Brexit and Animal Sentience

Do animals have feelings?

photo: wikimedia commons

November 2017: The House of Commons rejects several amendments proposing that animal sentience continue to be recognised under UK legislation following Brexit. Outcry from the public and animal rights activists immediately follows, including claims that this movement reflects the government’s overall lack of interest in the wellbeing of the vulnerable.

Caroline Lucas, who tabled the first proposed amendment, said in an official statement, “The Government’s refusal to accept this amendment is absurd — and their continued insistence that sentience is covered in Animal Welfare legislation is wrong. Britain has been forward thinking on animal welfare over the years, which is why ditching this provision would be such a backward step.”

The government denied claims that a lack of recognition of animal sentience would weaken British animal welfare legislation, describing current laws as sufficient, and stating that “the sentience of animals will continue to be recognised and protections strengthened when we leave the EU.” However, while the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 currently acknowledges that animals can experience suffering and pain, the Act only applies to domesticated animals — not wildlife or lab animals.

Multiple animal rights organisations, including the British Veterinary Association, have argued that the explicit recognition of animal sentience is important as it will incentivise politicians to consider animal welfare when developing and implementing new policy in Britain.

Following this controversy, the Government announced it would be introducing legislation that acknowledges animal sentience on 12 December 2017. A short, three-clause draft bill was published, recognising animal sentience and introducing harsher sentences for animal cruelty offences. The act was welcomed by animal welfare organisations including Compassion for World Farming and the British Veterinary Association.

The implementation of the bill has been delayed, however, following a response by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee on 31 January 2017. The EFRA Committee called for the bill’s two clauses to be split into separate pieces of legislation as Clause One on animal sentience is poorly defined. Concerns were voiced that the vagueness of Clause One would “impede and de-lay” the introduction of the Bill and present legal unpredictability. Similar concerns have been voiced by the RSPCA.

So, how do we define sentience? This question has yet to be unambiguously and consistently answered. The Oxford Dictionary describes sentience as the “[ability] to perceive or feel things.” This definition is prime for subjective interpretation — how do we determine that an animal can “perceive” or “feel”?

The EU, according to the Lisbon Treaty, Article 13, refers to animals as “sentient beings,” but does not expand on what qualifies as sentience, nor what makes specific animals sentient and others not. An EU commission publication on the Animal Welfare Strategy 2012-2015 simply states that sentient animals are “capable of feeling pleasure and pain.” Similarly, New Zealand legislation recognises animals as sentient, but gives no clear definition.

Other definitions place more emphasis on what emotions an animal is feeling. According to Compassion in World Farming, “Sentient animals are aware of their feelings and emotions. These could be negative feelings such as pain, frustration and fear. Animals can also enjoy feelings of comfort, contentment and even joy.” However, all these definitions are lacking the precision needed for legislation. How much pleasure and pain must an animal be capable of feeling to be sentient? How much must an animal be able to “feel”? In other words, what emotions must an animal be capable of experiencing to be sentient?

With these questions in mind, we must turn to science for the answers.

One could argue that many of the behaviours we observe offhand in the animals around us qualify them for sentience. We call a purring cat contented, a yipping dog excited, but these offhand observations are just anecdotes; we are observing animals and projecting human emotions onto behaviour that is comparable to our own. And unfortunately, our preconceptions often fall short of reality.

Most dog owners are familiar with the apparent look of guilt that a dog gets when reprimanded: head hung, shoulders hunched, avoiding eye contact. The common interpretation? The dog must know it’s done something bad and feels awful about it; after all, if we saw a human displaying the same body language, we could pick out their guilty conscience a mile away. However, researchers have found that this supposed “guilty” look is simply a submissive response, one that’s displayed whenever a human takes an accusatory or aggressive tone with a dog, regardless of whether the dog did anything to deserve it.

It seems, then, that we can’t always trust our intuition when it comes to what animals are feeling – we’re prone to anthropomorphism. This being the case, how can we say that animals can feel pleasure or pain? How can we possibly know for certain that animals are not just mindless automatons? First, we can compare humans and animals.

In the last fifty years, we have made enormous progress towards deciphering what it means for humans to feel. This has involved investigating what goes on in the brain that makes us feel stressed and anxious, content and relaxed. Scientists have found that the same chemicals that form the basis of such feelings in humans are also widespread throughout the animal kingdom – likely because our common ancestors had them, too.

We’ve been able to link emotions like happiness and feelings of reward in humans to chemicals called dopamine and serotonin, and we know that other chemicals are released into the brain when we are stressed or in pain. Identifying these chemical signatures – or hormones – have allowed us to objectively measure the sensations underlying human feelings. Dopamine is among the most ubiquitous of these hormones in animals.

We can infer that an animal feels pleasure when it’s rewarded with food, or when it bonds with a mate, by observing that its dopamine levels spike. Similarly, observing the levels of various hormones allows us to measure different sensations, including pain and stress, in a wide range of animals. Some scientists have argued that animals might also have personalities as there is evidence of individual variation in the levels of different hormones. In other words, some individuals get stressed more easily, or are bolder, or more fearful.

It’s important to realise that while these chemicals determine sensations like pleasure and pain, they don’t tell us anything about subjective emotion. Thus, we need to be careful about what words we use to describe how animals “feel.”

Based off the chemicals we see in their brains, we can objectively say that when an animal releases dopamine, it feels pleasure. We cannot, however, say an animal is happy because dopamine in humans can indicate positive emotions other than “happiness” such as contentment and relaxation. Pleasure is objective; a fact. “Happiness” describes an emotion and a complex experience that is subjective to humans. Thus, it is important to recognise that animals are not just human minds trapped in furred, feathered or scaled bodies.

Another common assumption about animal behaviour, and one which often carries into proposed definitions of sentience, is that thoughts and feelings are indivisible – that to feel emotions one must be self-aware and conscious of them. This is the case for humans, but it might not be that simple for other animals.

Behavioural studies suggest that at least some birds and apes are self-aware and have, to borrow from Plato, “knowledge of knowledge.” But there is another, more elusive component of consciousness. As humans, we are not only aware of our own thoughts, but also of the fact that others have thoughts of their own. Much of what we humans do in life, from how we play a game of chess to how we conduct international diplomacy, hinges on what we believe other people think, know and feel. This ability, often called “theory of mind,” is notoriously difficult to prove in animals.

There have been intriguing studies on empathy and trickery in animals, but there remains no incontrovertible proof that animals use anything other than simple cause-and-effect logic that requires no acknowledgement of others as conscious.

In the end, we are left with the facts. Regardless of the semantics, there is no doubt that animals can experience sensations like stress, pleasure, pain or fear – all of which don’t require subjective interpretation to make sense of them. So, if feeling pain and pleasure determines sentience, animals are sentient. They might even have individual personalities. However, we cannot know for certain to what extent animals experience human-like emotions, are self-aware or are aware of others around them.

Thus, the animals that come to be regarded as sentient under UK law will be dependent on the legal definition of sentience. The challenge for legislators will be to create a definition that is not so inclusive as to encompass almost all organisms, but also not so specific that it ignores animals that can feel pain but do not exhibit human-like emotions. Facts are unbiased; our laws on animal sentience should be, too


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.