UK formally recognizes animals as sentient beings

The move could have legal ramifications for farmers and others who look after animals

The UK legislation could allow someone to potentially secure damages in the courts on behalf of an animal for unnecessary pain and suffering.

The United Kingdom has formally recognized animals as sentient beings, which could have an effect on global regulations related to animals.

In mid-May, the United Kingdom released the Action Plan for Animal Welfare that included recognizing animals as sentient beings and triggering higher maximum penalties for animal cruelty and new fines for people who harm animals.

Why it matters: Recognizing animals as sentient beings could set a precedent for animal welfare standards globally.

The recognition is long overdue, said Liz White, Animal Alliance of Canada (AAOC) director.

Society has tried to avoid the designation of animals as sentient beings, whether they’re companions, farm animals, zoo animals, research or wildlife because it forces conversations around whether their treatment is acceptable, said White.  

“It lays the groundwork for a different consideration as to how we treat animals,” she said. “I would argue there needs to be a real political will, that people actually take that statement and begin to apply it to the practices we use on animals.”

From a legal perspective, the term sentient means capable of feeling pain, said Douglas Jack, a BLG law firm partner specializing in law related to veterinary medicine. More broadly, because animals are sentient, they are distinguishable from other forms of property like a car or a computer. 

“It is reasonable to suggest that once you change the status in any way from something that is more than mere property, then there’s going to be a ripple effect,” he said. “But those who deal with animals, whether they be farmers or veterinarians or animal care attendants or groomers, or animal feed suppliers or pet nutrition companies - anything in this supply chain - is going to be affected.” 

The UK legislation could have an impact on the definition between animal welfare and animal rights to allow someone appointed as a litigation guardian for an animal to potentially secure damages in the courts on behalf of the animal for unnecessary pain and suffering. 

Jack said it introduces a secondary argument regarding protocols when an action doesn’t amount to abuse under animal welfare laws but could encompass a common act like the dehorning of cattle or docking tails of sheep. 

“All of this stuff is going to play out somewhere, and I don’t know what the case law is going to say,” Jack said. “But most assuredly, it’s going to result in a recognition by the courts of a different status.” 

George Eustice, the UK’s Secretary of State for the Environment, Food, and Food Rural Affairs, said the UK would advocate for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to encourage broader adoption of similar animal welfare standards and be a key consideration in trade discussions. 

“We want to go further with international cooperation and collaboration and to encourage shifts worldwide towards higher welfare forms of livestock production,” said Eustice. “We will support this by seeking cooperation commitments in our new trade agreements.”

The Action Plan will end the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter. Under the plan, the government will consider changes to animal transport reforms around maximum journey times, space allowances, temperature control, and the uses of farrowing crates for pigs and cages for laying hens. 

AAOC advocates people move toward a plant-based diet and away from animal products for environmental and animal welfare reasons, said White, adding she is realistic about what is possible in the short term. 

“Realizing that’s not going to happen right away, or maybe for a very long time, we work on issues like…a ban on the transport of animals in extreme weather conditions (in Canada),” she said. “You can’t change things overnight, but as of now, every five years or every three years or whatever it is, we want some progressive change.”

The Canadian system for farm animal care’s foundation is the codes of practice developed through the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), and the envy of countries worldwide, said Robin Horel, International Poultry Council president. 

“No other country has this decision-making model that brings together a full spectrum of experts, stakeholders including farm groups, processors, customers, researchers, veterinarians, government and animal welfare organizations, to set animal welfare standards,” says Horel.

Jackie Wepruk, NFACC general manager, said their primary emphasis is building a shared understanding of care standards, expectations, and everyone moving forward in the same direction, versus the animosity often seen in other jurisdictions.

“It’s really about trying to find that balance and recognizing that there’s a multitude of issues that play into the welfare of an animal on-farm,” she said. “It really does come down to the human element.”

Wepruk said NFACC attempts to balance what science tells it against the barriers to further incorporating science into on-farm practices and the practical realities for farmers, including their economic realities and public expectations.

 “Farmers need to be at the table when we’re developing these (laws). When you look at the UK, and you see governments and NGO groups creating legislation that farmers will have to implement, it’s difficult to see how that’s a recipe for success,” she said.

The UK’s Animal Health and Welfare Pathway, set to launch in 2022, will financially support annual health and welfare reviews with an eye on improving biosecurity and diagnostic testing and supporting farmers financially for health and welfare enhancements. 

White said she’d like to see politicians be a lot tougher on setting deadlines to get farm animals out of confinement situations and offer a similar financial incentive to the agriculture sector to expedite the process. 

“I don’t think punitive stuff is the issue, but I do think the money talks,” White said. “The governments should use their subsidies and incentives to change the direction of the animal agriculture business.”

White said farmers would adjust how animals are raised for food if a substantial subsidy encouraged a shift in animal management. 

Regardless of Canada’s legislation, the UK’s recognition of animals as sentient beings moved the needle, said Jack. He added it could spur people into action when they might otherwise not have considered intervention in animal welfare.

About the author

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Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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