In a move that has flown under the radar of many mainstream media outlets, the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom has passed a new legislative bill that acknowledges the inherent sentience of animal species. The new law recognizes that animals, like humans, are sentient beings and prescribes the establishment of a dedicated committee to protect animal welfare.
The House of Lords passed the bill on 7 April. Once it undergoes the formality of Royal Assent, it will be enacted as the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022. The scope of the legislation includes all vertebrates and some invertebrates, such as octopuses and lobsters.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” These insightful words are commonly attributed to the civil activist and political leader Mahatma Gandhi. And whether or not they were actually expressed by the great man, there can be little doubt that he would willingly acknowledge what Buddhists, scientists, and animal lovers have long understood: that emotional experiences, pleasure, and pain, are not unique to humans; animals, too, are capable of understanding fear, sadness, anxiety, boredom, and even love.
English actor and animal and human rights advocate Joanna Lumley, who signed a petition supporting the law, observed: “Anyone lucky enough to share their life with an animal knows what rich emotional lives they can lead, and how much our actions can affect their well-being, for better or worse. I am delighted that this new law will mean that sentient animals, including beautiful sea creatures like lobsters and octopus, will be treated with greater respect and care.” (One Green Planet)
An alliance of 50 leading animal welfare organizations in the UK, known as the Better Deal for Animals (BDFA), has welcomed the new legislation, including: the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), Humane Society International/UK, Compassion in World Farming, FOUR PAWS UK, and Wildlife and Countryside Link. The BDFA coalition was formed in 2019 to campaign for the reinstatement of animal sentience in UK law following the UK’s exit from the European Union in 2021. Animal sentience legislation was the only area of EU law not transposed by the UK government under Brexit.
“It’s exactly 200 years since the UK’s first animal welfare law, so the Sentience Act is a fantastic anniversary gift to animals,” Claire Bass, executive director of the Humane Society UK, said in a statement. “This legislation has enormous public support, and we’re delighted and relieved to see it complete its journey through Parliament.” (Food & Living Vegan)
The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act will lead to the formation of an Animal Sentience Committee, which will be able to scrutinize government policies that affect animal welfare and publish reports on its findings. The minister responsible for that policy area will then be obliged to present a written response before Parliament within three months.
“Animals enrich and improve our lives in so many ways, so it is only right that we give them our full respect in law,” said English entertainer and animal rights activist Alesha Dixon. “From the smallest mouse to the largest whale, our decisions can have a huge impact on the welfare of animals, and I’m thrilled that this new law will now mean all government departments will have to show how they’re giving animals the consideration and protection they deserve.” (Humane Society International)
Dixon launched a petition in 2019 that garnered more than 100,000 signatures in the campaign for an animal sentience bill. And while the Animal Sentience Committee that the bill requires will not have the power to change policy, it will ensure the examination of policy implications for animal welfare.
“We welcome the final passage of the bill that will once again enshrine animal sentience in UK law,” Compassion in World Farming’s senior policy manager James West noted. “However, the Animal Sentience Committee still has a big job to do. It’s critical that they prioritize those policies that have the potential to cause the greatest suffering to the largest number of animals, including of course, the millions of animals facing welfare problems on Britain’s farms.” (Humane Society International)
Researchers have made significance strides in recent years in the scientific study of animal intelligence, emotions, and social behavior, known as cognitive ethology. This includes creatures in which such qualities are less commonly recognized, such fish, chickens, crustaceans, and cephalopods, which routinely display complex ranges of emotions, communication skills, and even compassion.
“The Sentience Bill becoming law is an important milestone in ensuring animals have strong legal protections and are recognized as sentient beings who have emotions and feelings,” said RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood. “We are pleased that the new Animal Sentience Committee will be able to influence public policy to improve the lives of animals and create a kinder and more compassionate society.” (Humane Society International)
The move by the UK puts it among a growing number of countries who have passed legislation recognizing animal sentience. In 2021, Spain officially approved a new law acknowledging animals as sentient beings. Earlier that same year, South Korea’s Ministry of Justice announced its intention to pass a new legal amendment to recognize animals as sentient beings. In 2015, both France and New Zealand amended legislation on animal welfare to acknowledge that animals, like humans, are sentient beings. Other countries that have made positive legislative changes toward acknowledging animal sentience include: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland.
What is the Animal Welfare Sentience Bill? ‘Landmark law’ reaches final stages (Metro)
BREAKING: Campaigners and celebrities celebrate ‘landmark law’ as animal sentience Bill approved by Parliament (Humane Society International)
Victory! Animals Will Be Formally Recognized as Sentient Beings in the United Kingdom (One Green Planet)
Animal charities celebrate as Sentience Bill passes final stage and will be enshrined in law (Charity Today)
UK Parliament passes Animal Welfare Bill in ‘landmark’ move for animal rights (Food & Living Vegan)
History in the Making! Animals to Be Recognised as Sentient Beings in the UK (PETA UK)
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