self-awareness? Until recently, researchers used experiments involving mirrors to evaluate whether the animal could recognise its own reflection. But a 2017 study designed a way of showing that elephants were aware of the relationship between their own bodies and other objects around them. The more evidence we can amass about the intelligence and sensitivity of wild animals like elephants, the stronger a case we can build to end their exploitation for profit and entertainment. This is the basis of our Wildlife: Not Entertainers campaign, which is working to end the cruelty of elephants and other wild animals being forced to perform or pose for photographs for the entertainment of tourists. Show your support here: www.worldanimalprotection.org.uk/wildlife-not-entertainers

Protecting animal sentience beyond Brexit

We’ll be monitoring closely the Government’s plans to ensure animal sentience is recognised in the law after we leave the EU. Our campaigning team is in the process of offering to work with the Government to flesh out the detail of how they propose to do so over the coming weeks.

The Government’s recognition of animal sentience (via EU legislation) is one of the factors that have given the UK a top rating in World Animal Protection’s Animal Protection Index. As we look to review the rankings in 2018, we want to ensure the UK remains a world leader in animal welfare standards.

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