November 28, 2019

The Holy Grail of Animal Welfare

Sentient ˈsentiənt/ (usually before noun): able to see or feel things through the senses. Early 17th century from Latin sentient- ‘feeling’, from the verb sentire.
— Oxford Dictionary

It would come as no surprise to anyone who lives with animals that they are sentient. Though sometimes we see particular feelings of animals that may not be real, I don’t think any of us would argue that they do not feel at all. We see it every day.

While we all recognize this, in most jurisdictions, the law does not. In fact, relatively few do. There is a general reluctance among legislatures to define animals this way, out of a fear of what it might ultimately mean to powerful interests in the food and hunting and fishing industries.  

The recognition of animal sentience remains the “holy grail” of animal welfare, for if the law recognized animals as the sentient beings we know that they are, it would follow that their treatment would have to be reconsidered and at least given a higher priority.

Nationally, in Canada, animals fall under the property section of the Criminal Code. This has the opposite effect. If animals are property, it follows that owners may largely treat them as they like.

A number of jurisdictions have taken the sentience step in legislation. Australia and much of Western Europe do. Quebec’s Animal Welfare and Safety Act defines animals as, “…sentient beings that have biological needs.”

Ontario’s proposed new animal protection legislation, Bill 136, enhances many important aspects of protecting animals, but falls short of sentience.  However, it does introduce the fact that animals experience feelings and prohibits, “…undue physical orpsychological hardship, privation or neglect.”

Assuming Bill 136 passes with this section untouched, and depending on how courts interpret the term “psychological hardship,” we may have achieved the holy grail of sentience by another name.

Bruce Roney
President and CEO