The most recent amendment to New Zealand's Animal Welfare Act states that the purposes of the legislation include recognising "that animals are sentient" and "to require owners of animals, and persons in charge of animals, to attend properly to the welfare of those animals".
New Zealand has a long history of being identified as a leader in animal welfare. It has many good reasons for doing so, one of which being the fact that more than 50% of its GDP comes from animals and animal products - in short, good animal welfare makes good global trading sense.
Few would argue that there is merit in ensuring that ALL people – whether they are owners, persons in charge of animals, or anybody else for that matter (e.g. all people who have contact with animals and not just owners, or people fitting the legal definition of having care, supervision, or control of an animal) – treat animals in a way that doesn't cause the animals unnecessary or unreasonable pain or distress. However, what are the consequences of changing a word in law? Law has been described as a "house of words" with the consequence that if you change a word, you change the responsibility, accountability and potentially the liability.
So to be more precise, what are the consequences of inserting the word "sentient" in to animal welfare legislation for New Zealanders whose activities involve animals?
If the definition of sentience is that animals experience pain and distress, then it might be argued that any legislation that recognises that animals experience pain and distress, already recognises animals as sentient.
- New Zealand's animal welfare law has a long history of legally prohibiting treatment that caused animals pain or distress that was deemed unnecessary or unreasonable ("negative" experiences from the perspective of the animal).
- With that in mind it's relevant that New Zealand's pre-amendment legislation already prohibited cruel treatment ("negative" actions) and mandated that owners and persons in charge of animals had a legal obligation to provide their animals with "positive" care e.g. providing proper and sufficient food and water, shelter, and other needs consistent with the principles of the Five Freedoms.
- So if the most recent amendment has added something above and beyond what was outlined in the former Animal Welfare Act and now mandates a further legal obligation that accommodate animals "positive emotions" (see the accompanying media article referenced below), then what are the implications for stakeholders such as industry, producers and retailers?
Animal rights advocates must surely be reassessing old arguments in light of the most recent legislative amendment, and suggested interpretations which would create legal obligations to provide for animals "positive emotions".
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