SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Animal Sentience

All Animals

SPCA recognises animals to be sentient beings.

‘Animal sentience’ refers to the concept that animals are capable of having feelings, emotions, perceptions and experiences that matter to them.

Recognising sentience means that SPCA acknowledges animals as individuals who have meaningful and unique emotions and experiences.

There is significant evidence supporting the sentience of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and some decapod crustaceans and cephalopods (such as crayfish, crabs, octopus and squid). The evidence supporting the sentience of some animals such as insects or molluscs is not as clear.

SPCA supports ongoing research into animal sentience to ensure that all animals are appropriately cared for.

SPCA supports the inclusion of the word “sentience” in the Animal Welfare Act 1999 and advocates for animal sentience to be considered when minimum standards and regulations are developed.

Animal sentience was included in the Animal Welfare Act 1999 (the Act) in 2015.

SPCA supports the consideration of animal sentience whenever standards are developed under this Act. This means that standards should be set to protect animals for their own sake rather than to cater to human interests such as export earnings or trading reputation.

Standards should aim to minimise the experience of avoidable negative emotions in animals (such as fear, anxiety, helplessness and loneliness) and require opportunities for normal behaviour and positive experiences (such as play, exploration, comfort and appropriate social interaction).

SPCA advocates for a definition of sentience to be added to the Animal Welfare Act 1999 as well as an explicit acknowledgement of a range of mental states in animals, both positive and negative.

The inclusion of sentience in the Act with no accompanying definition makes the practical impact of its inclusion unclear.

Animals are referred to as “it” throughout the Act, which objectifies animals and does not support the recognition of their sentience.

Sentience is the capacity of animals to perceive by their senses and, thereby, to consciously experience both negative and positive mental states (feelings, emotions and experiences) which are important to them and which influence their welfare. This range of mental states should be explicitly acknowledged in legislation.

(See The Five Domains for more information)

(See Animal Welfare Legislation and Standards for more information)

SPCA advocates that the definition of animal in the Animal Welfare Act 1999 be broadened to include larval fish.

Zebrafish are a common experimental model, predominantly used during the larval stages of development. Larval fish are currently excluded under the definition of animals in the Act and therefore are not protected under any part of the Act.

Scientific evidence indicates that zebrafish during larval stage commence active behaviours indicative of the onset of sentience meaning there is an obligation to protect them. Declaring fish to be animals during larval stage will allow for ethical oversight of research, testing and teaching carried out on zebrafish in New Zealand and improve transparency and accuracy of the number of animals used in these activities in New Zealand.

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