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Monday, 01 June 2015 22:46

Three Times Animal Sentience Made the News This May

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At World Animal Net, we define sentience in our forthcoming Model Animal Welfare Act as the capacity to perceive or feel things--more specifically, sentient beings share with us consciousness, feelings, emotions, perceptions – and the ability to experience pain, suffering, fear, distress and states of well-being. Animal sentience is a major underpinning for nearly all the philosophies that explain why animals and their interests deserve consideration and flies in the face of traditional Western views of animals as “automatons” who feel no pain and do not suffer, and consequently are “things” that humans can do with as they like. While animal advocates have long been criticized for their views as being based in passion and not rationality, science is now confirming what advocates have always known.

ratAs we’ve reported before on the blog, science is beginning to confirm the view that elephants, dolphins, and even fish, rats, and birds, are are in fact sentient, and no doubt scientific confirmation of sentience in even more species will follow in the coming years. Additionally, in 2012, a “prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists” signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, declaring that “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Now that many scientists, particularly those working in the animal behavior field, are also proponents of animal sentience, the next hurdle for animal protection is to mainstream the science of sentience into society’s understanding of animals. Policy changes and reporting on sentience by the media are powerful vehicles that can help foster this shift in cultural understanding of animals. For this reason WAN strongly supports the mainstreaming of sentience in international and national policy, as well as in practice, and calls upon readers to visit our Constitution Campaign and join the push for all countries to recognize sentient beings in their constitutions.

This month had a lot of good news in terms of both policy and news coverage with respect to animal sentience, and so we thought we would offer a recap:

  1. On May 18, The Parliament Magazine ran an article discussing the role of the European Parliament's Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals, which aims to insure that animal welfare issues receive proper attention from the EU. The chair of the intergroup, MEP Janusz Wojciechowski of Poland, had some interesting things to say about animal sentience:

    “…too often, we have to remind the other institutions of the fact that the Lisbon Treaty has laid down that EU legislation must pay full regard to animal sentience when formulating its policies and guidelines… We would like to see animal welfare and the acknowledgement of animal sentience mainstreamed in all aspects of human life – this naturally includes policymaking.”
    As Wojciechowski is also vice-chair of parliament’s agriculture and rural development committee, we hope that his viewpoint on policy, animal sentience, and the mainstream will have a major positive impact for animals in the coming years.

  2. Rats love chocolate. But, apparently, they also love doing the right thing. While a number of studies have previously found that rats would rather help their friends out of tight spots than enjoy a piece of chocolate, critics had claimed that rats were “craving companionship” and not acting out of empathy.

    However, a study published in May put that theory to rest. Rats were placed in adjacent compartments, where one rat had to swim in shallow water (rats hate swimming), and the other sat high and dry on a platform. Nine times out of ten, the dry rat rescued the swimming rat. However, when no water was present, the rat did not open the door to the adjacent compartment, indicating that the action was one in response to another rat’s distress, and not simply the desire for companionship.

    While this confirmation of empathy in rats is exciting in and of itself, what is also exciting is the sheer amount of coverage this finding received among popular media beyond the scientific community. Just a few of the websites the story appeared on were the Washington Post, Bustle,, the CBC, the BBC, and Psychology Today. Slate even made a video finding! That’s good news for rats, and hopefully shows not only that information about animal sentience is reaching a broader audience, but also that the broader audience has the desire to know about it.

  3. The potentially most exciting time that sentience made the news this May was New Zealand’s amendment to its Animal Welfare Act. Not only does this amendment ban cosmetic testing on animals, it also includes the legal recognition of animal sentience in New Zealand law—a move that was even supported by the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA), who played a role in the law’s amendment. NZVA president Steve Merchant believes that the inclusion of animal sentience in the law will encourage people to meet their animals’ physical and behavioral needs, and that “practices that were once commonplace for pets and farm stock are no longer acceptable or tolerated. The Bill brings legislation in line with our nation’s changing attitude on the status of animals in society.”

Here’s to hoping that New Zealand will serve as an example for other countries in the coming years!

Have you seen animal sentience popping up in your local news recently? If so, share below!

Photo Credit: Olivia - Our dumbo rat, by Art Bromage, used under CC BY-SA 3.0

Jessica Bridgers

Jessica is the Executive Director at World Animal Net. Having received a B.S. in biology with minors in chemistry and anthropology from the University of New Mexico, she combines a scientific background with a passion for animal protection. She completed her M.S. in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University and internships with Humane Society International, Animal Protection of New Mexico, and the New England Anti-Vivisection Society before arriving at World Animal Net. In her free time, she volunteers with horse and wildlife rescues. 


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