LONDON — How does a lobster feel when it's dropped into the boiling pot? The British Parliament wants to know.
The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is a potentially sweeping piece of legislation that could require all arms of government — not just the agriculture ministry — to consider animal sentience when forming policy and writing regulations.
The implications could be moral and profound, supporters hope — or cumbersome and bureaucratic, critics say, with some seeing a power play by vegan activists and animal rights radicals.
The bill does appear to go further than European Union protections, once seen as the most comprehensive on Earth, and far beyond the relatively lax laws in the United States.
What is sentience? As Charles Darwin suggested 150 years ago, it may be the ability to feel “pleasure and pain, happiness and misery.”
In the House of Lords, the peers wondered aloud whether they were not touching on questions of the soul.
“The big picture has changed,” said Donald Broom, a Cambridge University authority on animal welfare.
“I think of the new idea as ‘one biology.’ That human animals and other animals are extraordinarily similar,” he said, “and that sentient animals are individuals who feel pain and suffering and all sorts of other things, and that should be taken into account.”
Broom said he was “not against eating or exploiting animals, but we should think about them as individuals.”
He said the scientific study of animal cognition, consciousness and sentience has galloped forward in recent years and that abilities once thought unique to humans have also been discovered in nonhuman animals, including tool use, language, sense of time and the future, deception, empathy and altruism.
The bill now being debated is unprecedented in scope because it seeks to protect wildlife as well as domesticated and companion animals such as cows and chickens, dogs and cats.
Meaning? The government could soon be responsible not only for the welfare of a species at the population level — the threatened puffin, say — but also for the possible effects of policy on individual puffins.
New questions might arise: Are those popular tour boats filled with birdwatchers too close to the breeding cliffs at Skomer Island? Does an especially photogenic puffin seem perturbed by them?
Does a rare wild bird have a right to be left alone?
A centerpiece of the proposed legislation is the creation of an independent body of experts — the Animal Sentience Committee — who will scrutinize government decisions to ensure that ministers have paid “all due regard” to the welfare of animals as sentient beings, or explain why not.
Which animals, you ask? Are all animals equal but some more equal than others, as George Orwell wrote? It appears so.
Perhaps to speed its passage, the bill as introduced applies only to vertebrates — animals with backbones — meaning mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, both wild and domestic.
That may well extend animal protections further than we humans have gone before. But activists are pushing for the bill to include some invertebrates, and based on the early debate in the House of Lords, many lawmakers agree.
You wonder: Is there a lobby for lobsters? Yes, there is. It’s called Crustacean Compassion.
“I have been shocked by some of the treatment of animals such as lobsters, crabs and squid, in the way they have been stored and very often killed,” said Janet Fookes, a baroness in the House of Lords from the Conservative Party.
Fookes told the chamber of “one horrible example of a supermarket tightly wrapping a live crab in single-use plastic — a double abomination so far as I am concerned — and lobsters are still plunged alive into boiling water.”
Fookes said she wanted to see “perfectly good, stunning machines” deployed before the crabs and shrimp go on the boil, “which could do this job humanely.”
A colleague, Labour Party member Barbara Young, the baroness of Old Scone, argued the case for including certain invertebrates.
“There is already sufficient evidence of sentience among cephalopods and decapod crustaceans,” Young said, urging the lords to watch “the award-winning documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher,’ which explores the rather bizarre and strange but nevertheless emotional relationship between a man and an octopus.”
The film won the Best Feature Documentary category at the Academy Awards this year.
When the Conservative Party’s Lord Richard Benyon introduced the bill in June, he began by noting Britain’s global reputation as a nation of animal lovers.
The country’s first national animal protection law, the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, was enacted in 1822, when Londoners were sickened by the sight of emaciated cows driven to market through the city. That was followed by legislation to improve conditions in slaughterhouses in 1875; then the Protection of Animals Act in 1911; and a world-leading system for regulating scientific experiments on animals in 1986.
The idea of animal sentience was incorporated into foundational E.U. law in 2009 in the Treaty of Lisbon. But with the U.K.’s exit from the bloc, Johnson’s government came under pressure from voters to establish similar — or even greater — protections.
Mike Radford, an authority on animal welfare law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, said that the sentience bill may be a bold stroke but that its vague language, concepts and definitions are problematic. “Politically, it’s a helluva mess,” he said, adding that it really doesn’t define “animal” or “sentience.”
Radford, though, thought it was “very, very likely” the legislation would be amended to include octopus, crabs and kin, saying that opposition to live boiling has become mainstream.
“Chucking live lobsters into pots to turn them red is a major issue,” he said.
To gauge the power of the animal welfare lobby, note that there are now more than 1.1 million members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, more members than the top five political parties in Britain combined.
The beloved protector of British pets, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is now backing crabs and cuttlefish. “It wasn’t long ago that there was a widely-held view that fish don’t feel pain, but ground-breaking research found they can,” the society observed.
Jonathan Birch, leader of the Foundations of Animal Sentience project at the London School of Economics, who is studying the issue for Parliament, said a growing body of evidence points to feeling and emotion in all sorts of invertebrates.
Though he worries that the new oversight committee might prove toothless and that little might change, he’s hopeful. “It’s a good starting point,” he said, “and it’s better than nothing.”
The sentience bill has had its second reading in the House of Lords. Next it goes to committee, where line-by-line discussion of amendments takes place, it may be reprinted and more changes debated, and eventually it may be sent to the House of Commons, where a similar but more detailed examination and debate occur, with more committee work, changes and votes.
It’s a long haul — and skeptics line the road.
In the initial House of Lords debate, Daniel Moylan, a baron, voiced his fears: “The logical consequence is that we are driven in the direction of veganism and the consumption solely of non-sentient plants.”
Not only that. The bill, he said, might give the government “the unfettered power to declare . . . that an earthworm is a sentient being. This is a power greater than that given by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden, which, as I recall, was restricted to the power to naming animals.”
Matt Ridley, a viscount and popular science writer, remarked, “The sentient animals that concern me in relation to the Bill are the living, sensing, voluntarily moving creatures called bureaucrats. The Bill does little or nothing to change the way we treat animals, but it does create a wonderful feeding opportunity for Homo bureaucratius to do what it is best at: to build a nest and raise a lot of workers.”