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Spain Joins Other Nations in Declaring Animals Are Sentient

Does it really mean much when a country declares animals are sentient?

Key points

  • The Spanish Congress of Deputies recently declared that nonhuman animals are sentient beings.
  • Sentience means being able to feel a wide variety of emotions including joy, fear, and various types of pain and suffering.
  • Although a move in the right direction, the change may not make a major difference in how animals are treated.

Update 23 December 2021: In the JGI Summary Statement "Ape on Rights and Zoos" concerning the killing of healthy animals in zoos—see below—they write: "The Jane Goodall Institute condemns the killing of healthy apes for population management. Apes should never ever be killed because of being considered as so-called ‘surplus’. If a facility does not have the place or resources to provide high-quality care for apes, the facility should not keep or breed apes. Instead, these apes should be retired to a suitable sanctuary."

The Spanish Congress of Deputies recently declared that nonhuman animals (animals), including household companions and members of wild species, are sentient beings.1 For those who don't know what this basically means, it's worth quoting from the article "Spain approves new law recognizing animals as ‘sentient beings’":

Animals in Spain will no longer be considered as “objects” by the law thanks to new legislation passed on Thursday by Spain’s lower house, the Congress of Deputies. From now on, animals will be treated as “sentient beings,” and as such will have a different legal standing than an inanimate object. They will no longer be able to be seized, abandoned, mistreated or separated from one of their owners in the case of a divorce or separation, without having their wellbeing and protection taken into account.

By declaring animals to be sentient, rather than objects or property that humans own, Spain joins approximately 32 other countries that have done the same, including France, the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Tanzania along with a few cities, including Brussels and Quebec (Canada).2 In September 2018, Slovakia, in its Civil Code, revised the definition of animals "to reflect that they are living beings, not things ... under the new definition, 'animals will enjoy special status and value as living creatures that are able to perceive the world with their own senses.'”

The list of animals who are recognized as being sentient continues to grow, and now, in the U.K., octopuses, crabs, and lobsters are included in the sentience club and there will soon be a ban on bringing trophy corpses back to Britain. The Treaty of Lisbon, passed in 2009, also recognizes other animals as sentient beings.

What is sentience and what does being declared sentient really mean?

While some people quibble over what "being sentient" means, it essentially boils down to individuals being able to feel a wide variety of emotions including joy, fear, and various types of pain and suffering. In other words, their feelings matter to them and they should matter to us.3

After the announcement of Spain's decision, I received numerous emails. All of them were 100% supportive, and many people asked if declaring animals to be sentient really made or will make a large difference in how they will be treated now that they are viewed as feeling beings.

While this surely is a move in the right direction, I'm not all that optimistic that it will make a huge difference unless people get out and actively work to change how these animals, now formally recognized as being sentient, are treated. This includes people who work with these animals directly and indirectly.

Here are a few examples. As far as I can see, while conditions on industrialized so-called "factory farms" have somewhat improved in many places, the lives of countless "food animals" continue to be miserable, filled with pain, suffering, and death, including trillions of fishes. Millions upon millions of nonhumans continue to be used in a wide variety of highly invasive experiments in laboratories around the world, and in the United States, where animals have not been declared to be sentient, rats, mice and other animals aren't considered to be animals. Clearly, rats and mice are "animals," so it would be a good idea if they were placed back in the animal kingdom where they belong. Excluding them is non-scientific and inane.

Abuse continues to be quite common in animals used for entertainment and in conservation projects. Killing healthy animals in zoos—what I call "zoothanasia," not euthanasia or "management euthanasia"—because they can't contribute to breeding programs or because of a lack of space, remains on the menu of options, and recently there has been discussion of the possibility of killing healthy western lowland gorillas because of overcrowding by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA).4 Just the thought of doing this has been globally criticized by a wide variety of people, not only animal activists. The EAZA subsequently issued a statement on the future of gorilla management that does not remove the possibility of "culling" these magnificent beings.

At first sight, it's puzzling that the EAZA admits it doesn't publish or keep accurate records of how many healthy animals—often written off as disposable "surplus animals" because they can't be used as breeding machines or because they're taking up space that's needed for other animals of the same or other species—are killed, but estimates in 2014 ranged as high as 3,000-5,000 in any given year. This is a very large number of individuals—a lot of lives terminated unnecessarily—so understandably it's a very well-kept secret of which very few people are aware. And when they learn that zoothanasia is a reality, many are appalled.

In New Zealand, where animals have been declared to be sentient, their war on wildlife is a brutal assault on the lives of countless sentient beings.5,6 Also, while bullfighting has been banned in certain locations, it hasn't been banned countrywide in Spain, and we can only hope it will be now that they and other nonhumans, including bulls, are recognized as sentient beings. And the abuse of companion animals, including dogs and cats, continues worldwide.

What needs to be done

The list of the continued mistreatment of animals in places where they have been formally recognized to be sentient, feeling beings goes on and on. As I wrote above, declaring nonhumans to be sentient beings is surely a positive move, I know I'm not the only one—far from it—who is appalled by the continued abuse and mass killing of other animals in a wide variety of contexts.

What has also interested me is that many of the people who want things to change for the better are not actively involved in any sort of animal activism nor have they ever gotten involved in these sorts of activities. Rather, they're deeply concerned about how other animals are treated with little regard for how the animals feel about what's happening to them.

Now that there are formal declarations and laws changing the legal status of other animals, we must use the recognition of sentience to drastically improve the animals' lives. Tomas, who wrote to me about Spain's declaration, aptly put it: "Now that Spain and other countries have formally declared animals to be sentient, they need to walk their talk and put their money where their mouth is." Marta, who lives in Spain, wrote: "I have never paid much if any attention to animal protection or abuse, but the headlines about my country caught my eye and now I will pay close attention to how this legislation translates into action on the ground."

I agree with Tomas and Marta and hope that declarations of sentience not only will call more widespread attention to the rich and deep emotional lives of animals, but also will result in giving them much better lives by ending practices that clearly are abusive. There's a major disconnect and a healthy dose of hypocrisy—the continued rampant, deliberate, and unnecessary slaughtering of sentience— that urgently needs to be resolved.

The abundant science—a database that has been available for a long period of time and continues to grow—that supports the clear fact that many diverse nonhumans are deeply feeling emotional and sentient beings who care about what happens to themselves and others, provides a pillar of strength for people who want to use "being sentient" to protect and respect the lives of other animals with whom we interact in a wide variety of venues.7


1) For more details about Spain's landmark declaration, see "La Ley que regula el régimen jurídico de los animales queda definitivamente aprobada" and click here.

2) "As of November 2019, 32 countries have formally recognized non-human animal sentience. These are: Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom..." A detailed table on the ways in which numerous countries view animal sentience and animal suffering can be seen in this summary titled "Animal rights by country or territory."

3) For further discussion of the wide taxonomic distribution of animal sentience and numerous references, click here.

4) For further discussion of zoothanasia practices, click here, and for more on the need for zoos to change the ways they deal with their residents, click here.

5) For numerous references see "Jane Goodall Says Don't Use 1080, Jan Wright Says Use More."

6) For discussions of compassionate conservation, click here.

7) Click here for more on the science of sentience.

Bekoff, Marc. Killing Healthy Zoo Animals Is Wrong—And the Public Agrees. National Geographic, 2014.

_____. Killing Healthy Animals in Zoos: "Zoothanasia" is a Reality.

_____. Sentient Reptiles Experience Mammalian Emotions. (A detailed review of scientific data finds evidence of reptile sentience.)

_____. A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending.

_____. Animal Emotions, Animal Sentience, and Why They Matter,

_____. Animal Sentience is Not Science Fiction: Recent Literature.

____. Fish Are Sentient and Emotional Beings and Clearly Feel Pain.

_____. Should Sentient Insects Be Farmed for Food and Feed?

_____. The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals.

Higgins, Jackie. Sentient: What Animals Reveal About Our Senses. Picador, 2021.

Shuchat, Shimon. Honoring Animals Purposely Killed by Zoos On World Zoothanasia Day. IDA, February 7, 2020.