New Zealand Declares Animals to be Sentient, Bans Testing

In an unprecedented move, New Zealand makes animal testing illegal

Posted Jun 16, 2015

In July 2013 a group of scientists offered up what is called The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (please see "Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings"). The landmark document stressed, "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates." We now know that other groups of nonhuman animals (animals) could also have beeen listed in the declaration, including fish (please see "Fish Are Sentient and Emotional Beings and Clearly Feel Pain" and references therein). And, of course, many people already knew other animals were conscious beings based on solid research. 

I just learned that New Zealand has passed landmark legislation in which it is declared that all animals are sentient beings and certain types of animal testing are now illegal and punishable by five years in prison or a $500,000 fine. One essay about this groundbreaking move notes, "Just like the rest of us, animals can feel joy and excitement, but they can also sense fear and distress in unusual or unfamiliar situations. They too feel physical pain while being poked, prodded, and injected with unnatural chemicals that often times lead to mutation, diseases, and even death." 

While one might quibble about whether "all" animals are sentient beings, this new legislation -- you can read the entire bill here -- goes beyond any other on the books. I've also called for a universal declaration on animal sentience based on what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals. 

What I, as a researcher, find so welcoming is that this new legislation, like the Cambridge Declaration, takes into account what we already know about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals based on detailed research and an ever-growing database. Most unfortunately, the federal Animal Welfare Act that currently is used in the United States does not. The U. S. Animal Welfare Act continues to blatantly ignore detailed copious comparative data on the cognitive and emotional lives of the animals who are used by the billions in all sorts of research and in other human-centered venues, and I hope New Zealand's new bill will get scientists to wake up to, and to appreciate, what we already know about the lives of other animals, and to use these data on their behalf. This is not misplaced or unwarranted advocacy, but rather a move that is based on ample data that have been generated by solid comparative research. I also hope that there will be more widespread restrictions and bans on invasive research that go beyond cosmetic testing

We don't need more research to support new legislation that better protects other animals, and it's disappointing that we're not even using what we know right now and have known for some time. New Zealand's legislation is based on solid science and does not go beyond what we now know about the fascinating lives of the other animals with whom we share our magnificent planet. It should make everyone, including researchers, think deeply about how we choose to use other animals, and to make every effort to make their lives the very best they can be. We can do no less.

I'm also sure that New Zealand's new bill will force bright and creative scientists around the world to think about and to develop non-animal alternatives that also will make for better science and produce more reliable scientific results. This surely will be a win-win situation for all involved and it's a goal for which all should passionately strive. 

Note: I just learned that "Quebec bill calls animals 'sentient beings' and includes jail time for cruelty." 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservationWhy dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistenceThe Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

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