Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Long Overdue: Recognition of Animals as Sentient Beings

"The laws around cats and dogs often focus on humans' motives [e.g., cruelty] rather than on what the animals are actually feeling."
"Recognizing sentience [as Quebec plans to do] acknowledges that abilities to feel pleasure and pain are widespread, even in those groups of animals who have not been very well protected as yet. That is to be welcomed."
Georgia Mason, behavioural biologist, University of Guelph

"If I was going to court [in Quebec] to argue about it, what I would argue is, 'Your honour, it's not new to recognize that animals are sentient, our laws have recognized that for a long time."
"What is new is the people of this province have decided it's time to recognize that. Their sentience has been hidden behind many forms of industrial exploitation for a very long time."
Lesli Bisgould, adjunct professor of animals and the law, University of Toronto

Violators of Quebec's new animal-rights bill can be fined up to $250,000.
Violators of Quebec's new animal-rights bill can be fined up to $250,000. (Francis Vachon /AP Images for Humane Society International)

The National Assembly in Quebec City is continuing to debate Bill 54 proposing that animals be recognized as "sentient beings", and not merely property, within the province. This recognition has been acknowledged in New Zealand, with the legal recognition of animals having sentience. And there are movements elsewhere to recognize animals as "persons" with rights to be recognized, attached to that status. 
Quebec's Bill 54 proposes:
  • protections for certain species of animals not covered under current legislation,
  • requirements in relation to psychological welfare for certain species,
  • increased penalties for infractions, including jail time,
  • and a permit system for pet stores, fur farms, and persons with 15 or more horses under their care.
The bill also includes an amendment to the Civil Code of Quebec that would explicitly recognize animals as sentient beings, but nonetheless still subject them to the property regime.

Anyone who has an affection for animals cannot be unaware that they are sentient. And those who value companion animals, living with them, observing them, interacting with them, providing for them, and caring deeply for their welfare, is aware that humans communicate with animals; animals in other words are more than capable of understanding what their human companions want of them and having deciphered the animal-human mode of communication, generally comply.

Needless to say, the communication works in reverse as well. Animals are more than capable of informing the humans with whom they live of what their wishes are. Could any animal that is not sentient know when it is time to awaken their humans, to remind them that it's time they were fed, walked, display affection and interact in any number of ways with them?

Animals in the wild among whom we live in North America understand very swiftly what has happened when food is put out for them. Squirrels, chipmunks, chickadees, pigeons, crows and doves will gather around people they recognize. And they recognize them because they have experienced other events with those people, where food is proffered and accepted.

If food is left in specific cache-places in forested areas on a regular basis the animals and birds know where to go to retrieve it. They know also from familiarity who it is that is placing it there, and will confront them directly in expectation of being given that food. Animals in distress will on occasion approach people for help. Does any of this not speak of the obvious sentience of animals?

The ability of primates and porpoises to communicate and their willingness to do so is well enough known. The obvious intelligence of primates has been studied and confirmed. Some of them exhibit the intelligence of a human child of six. They are capable of mastering a level of intercommunicative language; they are able to manipulate tools. They have proven repeatedly how intelligent they are.

"Calling animals sentient beings is going to have legal implications. [The Quebec] bill is going to have to address the fact there are some things  you can do with property that you can't do with human beings such as buying, selling and killing]", points out Josey Kitson, executive director of the advocacy group World Animal Protection.

In fact, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia can boast some of Canada's most robust animal rights laws. Passing Bill 54 would only bring Quebec in line with what pertains in those other provinces with animal protection. The Criminal Code of Canada prohibits cruelty to animals. And most provinces employ the equivalent of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act: "No person shall cause an animal to be in distress".

A legal statement in and of itself which implicitly recognizes the obvious fact that animals think, and they have emotions and they feel. The unfortunate thing is the law and the application of it do not quite match; enforcement is questionable. The Canadian Council on Animal Care in Science states that animals should be protected from pain and distress "which only makes sense if laboratory animals are assumed to be sentient", observed Georgia Mason.

The National Farm Animal Care Council has acknowledged sentience status for livestock. Laboratory animals, albeit sentient, are not viewed nor treated in a manner equal to the protections given to companion animals and for fairly obvious reasons which doesn't make their treatment acceptable.

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