Animal sentience workshop

NAEAC chair Grant Shackell

Welcome (4:45)

[This video was filmed during a workshop in front of an audience. The speaker stands at a speaker’s podium and talks into a microphone. Sometimes, he looks or points to a screen with slides containing information to support his talk. The slides aren't shown in the video.]

Grant Shackell: Research, testing, and teaching using animals is allowed under Part 6 of the Act. One of the things that Act does is it creates AECs. Many AEC members would probably say that they have always used some sort of notion of sentience in their deliberations without actually having used the word specifically.

When researchers manipulate animals for RTT they have to assess the impact of those manipulations, and they use a scale based on the 5 domains, so it's likely that many of us involved in research, testing and teaching consider ourselves to be a bit ahead of the game in any sentience discussion. But are we?

This painting probably depicts a teaching situation. The dog on the table is restrained but the obvious vocalization suggests that it hasn't been treated to alleviate any pain or discomfort. Did you notice there's also a second dog? Probably the next one for the table, that is in the room and it's also unrestrained, it's also restrained. It can see, hear, smell what's going on around it. It's also vocalising, perhaps that's simply a chorus for the dog on the table, but more likely it's an expression of something from the animal's sentience.

Note that 2 of the observers are looking away. Is that because they are indifferent, or is it because they can't bear to watch? And yet another observer, is watching but he appears to be trying to distance himself as far as possible as he can from what's going on. But most obviously there's nobody actually looking at the faces of the animals. Would understanding the emotional experiences of the two dogs in the painting, by acknowledging their sentience, perhaps have resulted in them being treated better?

We've come a long way since those days. Nowadays we can use computer-generated models, we can use anatomically printed, ah, anatomically correct printed 3D models. We can do a whole lot of things that can be used over and over again without actually ever touching an animal.

Internationally fish are classed as larvae until they have developed a number of rays in their fins that they will have as an adult. The Animal Welfare Act excludes animals in the larval form from the definition of animal. However, zebrafish, which are increasingly being used as a research model hatch at about 2 days of age, forage, and exhibit escape reflexes after 5 days. Where does that leave us? To paraphrase George Orwell, if all animals are sentient, are all animals equally sentient? It's very easy to find individuals who would argue that some animals are more sentient than others. If we accept that animals can be capable of suffering, can we then exempt ourselves from considering or being responsible for suffering, depending on some contexts.

At least in research, testing and teaching there's a statutory process to monitor and minimise the impact on animals. Did every one of those animals as they came up, evoke the same notion of sentience as the one before it for you? The days of viewing animals machines are long gone. There are increasing numbers of viable alternatives for animal use in RTT. Shifting attitudes, have changed, of value and ethics have changed the way we think, and they've made us think more about the three Rs and three Rs are a current focus for NAEAC. Now that sentience is recognised in the Act, are the days of AECs numbered too.

Internationally there is a drive to reduce the use of animals for testing for regulatory purposes, a move towards in vitro testing and changes in toxicology and regulatory testing methods. All these things recognised as three Rs. While there are rapidly escalating numbers of alternatives, there is still a very good argument that some biological solutions are best tested in a biological system. So will there ever be a time when animals are no longer used for research, testing and teaching?

But that's an argument for another day. What we can do is consider how we might make a better life for those animals we do use and protect them from harm to the very best of our ability by applying the notion of sentience.

[Video ends]

Who to contact

If you have any questions about NAWAC, email

Last reviewed: 22 Nov 2021