Animal sentience workshop

Virginia Williams

What is sentience and why was it included in the Animal Welfare Act? (12:22)

Virginia was one of the first veterinarians to achieve membership to the Animal Welfare Chapter of the Australia and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists. She holds a Diploma in Professional Ethics from the University of Auckland. She chaired the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee (NAEAC) between 2009 and 2015. She has done work for the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC) and is an accredited reviewer of animal ethics committees in New Zealand.

[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, she looks or points to a screen with slides containing information to support her talk. The slides aren't shown in the video.]

Virginia Williams: I must say, it's great to be here today.

I've been feeling particularly nervous, but I know at least two thirds of the people in the room and it's really nice to catch up with people again. I think it's going to be a really interesting day. I'm looking forward to hearing what all the speakers have to say.

So, what is sentience and why was it included in the Animal Welfare Act – that was the title I was given. So what is sentience? Well we are going to talk about that today, so I am not going to say too much more about it.

Why was it included in the Animal Welfare Act? Well I do have a few things to say about that.

The working definition that NAWAC and I have come up with is, an animal's ability to have feelings, perceptions and experiences that matter to it.

Now, you might agree with that, you might not agree with that. I'm sure we're going to have some really interesting discussions about it, and I hope it will be an enjoyable journey. But what I'm going to talk about first is how we got to this point where sentience has been included in the Animal Welfare Act, and it's a word that wasn't really part of our vocabulary until relatively recently, and now we've got it as part of our legislation.

So just what might that mean for the animal welfare legislation going forward?

So first, a little bit of history. It doesn't seem that long ago that we were praising ourselves for having, in the 1999 Animal Welfare Act, one of the most progressive pieces of animal welfare legislation in the world. It was a big step forward from the Animal Protection Act which was basically a 'thou shalt not', was based on acts of cruelty, going to a bit more of 'thou shalt' in terms of how we should treat animals.

But still, when we look back 20 years it was still really about the minimisation of negative experiences. So making sure that animals have sufficient food, and adequate shelter, and physical handling that minimises unreasonable and unnecessary pain and distress, and also the protection from significant disease. Its only really with the opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour that we're looking really towards something that's a little bit more positive, but I'm sure many of you knew and remember our esteemed David Bayvel really well, that great champion of animal welfare who both globally and internationally pushed animal welfare well to the forefront in terms of what happens in legislation and government. And he always used to say that animal welfare is a journey not a destination.

And so who knows what we'll be doing in another few years' time. We might be doing something completely different.

But here we are another step along the way. We've acknowledged sentience and we're wondering what on earth it all means.

So the changing focus as I mentioned. We started with Prevention of Cruelty, then we went with physical health and behavioural needs, which set minimum standards. And now with sentience, well, there's something more and something more positive definitely, so it's going to be really interesting to see where we get to.

So I'd just like to talk a little bit about where sentience came from in terms of animals. It wasn't until about 15 years ago that the word started to be used quite widely in terms of animals, in relation to animals. As early as 2000, a group of international animal welfare organisations started to develop the Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare. Which was to be an inter-governmental agreement on animal welfare, and the first principle of that was that animals are sentient. Now, they didn't define that, but what they did say was it meant that animals were deserving of due consideration and respect. Which doesn't, which yes, of course it's right, but it still doesn't give us too many clues about what's going on.

New Zealand signed up to the Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare in 2008, but we also acknowledged sentience at that point, animal sentience. But it wasn't until the 2013 Animal Welfare Strategy that was published by MPI that we actually see it appearing in government, in government circles. So, of course animal welfare is important for the animals. From the governmental point of view it's very important for our reputation, which was why the Animal Welfare Strategy was instituted and so these were the reasons that we thought it was necessary - it matters how animals are treated, we've got responsibilities towards them and it's acceptable to use animals as long as that use is humane. Why did we need a strategy?

There we are – animals are sentient but it's described as they can feel pain and distress, which is really still just a negative way of looking at sentience and we'll see down the bottom here.

Where animal welfare can damage our reputation which is one of the important things from the governmental point of view that we had.

Then in 2015, we get sentience included in the legislation, not without a bit of a fight. The first draft of the legislation did not include sentience, and there are a lot of people in this room who made representations about that, particularly NAWAC, NAEAC, the NZ RNZSPCA, all made strong representations that sentience should be included in the Act. And finally here it is. It's the first thing in the whole Act, it's the first clause in the long title which is where the purpose of the Act is put forward. So to recognise that animals are sentient. Now, there are lots of definitions in the Animal Welfare Act, there's not one of sentience so we're still no further forward.

We know that there's more to sentience and animal welfare than that it is just that they can feel pain and distress. We've got the groundbreaking work of professor David Mellor and his team at Massey, and the five domains model which not only talks about negative experiences, it talks about the positive experiences as well.

So, I've just put up a few of those there, things like isolation versus affectionate, sociability, depression versus playfulness, chilling versus thermal comfort, those are the kind of things that we now are starting to look at in terms of sentience.

So what difference does the acknowledgement of sentience make now that it's in law?

If we talk about sentience in terms of the ability of animals to have experiences that matter to them there are any number of examples where this just can't happen at the moment. We have sows in crates, that can't build nests, which is an innate behaviour for them, so that kind of behaviour is denied to them. Our dairy industry protocols require, obviously, that calves are removed from their mothers soon after birth, so that whole nurturing process, which is one of the positive things in the 5 domains, can't take place. We have research animals living in barren environments, and companion animals suffering breathing difficulties simply because they're bred to conform to an unnatural conformational standard.

Yes, most of these animals are nutritionally satisfied. They may be treated appropriately when ill or injured. Many, but not all, have appropriate shelter. Many, but not all, are appropriately handled. Many, but not all, can display normal patterns of behaviour.

So, however we as a collective may choose to define the term sentience, what it means to me is that it's not enough to provide our animals with the bare necessities of life. Many animals still live in impoverished environments. There are still some that do not even get the benefit of the 5 physical health and behavioural needs that have been a legislative requirement since 1999. While we're seeing a slow development of planting and some dairy farms for instance, I think of cows in Canterbury, where I live, in flat paddocks denuded of trees to provide for irrigation, with limited ability to protect themselves from cold or the heat. Where is their adequate shelter?

While sows are now out of gestation stalls while they're pregnant, I see piglets which have adequate food, water, they have shelter but they have barren environments, that bare floor, no distractions of any kind offering nothing for a species of such intelligence. How are their behavioural needs being met? I see some small efforts to enrich the environments of laboratory animals, which in many cases are simply raising the level slightly above the impoverished. I see rodeo animals, particularly calves, subjected to at least very stressful and likely very painful procedures in the name of sport. A sport that has no historical context in New Zealand. How is this physical handling, which minimises the likelihood of unreasonable pain or distress?

To me, acknowledgement that animals are sentient raises the bar. At the very least it means that implementing the 5 physical health and behavioural needs is an imperative. If we think of animals as having feelings, perceptions, and experiences that matter to them, is it good enough for example to denude the landscape of any vegetation that might provide some protection from the weather? Is it good enough to prevent some animals from displaying normal patterns of behaviour that are innately important to them? These and other questions are what we'll be looking at and discussing through the day, and I must say I'm looking forward to seeing where we get to.

[Video ends]

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Last reviewed: 22 Nov 2021