Marc Bekoff Ph.D. Animal Emotions

Quebec Considering Bill Declaring Animals to Be Sentient

An interview I recently did lays out what this bill likely will and won't mean.

Posted Sep 25, 2015

Detailed and copious scientific research has clearly shown that many non-human animals are sentient beings, in that they have the capacity to experience a wide range of emotions including suffering deep and enduring pain (please click here (link is external) for definitions of the word "sentience.") New Zealand has recently declared animals to be sentient, and in an essay I wrote in 2013 called "A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending," I noted that a large body of literature on animal sentience can be found on an interactive website called "Discover Sentience Mosaic (link is external)" (please see also "Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading? (link is external)" and "Scientists Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings"). Since 2013 the database on animal sentience has rapidly grown (please also see (link is external).)

There is continued interest in formally declaring animals to be sentient beings, and Quebec’s National Assembly is considering a new bill that would do just this. However, while this move is favored by many people interested in animal protection, there are those who are fearful such a declaration would lead to a ban in activities such as hunting or ranching.

I recently did an interview in which Dan Riendeau and I discussed the implications of Quebec's pending legislation (link is external). We covered a lot of ground in this 18-minute exchange, and the concerns of those who feel uncomfortable with this move were considered along with what it would mean for animals to gain this well-deserved and scientifically based recognition. But to briefly summarize our discussion, the take-away message is that declaring animals to be sentient beings would help other animals if it was applied using all of the scientific data that are now available, and, at least in the foreseeable future, if ever, hunting, ranching, meat eating, and research, for example, would not come to a screeching halt. However, activities that involve harming and killing animals would be more carefully monitored and regulations would be strictly enforced when they are violated.

Empathic and playful mice as a case study in sentience

Animals need all the help they can get, and it's useful to note that the very research that showed mice to be empathic beings (link is external) (the abstract for the original research paper can be seen here (link is external)) was done at McGill University. The research was highly invasive and caused mice to suffer excruciating pain. Would research like this come to an end if mice were viewed as sentient beings? Only time will tell, but surely putting a halt to this sort of research would be consistent with what we know about the rich emotional lives of mice. Indeed, we also know mice like to play and much research on play in mice was also done at Canada's University of Lethbridge by Drs. Sergio and Vivien Pellis (link is external), and summarized in their excellent book called The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience (link is external)

It's time to stop pretending we don't know if other animals are sentient

We surely are not exceptional or alone in the arena of sentience and indeed, membership in the sentience club is rapidly growing. There are sound biological reasons for recognizing animals as sentient beings. We need to abandon the anthropocentric view that only big-brained animals such as ourselves, non-human great apes, elephants, and cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have sufficient mental capacities for complex forms of sentience and consciousness. So, the interesting and challenging question is why has sentience evolved in diverse species, not if it has evolved. It's time to stop pretending we don't know if other animals are sentient.

I hope the Quebec's National Assembly passes this pending bill, and that other large government agencies will follow suit on a global scale. This move is fully supported by what we know from detailed scientific studies about the emotional lives of a wide range of fascinating animals. 

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