We all can agree that our pets have feelings. It’s obvious that our dogs are happy to see us when we come home from work or that our cats are annoyed when it’s time for a bath. But how far does that extend to other animals? Do cows feel fear as they are corralled into a slaughterhouse? Do bees feel anxious when someone comes too close to their hive? These are the questions currently circulating within the British Parliament.
Due to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to make good on his electoral pledge, the United Kingdom has developed a package of laws that will recognize a set group of animals as “sentient beings.” This would not only make the government obligated to protect these creatures’ physical well being, but take their potential feelings into account as well.
This Action Plan for Animal Welfare includes a series of bills that will be up for approval in the coming months, and will address a requirement for cats to be microchipped, a ban on the export of live animals for slaughter, a bar on the import of hunting trophies, and much more. There is division over the necessity and value of this legislation, with supporters finding the laws morally imperative and critics fearing the cumbersome bureaucracy.
In any case, developing legislature surrounding the concept of sentience is not an easy feat. The definition of sentience alone can be rather fluid, not to mention nearly impossible to “prove.” “The big picture has changed,” explained Donald Broom, a Cambridge University authority on animal welfare. “I think of the new ideas as ‘one biology.’ That human animals and other animals are extraordinarily similar… and that sentient animals are individuals who feel pain and suffering and all sort of other things, and that should be taken into account.”
Broom further details that scientific studies focused on animal cognition, consciousness and sentient are showing a stark similarity between human and non-human animals. This includes developing and using tools, language development, a sense of time and future, as well as feeling of empathy, altruism, and deception.
The Animal Welfare bill has now reached the House of Lords, where they are considering making changes to the bill. Originally, perhaps as a way to speed up the approval process, the bill only classified animals with backbones as sentient beings. However, government officials are now considering the addition of crabs, lobsters, octopuses, squid, and other invertebrates to the list of sentient creatures protected under the bill.
“I have been shocked by some of the treatment of animals such as lobsters, crabs and squid, in the way they have been stored and very often killed,” said baroness in the House of Lords, Janet Fookes. Fookes shared her own experiences with the chamber, mentioning “one horrible example of a supermarket tightly wrapping a live crab in single-use plastic — a double abomination so far as I am concerned — and lobsters are still plunged alive into boiling water.” Fookes called for “perfectly good, stunning machines” to be used on invertebrates before being thrown into boiling water, “which could do this job humanely.”