The government’s recent decision to scrap the EU law that non-human animals are sentient beings is a controversial one, to say the least. In the interest of clarity, the government have neither explicitly denied nor supported the EU law. But this has led many to question whether this leaves animal welfare vulnerable and exposed.
“behavioural psychologists have demonstrated the learning patterns of animals through association and positive and negative reinforcement for years”
Being raised in the countryside, I have been surrounded by animals for all of my life- from chickens and sheep, to dogs and hamsters. If I take anything from this exposure it’s that animals are without a doubt, sentient beings. The real question to me, is how could they not be? Behavioural psychologists have demonstrated the learning patterns of animals through association and positive and negative reinforcement for years, one of the most renowned of these experiments being ‘Pavlov’s Dogs’. During this experiment, dogs were conditioned (through various reinforcements) to salivate at the sound of a bell, as they associated this with food. This demonstrates that dogs have memories, the ability to learn from the past and experience excitement at future prospects.
“if such a range of animals are showing sentience, it is likely that this is a feature across all species”
It seems ludicrous to me that experiments such as this have been carried out since the 1920s, yet in 2018 the government is disregarding all of this scientific evidence. So, could it be that dogs are unique in this sentient ability? Well, no. Sheep are able to recognise up to 50 faces of other sheep, and, according to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, “near human-like levels of consciousness” have been observed in the grey parrot. Subsequently, if such a range of animals are showing signs of sentience, it is likely that this is a feature across all species.
If any dog owner has ever returned home to a demolished pair of slippers, you know that it does not take interrogation tactics to decipher the guilty party, as they will be hanging their head in shame, with their tail between their legs, avoiding eye contact at all costs. A similar response to when you ask your flat mates who ate your savoured last bar of chocolate, you could argue. This demonstration of guilt would suggest that animals are also emotionally sentient. However, I do think that we can suffer from viewing the actions and behaviours of animals through the human lens. Anecdotally, my parents insist that the dogs “thank them” for dinner by demanding attention after they’ve eaten. In reality, this is almost definitely not the case but it is easy for us to make this link against our human standards and thought processes.
“As human beings we are at the top of the food chain, and it is this dominant position which I believe has infected our way of thinking”
As human beings, we are at the top of the food chain, and it is this dominant position which I believe has infected our way of thinking. During the process of evolution, humans have developed a highly sophisticated prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for impulse control and forward-thinking, amongst other things. It appears that this is a major point of contrast between human and animal brains. However, the area of the brain most associated with emotional response is the amygdala. The amygdala is located in the centre of the brain, therefore is thought to be one of the oldest areas, and subsequently is shared with animals and humans alike.
Neuroanatomically then, humans and animals would seem to share similar emotional processing, but it is our hierarchical position on the food chain which for some reason has made us believe we are above all other beings on earth. In essence- we want to be special. Sadly, this is just not the case. In fact, MRI scans have actually shown that orca whales’ brains have a far superior emotional system to humans, thereby suggesting wales are if anything more sentient (with regards to the emotional realm) than humans.
I believe that the ramifications for animal welfare are immense; the rejection will surely act as a permission slip to encourage animal cruelty and mistreatment. But there is still hope; the government say they plan to create a bigger, brighter and better law after Brexit has been finalised, so let’s hope this is the case. After all, when was the last time the government didn’t live up to a promise?