Keep Calm-ari: UK law set to recognise octopus sentience

April 8, 2022

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

An upcoming law that recognises animals are sentient has been amended to include marine animals like octopi, a huge step forward for animal rights.

What does this mean?

Currently, the legal protections for animal welfare are limited: the Animal Welfare Act 2006 only protects “commonly domesticated” animals “under the control of man”. Brexit has also meant a step backwards for animal welfare, since Article 13 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union, which recognised animals as “sentient beings”, no longer applies. Parliament voted not to include Article 13 in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. In light of this, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was always going to be a huge step forward, but this new addition could make it groundbreaking. 

This addition comes after a report commissioned by the UK Government investigating the sentience of some animals without a backbone (invertebrates, not necessarily cowards). Sentience can mean many things, like actively avoiding pain, feeling empathy, and even a moral code. While many vertebrates were already considered sentient under the Bill, research into invertebrates like lobsters, crabs and octopi shows that they are probably sentient too.

The report, done by a research team from the London School of Economics, assessed sentience using criteria such as if the animal can integrate information from different senses, make associations, or do motivational trade-offs (i.e. decide if a threat is worth the potential reward). It convinced the Government to expand their list of sentient animals, and now the welfare of invertebrates will also have to be considered when developing new laws. The Bill also sets up an Animal Sentience Committee, with experts determining whether new laws meet welfare standards.

What's the big picture effect?

This looks like great progress for animal welfare, but the real-world implications are murky. 

This legal recognition of sentience might expand the scope of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to protect against unnecessary suffering of invertebrates and wild animals. It’ll also likely fill the gaps in protection from when EU legislation stopped applying, like the 2010 Directive on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, as well as Article 13. However, the Government is clear that this won’t change anything for industries like fishing or restaurants, which are responsible for a lot of harmful activities. The Bill will only apply to legislation going forward, so it is debatable when actual changes will materialise.

It’s been convenient to believe that animals don’t have feelings; thinking otherwise has major moral implications for many human interactions. If crabs are capable of suffering, then it might not be acceptable to continue practices like declawing or live boiling. Research like this report is strengthening the case animal welfare activists have been making for years, but the science isn’t totally clear-cut. The extent to which an animal’s biochemistry and behaviours is proof that it can feel emotions or learn is unclear. Methods like measuring brain activity and facial expressions are especially dubious for invertebrates. 

For this Bill to be genuinely effective, more information is needed on exactly how sentient animals feel things to properly inform humane practices. But will human interests ever actually take the backseat?

Report written by Meghna Dinesh

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