“Legal implications if animals declared sentient”

“Legal implications if animals declared sentient”

Sarah Boesveld, National Post

September 23, 2015

Should animals be legally recognized as sentient beings, that is, beings which have the power of sense-perception or being conscious? In September 2015, lawmakers and lawyers have struggled with this question that has important implications regarding “the legal framework on interactions between man and beast.”

In Quebec City, debate continued in the National Assembly on Bill 54 which proposes that animals be regarded as sentient beings rather than property in the province. In San Francisco, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have filed a lawsuit alleging that a macaque monkey who took selfie photographs should legally own the copyright. Animal rights activists acknowledge that it is not likely that this civil action will be successful; but it gets people thinking about these important issues. And there is movement to urge the courts and society to better recognize animals’ ability to think and feel pain.

One year ago, in 2015, New Zealand legally recognized animals as sentient beings. In New York in September 2015 lawyers submitted, unsuccessfully, that two chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko, should be declared “persons” and freed from captivity. The lawyers have indicated that this fight is far from over.

The Toronto-based Executive Director of the advocacy organization World Animal Protection stated: “The Quebec Bill is going to have to address the fact that there are some things you can do with property that you can’t do with human beings” such as buying, selling and killing. It seems unlikely that the proposed legislation, if passed, will go that far, although it would bring Quebec in line with Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, provinces that have some of the country’s most robust animal rights laws. The law could be applied differently now because advocates say that better science has made people more aware of animal sentience.

Part XI of the Criminal Code of Canada, Wilful and Forbidden Acts, punishes those who commit cruelty to animals. Ontario’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, which states: “No person shall cause an animal to be in distress” is equivalent to similar legislation in most provinces. This “distress” implies a recognition that animals can think and feel. Lesli Bisgould, Adjunct Professor of Animals and the Law at the University of Toronto adds that the million dollar question is why it is never enforced. Exemptions exist, in addition, for meat producers and hunters or for “generally accepted practices”. She opines that Quebec’s law will probably look much the same. She would submit that the law has recognized that animals are sentient for a long time. The new factor is that the people of Quebec have decided it is time to recognize that. She continued: “Their sentience has been hidden behind many forms of industrial exploitation for a very long time.”

The Canadian Council on Animal Care in Science says animals should be protected from pain and distress which only makes sense if lab animals are assumed to be sentient. In a move that aligns with modern values, the National Farm Animal Care Council has also acknowledged the same status for livestock. Georgia Mason, a behavioural biologist at the University of Guelph, has remarked that not all sentient animals are created equal. She has added that commercial rats and mice are not protected and farm animals are not seen as thinking and feeling in the same way as apes. Professor Mason continued: “The laws around cats and dogs often focus on humans’ motives (for example, cruelty) rather than 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!”