News & Press: NZVA news

The power of a word

Tuesday, 3 October 2017  
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VetScript Editor's pick - October 2017

In July the NZVA released its position statement defining the word ‘sentient’ as it appears in the Animal Welfare Act 1999. Mirjam Guesgen investigates how a single word can have the power to alter the welfare of animals.

Ask any pet owner whether their furry family member has personality, or a farmer if their sheep enjoy being on fresh pasture, and you will likely get a resounding “of course”, or perhaps even a scoff for suggesting otherwise. For many people, the idea that an animal is capable of feeling is not difficult to accept.

However, the concept of animals being able to experience the world and having emotion (sentience) is a fairly recent development in our long association with animals. The inclusion of sentience in law is even more recent.

In 2015 New Zealand became the first common law country in the world to include the word ‘sentient’ in an amendment to its Animal Welfare Act 1999. While revolutionary, the lack of definition in the Act left lawyers and veterinarians wondering whether the move was purely symbolic.

In July the NZVA released its position statement on sentience, for the first time providing a detailed definition of the term and the responsibilities entailed by attributing sentience to animals.

Including a single word in law or defining it on paper may seem minor, but doing so has major implications scientifically, philosophically, morally and legally.

At its most basic, sentience is the “capacity to have feelings” (Kirkwood, 2006). At its most inclusive, sentience requires the ability to evaluate the actions of others and oneself, remember actions and their outcomes, be able to assess risks and benefits and be aware (Broom, 2006). Arguably, the most widely accepted scientific definition of sentience, and the one adopted by the NZVA, is the ability to subjectively experience both positive and negative emotions (Proctor, 2013).

What it means to be sentient has evolved as our scientific understanding of animals’ lives has grown. Philosopher René Descartes described animals as feelingless machines. To him, the ability to feel, experience and have emotion was contingent upon having a human mind bestowed on us by a deity. Through more complex behavioural studies and brain imaging, the capability of nonhuman animals has been revealed and validated and is no longer considered anthropomorphising.

Simultaneously, the list of animals that can be deemed sentient has grown. This list now extends to all vertebrates (including birds, other reptiles and fish), as well as cephalopods, squid and crayfish (Broom, 2016).

Just as the definition of sentience has evolved, so too has the place of animals in law. Religion and law were closely entwined early on so that people had dominion over animals and could use them for their utility. Animals were property and not much more.

The idea of animals as objects still persists in modern law, according to University of Otago animal law lecturer Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere. “Take away the Animal Welfare Act and animals in New Zealand have the same legal status as a microwave,” he says.

Marcelo says the law has always had trouble putting animals in a category that allows them to have legal protection while at the same time not necessarily putting them together with humans. Furthermore, he is sceptical about the impact of adding the word ‘sentient’ in legislation. He says that by not defining sentience in the Act and referring to it only in the purpose statement, the word has few direct consequences and very little “bite”.

Veterinarian and animal welfare advisor Virginia Williams agrees that including the word without a definition means its place in law is largely symbolic, but argues that its inclusion is still important. “It’s that gradual implementation of change that moves us ever forward in looking after our animals,” she says.

Virginia recalls that the recognition of animal sentience scientifically came long before the term appeared in front of government. Despite being widely accepted within animal welfare and veterinary circles, it took a strong push from members of the NZVA, National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) , National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee (NAEAC) and SPCA to get past initial governmental scepticism.

A similar trend can be seen internationally. While many countries have welfare guidelines, regulations or laws that imply sentience, few specifically include the term in law.

Aside from New Zealand, the only other countries to do so are The Netherlands, France, Chile and the province of Quebec in Canada. No country to date has defined sentience in law, and few make reference to the full spectrum of emotion that sentience implies.

Our closest neighbour, Australia, clearly defines animal sentience and its importance to welfare in its Animal Welfare Strategy and National Implementation Plan 2010-14. However, the emphasis on sentience has not trickled down to the state and territorial governments that administer its animal welfare laws.

The influential developer of the Five Domains model, Massey University Professor David Mellor, says the term is powerful because it implies a strong sense of responsibility from those working with and caring for animals.

He argues that, by using the word, an animal does not necessarily have to be granted personhood for it to be legally provided for.

Preventing or prosecuting mistreatment of animals is only half of the equation. If we are to accept that sentience is defined as the capacity to experience both negative and positive emotions, then it stands that we must also have measures in place to encourage and reward promotion of positive emotions.

David says the key to promoting positive welfare states in animals is allowing them to exercise agency (goal-directed and autonomous activities), such as giving substrate to manipulate or providing opportunity for social interaction.

NZVA Chief Veterinary Officer Helen Beattie is a strong advocate for legislation reflecting a promotion of positive welfare states. She says that over time she hopes the Act moves away from legislating for only minimum standards and embraces the idea of providing for quality of life, and a life worth living.

Otago’s Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere says the semantics and guidelines of law are meaningless without follow-through.

“Good legislative design and aspirational goals are all well and good, but unless that’s followed up with resources and enforcement of those goals then they don’t mean a lot.”

He describes the two enforcement bodies, MPI and the SPCA, as “chronically underfunded and overstressed”, and questions how promoting positive welfare states could be enforced.

It may fall to veterinarians to report mistreatment or to inform animal caregivers of ways to provide opportunities for agency.

Helen says there is always space within the client-veterinary relationship for education, but the challenge is spreading the message beyond those who are presenting at the clinic.

A concerted effort between veterinarians, the SPCA and MPI would be the way to do that, she says.

Any change in law would have to be driven by a moral, cultural and societal shift – a process that could begin soon, with a workshop run by NAWAC and
NAEAC set to discuss animal sentience later this year.

“If the inclusion of sentience in the legislation starts that conversation and initiates that culture shift where we’re thinking of animals as more than microwaves, I think that would be positive,” says Marcelo.


Animal Welfare Act 1999. Accessed on 14 August 2017 from public/1999/0142/latest/DLM49664.html

Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare 2012. Accessed on 14 August 2017 from

Broom DM. Behaviour and welfare in relation to pathology. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97, 73–83, 2006

Broom DM. Considering animals’ feelings: précis of Sentience and animal welfare (Broom, 2014). Animal Sentience 5(1), 2016

Kirkwood JK. The distribution of the capacity for sentience in the animal kingdom. In: Animals, Ethics and Trade: The Challenge of Animal Sentience. Edited by J Turner and J D’Silva, 12–26. Petersfield: Compassion in World Farming Trust, 2006

Proctor H, Carder G, Cornish AR. Searching for animal sentience: a systematic review of the scientific literature. Animals (3), 882–906, 2013

The Australian Animal Welfare Strategy and National Implementation Plan 2010-14. Accessed on 14 August 2017 from