Millions of animals are set to be legally recognized as sentient beings in the UK, thanks to new legislative changes that have been applauded by animal rights groups.
The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill finally made its way through the House of Lords last week. Once the bill is granted Royal Assent – whereby the Queen formally agrees to turn the bill into law – it will be renamed as the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022.
The legislation acknowledges that all vertebrates – animals with a spinal column including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and birds – are sentient beings. The bill also includes decapod crustaceans and cephalopods, such as octopuses and lobsters.
Sentience is generally characterized as the capacity to experience pain, fear, frustration, distress, comfort, and joy, for example. Emerging research suggests that some invertebrates left out of the legislation, such as bees, could also have their own emotional experiences.
Moving forward, policymakers must more closely consider the safety, experiences, and wellbeing of animals as thinking, feeling beings.
The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 also orders the government to form an Animal Sentience Committee to ensure these guidelines are met.
Public support of animal sentience bill
The Better Deal for Animals – a coalition of more than 50 leading animal organizations in the UK including the RSPCA, PETA, and Humane Society International/UK – had been pushing for the bill for years.
The alliance formed in 2019 to campaign for the recognition of animal sentience in UK law. Animal sentience was the only piece of EU legislation that was not transposed when the UK left the EU last year.
The UK public has largely welcomed the concept, according to various MPs. Conservative MP Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds) noted an “overwhelming public demand for sentience legislation.”
Along a similar vein, Labor MP Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) revealed: “It is no exaggeration to say that I am contacted daily by constituents on one aspect or another of animal welfare.”
Singer-songwriter Alesha Dixon, who helped form a petition on the matter that garnered more than 100,000 signatures, applauded the policy change.
“Animals enrich and improve our lives in so many ways, so it is only right that we give them our full respect in law,” she said in a statement. “From the smallest mouse to the largest whale, our decisions can have a huge impact on the welfare of animals, and I’m thrilled that this new law will now mean all government departments will have to show how they’re giving animals the consideration and protection they deserve.”
‘Respect’ for all animals
Actor Joanna Lumley, who recently made headlines after calling out animal suffering within the farming sector, was also moved by the legislation update. She said: “Anyone lucky enough to share their life with an animal knows what rich emotional lives they can lead, and how much our actions can affect their wellbeing, for better or worse.
“I am delighted that this new law will mean that sentient animals, including beautiful sea creatures like lobsters and octopus, will be treated with greater respect and care.”
James West, senior policy manager at Compassion in World Farming, stressed that the fight for stronger animal protections is not over yet.
“The Animal Sentience Committee still has a big job to do,” West commented. “It’s critical that they prioritize those policies that have the potential to cause the greatest suffering to the largest number of animals, including of course, the millions of animals facing welfare problems on Britain’s farms.”
A date has not yet been set for the Royal Assent, but Humane Society International expects this will happen in the coming weeks.