The UK’s Legal Recognition of Animals as Sentient Beings: Encouraging But Contradictory

UK legally recognises animals as sentient beings

The UK has decided to formally recognise non-human animals as sentient beings (this includes all vertebrates by default). Invertebrates could be included later based on new evidence, although there is already strong evidence that some invertebrates (crustaceans and cephalopods) can feel pain. This is the first contradictory aspect of the legislative decision.

The introduction of an Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill and an Animal Sentience Committee is decidedly a win for animal welfare campaigners. Additionally, a host of new animal welfare measures will see the halting of most live animal exports, a ban on hunting trophy imports, a ban on the import and export of shark fins, a ban on keeping primates as pets, a ban on e-collars that deliver electric shocks to pets, a crackdown on illegal hare coursing, a restriction on the use of glue traps, the tackling of puppy smuggling, and a potential ban on foie gras. 

Both the recognition of non-human animals as sentient in law and the corollary measures to prevent animal suffering are to be lauded. This is an encouraging sign of progress. However, it was disappointing to see that the use of cages for poultry and farrowing crates will not be banned, as campaigners have called for. You might think it’s not worth pointing to these failings when so much good has been accomplished. We should be celebrating rather than saying “Not good enough”, right? 

Yet any animal rights or animal welfare campaigner will know that campaigning on behalf of non-human animals has always involved gradual wins – albeit with distinct major changes we can point to – all while stressing that, after each win, trillions of non-humans animals are still left to suffer. Moreover, one of the main impressions I had from the UK’s decision to formally recognise non-human animals as sentient while allowing them to sit in cages was that this sounded like a contradiction.

How can you recognise, in law, non-human animals as sentient (i.e. capable of suffering) yet leave them in conditions that cause them to suffer? And the suffering of a caged life is not to be underestimated. Putting hens in cages prevents them from carrying out their natural behaviours. Being kept in these close-confinement cage systems is, staying true to the meaning of the term, a form of torture. This applies to farrowing crates for sows as well: these metal crates confine pregnant sows, prevent them from turning around, and they can lead to the sow inadvertently crushing her piglets. They deprive the sow of most of her natural behaviours, resulting in stress, frustration, aggression, and boredom.

To legally recognise animal sentience while allowing these practices is as absurd as the formal recognition of some human interest (e.g. to be free from torture) and the blatant disregard of that interest (e.g. not banning all forms of torture). It is hard to see how this discrepancy between a supposedly ethically-motivated law on the one hand and a lack of legal protection for non-human animals on the other could be down to anything besides speciesism. It appears that animal suffering is awful but it is not so awful that we should disrupt the industries responsible for the bulk of that suffering. 

True formal recognition of animal sentience will only exist when the legal system protects the non-human animals trapped in these torture facilities we call factory farms. This would be the logical and moral extension of this recognition. I am glad to know that, as a result of these new laws in the UK, fewer animals will suffer. But much more needs to be done.

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