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Recognizing animals in Canada as sentient

Why we must move on from defining animals in legal terms as property.

Common octopus

"The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but "Can they suffer?" Almost two and half centuries after the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham pronounced those words, the United Kingdom has introduced a landmark animal bill that formally recognizes in law that animals are sentient.

The bill is a victory for animal justice, especially as invertebrates -- such as lobsters and octopi -- have been included among the sentient. Originally, the bill excluded invertebrates, until a rigorous independent review concluded that animals don't need a backbone to benefit from the recognition. Spain is the most recent country to pass legislation that treats animals as sentient beings.

Canada should follow the example of the UK, Spain and other countries, and move to classify animals as sentient under law. Animals deserve and need legal recognition and protection, mostly from human exploitation, but animal protection laws are hard to secure and difficult to enforce. Formalizing sentience is essential for ascribing legal protections for animals.

The overarching hurdle in Canadian law is that animals are still mostly classified as property. Defining animals in legal terms as property is problematic as it not only ignores their sentience, but it also negates their rights and access to justice. It allows humans to commodify animals.  We can legally abuse and kill them for their fur, their flesh or use them in labs as unwitting test subjects. 

To give animals meaningful protection, we must change our laws so that an animal is considered someone instead of something. We can achieve this, in part, by adopting sentience laws, which in turn will force humans to take responsibility for animals, and to treat them humanely.

If any of this sounds absurd, consider that sentience can be simply understood as the ability of animals to experience and feel emotional states such as pain and pleasure. Ask a golden retriever to go out for walkies or withhold treats and observe sentience in action. Aside from family pets, many species have been observed scientifically to master skills, communicate and demonstrate consciousness. Octopi can open jars; pigs can play video games; primates can learn English; elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors; and crows can use tools. Our laws don't generally reflect this reality, which is why so many animals find themselves in vulnerable predicaments, mistreated in factory or fur farming operations.

Even where sentience is not conclusively proven for all species, at the very least, we should apply a 'precautionary principle, to borrow a term from environmental law, in our stewardship of animals. In doubt, we should err in favour of employing the premise that all animals have at least basic consciousness, are sentient enough, and should therefore fall under animal protection laws.

Early Canadian laws were based on English laws, including those dealing with minimal basic animal welfare. The time has come for Canadian lawmakers to follow the UK's lead once again and formalize sentience —absolutely essential to ascribing legal protections for animals.

The UK sentience bill, which accounts for animals' feelings, arose in part from necessity. Following Brexit, the UK is no longer an adherent to the Lisbon Treaty requiring EU members to "pay full regard" to animal welfare and which recognizes animals as sentient. The new UK bill is wide ranging and applies to farm animals, companion animals, aquatic animals and primates as household pets. It bans the import of trophy hunting spoils and the export of live animals. It provides for an action plan to tackle puppy smugglers, pet thieves and more. The bill also creates an Animal Sentience Committee for government departments to account for animal sentience in formulating policy.

In some parts of the country there has been some modest progress toward legislating animal sentience. In 2015, Quebec's National Assembly ushered in legislation defining animals as sentient beings, though it appears to be mostly symbolic in its impact. In 2020, Canada had the game-changing Jane Goodall Act introduced by then Senator Sinclair which would offer protection to certain animals and importantly, incorporated humane Indigenous knowledge of animal-human connectedness. In November 2021, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled in an encouraging sentencing judgment that "[t]here can be no disputing that animals are sentient beings that are capable of experiencing pain and suffering."

So there are pockets of hope for animals in Canada, but much more must be done. We must formally recognize and enact transformative, comprehensive and clearly worded sentience laws into both provincial and federal statutes. Only then will animals have access to justice as sentient beings, not objects. Failure to formalize animals as sentient, feeling, conscious beings will ensure their continued exclusion from legal protections and justice.

It is a necessary and humane step to stop treating animals as mere property and to charge us with the responsibility of preventing the suffering of others.