Thanks to Brexit, many of the EU laws have to be transferred into UK laws, and last week the topic of debate was animal sentience. Huge controversy arose when the media reported that MPs had voted against the recognition of animals as sentient beings, sparking outrage across the country and hundreds of signatures on online petitions. However, the Environment Secretary Michael Gove later branded the media’s publication of the vote as ‘fake news’, stating that a new UK law specifically recognising animal sentience will be made. Despite this, the news has really got people thinking about non-human consciousness, and importantly also, the spread of misinformation. And with a lack of trust in the promises that the Government makes, especially with concern to animal welfare (hello Fox Hunting debate), many are not convinced that animal rights are sufficiently protected.
So, what is all the fuss about? As ethologist Marc Bekoff writes for Psychology Today, “It’s time to stop pretending that we don’t know if other animals are sentient.” The ‘Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness’ (Low et al., 2012), created by a group of scientists, states that evidence indicates animals have the neurological substrates to generate emotional behaviours and consciousness. Non-human animals have been observed displaying a wide variety of traits typically thought of as exclusively human - from grief to resentment. And it’s not just the most typically intelligent animals that feel and display these emotions - evidence has shown empathic traits in rats, mice and chickens (Church, 1959; Langford et al., 2006; Edgar et al., 2011). A recent study by Kis et al. (2017) has even shown that dogs have a bad night’s sleep after a day of negative social experiences. The evidence that animals are conscious, sentient beings is only growing - and ignoring this evidence will only lead to unnecessary pain and suffering. It is of tremendous importance that the evidence on animal sentience is made public knowledge, to allow informed decisions on animal welfare to be made.
The European law, passed in 1997, allowed animals to be treated as individuals with rights to ‘Five Freedoms’ - from hunger and thirst, from discomfort; from pain, injury and disease; to express normal behaviour; and from fear and distress. The decision MPs voted on last week was to transfer the EU protocol into domestic law, and MP Zac Goldsmith argued the vote was about the procedures behind animal welfare standards, not on animal sentience as a principle. Others, such as the Green party leader Caroline Lucas, were not convinced, and believe the decision made was a step backwards rather than forwards. Fortunately, the social media outrage will have made an impact on the Government’s future decisions. As the general public are becoming increasingly concerned about the welfare of animals (Deemer & Lobao, 2011), some argue the laws already in place aren’t doing enough to stop suffering, and that new stricter laws should be made.
Of course there will always be sceptics, and it is easy to fall into the trap of anthropomorphism and confirmation biases - selecting evidence that fits a pre-existing belief. However, at the very least, decisions on animal welfare should be based on the knowledge that animals are conscious, and want to live, which should help end the abuse of millions of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and science. Furthermore, scientific evidence needs to be consistently made public knowledge, especially for those making hugely impactful decisions (i.e. MPs), to help these decisions to be based on evidence.
Church, R. M. (1959). Emotional reactions of rats to the pain of others. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology, 52(2), 132.
Deemer, D. R., & Lobao, L. M. (2011). Public Concern with Farm‐Animal Welfare: Religion, Politics, and Human Disadvantage in the Food Sector. Rural Sociology, 76(2), 167-196.
Edgar, J. L., Lowe, J. C., Paul, E. S., & Nicol, C. J. (2011). Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences.
Kis, A., Gergely, A., Galambos, Á., Abdai, J., Gombos, F., Bódizs, R., & Topál, J. (2017, October). Sleep macrostructure is modulated by positive and negative social experience in adult pet dogs. In Proc. R. Soc. B (Vol. 284, No. 1865, p. 20171883). The Royal Society.
Langford, D. J., Crager, S. E., Shehzad, Z., Smith, S. B., Sotocinal, S. G., Levenstadt, J. S., ... & Mogil, J. S. (2006). Social modulation of pain as evidence for empathy in mice. Science, 312(5782), 1967-1970.
Low, P., Panksepp, J., Reiss, D., Edelman, D., Van Swinderen, B., & Koch, C. (2012). The Cambridge declaration on consciousness. In Francis Crick Memorial Conference, Cambridge, England.