Animal Sentience: Moving Forward

In October last year, WellBeing International organized two webinars on animal sentience – specifically on the question of invertebrate sentience – as part of a project funded by the Centre for Effective Altruism. We were surprised by the level of interest in the topic. In just a few weeks, there were 3,000 registrants (see recordings for Invertebrate Animal Sentience – Part 1 and Part 2). One of the speakers was Dr. Jonathan Birch from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He was later the lead author on a November 2021 report on invertebrate sentience that led to the British Government adding cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopi, squid, and cuttlefish) and decapod crustaceans (e.g., lobsters and crabs) to their animal sentience bill. Passed by the House of Lords, the bill is to be considered by the House of Commons beginning this month.

The speakers in the two webinars reported some fascinating behaviors by honeybees, hermit crabs, and octopuses, among other creatures. The documentary, My Octopus Teacher has already dramatically changed the way some of us view octopuses. The octopus who starred in the film was a remarkable being. During filming, she gained sufficient confidence to approach and voluntarily interact with the human visiting her domain. Hermit crabs are also evidently more than unfeeling automatons. Dr. Robert Elwood of Queen’s University, Belfast described the complicated calculations hermit crabs make when switching the shells they use for “home.” Dr. Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University in London reported on studies he had performed with honeybees. It appeared that the bees were able to recognize and remember aversive situations. Anybody who views the webinars is likely to experience an increased appreciation for cognitive abilities and sentience of the invertebrates added to the list of sentient creatures in the UK “Sentience bill.”

The month after the LSE report appeared, Spain passed its bill declaring animals to be sentient creatures joining France as the second EU country with a national law stating animals to be sentient. Animals in Spain will no longer be considered inanimate objects. They will still be treated as property in Spain but will have a different legal standing from inanimate objects.

Apart from the EU, several other countries and regions have passed laws recognizing animals as sentient beings. Tanzania was among the first to do so, and they joined the Netherlands, Sweden, Columbia, and New Zealand. In addition, the Australian Capital Territory and the province of Quebec have passed legislation recognizing animals as sentient.

What is the actual or potential impact of these news laws? The European Commission has established a formal animal welfare bureaucracy that is more attentive than most countries to the needs of animals. However, recognizing animals as sentient in New Zealand has not stopped that country from declaring war on invasive rats, brushtail possums, stoats, and feral cats. In Spain, it is not clear what impact the new law might have on its bullfighting tradition. It should also be noted that a country does not need a sentience law to address animal welfare and animal feeling. In India, the country’s supreme court recognized dolphins as non-human persons in 2013, resulting in the banning of dolphinaria.

It is important to keep tracking changes in legislation recognizing animal sentience -both vertebrate and invertebrate and to document the impact those changes have on how humans view and treat animals.

Photo credit: TheSp4N1SH

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