Recognition of Animal Sentience: Should India adopt the same stance as Spain and the UK?

Neerav Panchu

Introduction

Animals have been on the side of human development and advancement for millennia. From the first hunting dogs to the oxen and bull that even today help plow lands, from the cow that gives milk to the sheep that gives wool, animals have been an integral part of human evolution. It is from animals that we learnt to better control our environment and through them that we have procured some of the most nutritious food and warmest clothing. Despite their obvious importance to humanity, they are quite often treated as objects to sell, slaughter and exploit.

It is only recently that certain governments like Spain and the UK among other countries in Europe are taking cognizance of this issue and making laws that make animals sentient, conferring on them rights similar to those of a juristic person. These rights may serve to improve the conditions of animals and prevent people from treating them like objects. India should also adopt such legislation to make sure that animals too are protected under the law from exploitation and abuse.

Animal Sentience

Animal sentience is the concept that animals too can experience a range of emotions, similar to humans. While this concept may seem obvious, most countries do not recognize this to be true. In some countries such as India, there is partial recognition of sentience, but it is very superficial and does not account for emotional trauma other than those emotions essential for survival, such as thirst and hunger.

While it is impossible to accurately determine the intensity of emotions animals feel or how they feel them yet, it can be said with certainty that they do feel emotions. Anyone with a pet would notice their excitement when interacting with their owners and their sadness when the owners leave the house to run errands. Researchers and animal rights activists stress that minimizing negative experiences of animals will at best lead to a neutral experience for animals where they are merely surviving and are not hungry, thirsty or in pain.

Indian Animal Rights Laws

Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 applies to all animals across India where it serves as a law to protect animals to suffer unnecessary harm and suffering and penalises those responsible for inflicting such harm and suffering. The government, through this Act has taken some steps necessary to protect animals in India; however, they are largely inadequate. The fines imposed on people for abuse and cruelty towards animals are minimal and unlikely to discourage the abuse of animals, further, the lack of any substantial change in the laws for over 50 years indicates government apathy towards the situation of animals in India.

Additionally, provisions such as Section 28 of the same Act allows religious slaughter of animals, contradicting the provisions of the Act. While there are religious and cultural restrictions to the full recognition of animal sentience in India, it is worthwhile to note that there are hundreds of animal species in India that are not subject to religious slaughter. These animals can be made subject to the provisions of a stronger and more robust law.

Animal Sentience in Spain and the UK

Animals are not ‘goods’ and full regard must be given to their welfare to ensure we can continue to change their lives for the better.” This underlying principle led to the UK legalizing a provision that fully recognised animal sentience. Under this law, a new committee will be created to oversee the introduction of this provision on all laws going forward and Members of Parliament will be asked to also look into older laws and make sure they are in line with the provisions of the animal sentience law. Sapin, too, passed a law considering animals as being sentient.

This law, however, did not find mention in the Civil Codes of Spain and hence, the country’s leaders made changes to important civil laws surrounding mortgage, the civil code, and civil procedure law. The law moving forward will ensure that animals, domesticated or otherwise, will be covered under this law and be protected against any form of unwarranted human aggression, violence or exploitation.

Why is recognizing animal sentience important?

Humans are the only species currently capable of domestication and training animals of a different species than themselves. As such, humans through domestication and decades of rearing have made certain species of animals such as daily cows incapable of surviving in the wild without assistance. It then becomes the responsibility of man to care for and rear these animals. In doing so, there need to be safeguards placed to minimize the abuse and maltreatment these animals are subject to.

In order to minimize the abuse and maltreatment of animals, recognition of animals as sentient is an important step as this will allow the government to treat them the same as humans in certain contexts, making abuse and mistreatment punishable with more severe sentences than before. Currently, multiple countries recognize the animal as sentient but have not made provisions in their laws to account for the same. Non-recognition of animals as sentient in the laws of countries will not help educate or inform people that animals too can experience emotions. This is necessary if abuse of animals is to be stopped completely.

Should India recognize animal sentience?

India, through its laws, already has limited recognition of animal sentience. Through the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, animals are considered sentient in certain situations making their abuse punishable and an offence. Despite this, there is a lot to be done to properly safeguard the rights of animals in India. For example, there is little distinction between domesticated and wild animals in regions other than reserves or recognized forests. While in reserves, it is illegal to hunt or cause harm to any animal without prior licensing from the Government of India, it is not so in settings apart from reserved forests and national parks.

There have been multiple instances where videos of individuals torturing animals have gone viral on social media Even then, they have been charged minimal fines (sometimes as low as Rs. 50) for the torture of an animal. Additionally, the religious slaughter of animals is difficult to change cultural tradition in India. Recognition of animals as sentient will go a long way in the protection and betterment of animal life in India.

The Indian government is not alien to the benefits of recognizing an animal or a group of animals as sentient as they have already recognized dolphins as “‘non-human’ persons” in 2013, instituting a ban on all facilities being built to capture and contain dolphins. There is also a draft that encourages the government to increase the fine placed on the abuse of animals to be increased to a sum of Rs 75,000. This indicated the Indian government finally waking up to the issue of animal rights violations and taking action to prevent the same.

For the time being, non-governmental organisations are the ones leading the charge in the animal welfare department in India where they are commissioning and opening over 12,000 veterinary clinics in 2019 alone. This is a step in the right direction and we can only hope that the Indian government follows suit in taking measures necessary to protect and further animal rights in India.

Conclusion

Animals have been our constant companions for millennia. In recent times, they have been subject to more exploitation and abuse than ever before and it is becoming more necessary to quickly take steps to minimise the abuse faced by animals. India should follow in the footsteps of Britain and Spain in recognizing animals as sentient beings to enforce stricter punishments on culprits that voluntarily cause harm and suffering to animals. There should also be legislation to restrict the religious slaughter of animals and protection from undue exploitation.

India must quickly straighten its stance on animal rights and make an effort to educate its population against animal abuse and encourage sustainable and responsible cohabitation with animals. India has already recognized certain groups of animals as sentient, proving that there is scope in the laws to enforce provisions to protect animals.

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