Recognizing the Rights of Animals as Sentient Beings
“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 agree with the sentiment expressed and would willingly acknowledge what Buddhists, scientists, and animal lovers have long realized—that emotional experiences, pleasure, and pain, are not unique to humans; animals, too, are capable of understanding fear, sadness, anxiety, boredom, and even love.
Indeed, the scientific study of animal intelligence, emotions, and social behavior, known as cognitive ethology, has made significant strides in demonstrating that many animals—including those in which such qualities are not commonly recognized, such fish, chickens, and rats—routinely display complex ranges of emotions, communication skills, and even compassion for others.
In a move that largely flew under the radar last year, making few headlines, New Zealand amended its legislation on animal welfare to acknowledge that animals, like humans, are sentient beings. New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Amendment Bill stipulates that it is necessary to “recognize that animals are sentient” and “to require owners of animals, and persons in charge of animals, to attend properly to the welfare of those animals.” (Parliament Council Office, New Zealand Government)
Dr. Virginia Williams, chair of New Zealand’s National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee was unequivocal is supporting the decision. “To say that animals are sentient is to state explicitly that they can experience both positive and negative emotions, including pain and distress,” she said. “The explicitness is what is new and marks another step along the animal welfare journey.” (Nelson Mail)
The legislative amendment details a range of protective measures for animals, such as establishing when surgical procedures are appropriate, restricting areas allotted for hunting, and defining the proper treatment of wild animals. It also incudes a ban on the use of animals for cosmetic testing, an offense punishable by a prison sentence or a substantial fine. According to the Humane Society International, an estimated 115 million animals worldwide are used in laboratory testing every year, adding the caveat that “because only a small proportion of countries collect and publish data concerning animal use for testing and research, the precise number is unknown.” (Humane Society International)
While there is clearly still considerable scope for improvement in the domain of animal rights, particularly in the field of industrial farming, New Zealand’s landmark ruling can’t be viewed as anything but a further step toward a more humane society and an indication of a marked shift in public perception. Indeed, New Zealand was not alone in exercising such progressive reforms; France and the Canadian province of Quebec also implemented similar legislative measures last year, bringing to 11 the number of countries that have awoken to the moral necessity of protecting the rights animals.
Dr. Steve Merchant, president of the New Zealand Veterinary Association, said his country’s bill had improved the clarity, transparency, and enforceability of animal welfare laws. “Expectations on animal welfare have been rapidly changing, and practices that were once commonplace for pets and farm stock are no longer acceptable or tolerated,” he said. “The bill brings legislation in line with our nation’s changing attitude on the status of animals in society.” (Nelson Mail)
Animals are now legally recognised as 'sentient' beings in New Zealand (Independent)
New Zealand legally recognises animals as 'sentient' beings (Nelson Mail)
New Zealand Declares Animals to be Sentient, Bans Testing (Psychology Today)
About Animal Testing (Humane Society International)
Animal Welfare Amendment Bill (Parliament Council Office, New Zealand Government)
Animals in France finally recognized as ‘living, sentient beings’ (RT)
New Zealand & Quebec Pass Laws Recognizing Animals as ‘Sentient Beings’ (Life With Dogs)
ANIMALS RECOGNIZED AS SENTIENT BEINGS (Woodz)
Everything You Think You Know About Animals Is Wrong (True Activist)