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New Zealand legally recognises animals as ‘sentient’ beings

(Jonathan Carson)  A change to New Zealand law has recognised what pet owners and scientists have known for years – that animals have feelings.

The Animal Welfare Amendment Bill, which passed its final reading on Tuesday, states that animals, like humans, are “sentient” beings.

“To say that animals are sentient is to state explicitly that they can experience both positive and negative emotions, including pain and distress,” said Dr Virginia Williams, chair of the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee.

“The explicitness is what is new and marks another step along the animal welfare journey.”

The bill also bans the use of animals for the testing of cosmetics.

Dr Williams said the legal recognition of animal sentience provided a stronger underpinning of the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act.

Nelson SPCA manager Donna Walzl said the changes were “wonderful”.

“It’s great to finally see it brought into legislation. It’s awesome.”

She said pets that came to the SPCA’s attention often exhibited human-like emotions.

“You can see that they do have separation anxiety and that’s showing emotion. It’s almost a human emotion,” she said.

“It’s the same with the animals that we see that are neglected and have real, true animal welfare issues. They suffer for it. You can see it in their eyes. It’s quite sad, really.”

A submission on the bill by SPCA Auckland said a declaration of sentience was needed “because most New Zealand law treats animals as ‘things’ and ‘objects’ rather than as living creatures”.

Walzl said she hoped that recognising animals as sentient beings would add “more weight” to abuse and neglect cases in court.

“Hopefully there will be some sterner penalties out there and that obviously creates a bigger deterrent for people to do those things.”

The bill also provides for a penalty scheme to enable low-to-medium level offending to be dealt with more effectively, and gives animal welfare inspectors the power to issue compliance notices, among other measures.


New Zealand Veterinary Association president Dr Steve Merchant said the bill greater clarity, transparency and enforceability of animal welfare laws.

“Expectations on animal welfare have been rapidly changing, and practices that were once commonplace for pets and farm stock are no longer acceptable or tolerated. The bill brings legislation in line with our nation’s changing attitude on the status of animals in society.”

The bill was introduce to parliament by primary industries minister Nathan Guy in May, 2013.

Read the Animal Welfare Amendment Bill here.