Animal sentience and how the law is truly failing animals

A close up on a sheep's face. Only the eyes, ears and nose are visible.
Image credit – Jinki Cambronero

The recent announcement that animals are now to be formally recognized as sentient under UK law provides a good basis for campaigners and animal rights activists to push for law change. Alongside the announcement came a number of policy changes that will prevent horrific suffering. These included the banning of export of animals for fattening and slaughter in the UK.

New Zealand also recognises animals as sentient under the law. This means that animals are regarded as having the capacity to be aware of sensations.

And yet sadly, this awareness of sentience is not given adequate attention. Instead it is given short shrift when industry profit is at risk. While we are aware animals can feel we still subject them to ongoing atrocities.

Sentience is the ability to feel sensation. With sensation comes a range of possible emotions. Take for example the evident satisfaction that a chicken gets from dust bathing. Anyone who keeps chickens knows how much they love to bathe in dry dirt to clean themselves, often together in groups. In fact, dust bathing is a relaxing social activity for chickens.

About 10 chickens inside a battery cage. Some are near the front facing the bars. Others are up on a perch inside the shed.
A colony cage on a New Zealand farm. [Image credit – Farmwatch]

​In colony cages birds become stressed and often get trapped beneath the ‘perch’. Their bones become brittle from lack of movement and they suffer disease and feather loss. They also experience emotional distress, including anxiety, stress, boredom and fear.

It is not at all surprising that cages cause psychological distress. The colony cages provide 750 square cm per bird and are likened by the Egg Producers Federation NZ as an ‘open plan’ home. They claim that egg production is sustainable and meets the hen’s welfare needs. It’s absurd in the extreme and as consumers we need to challenge such wild lies.

In short, while both the United Kingdom and New Zealand recognise laying hens as sentient, they still subject them to enormous suffering.

And that is just one of many examples of how we are being duped and lied to by both legal frameworks and industry. They have each other’s backs, and the animals are the casualties.

It’s not a conspiracy. Rather it is cognitive dissonance – that state where you believe something even when all evidence points to the contrary. Sometimes we see only what we want to.

A wide angle of a chicken farm. There are so many white feathered chickens the ground isn't visible.
Inside a farm for chicken meat. [Image credit – Farmwatch]

​​The same happens with chickens raised for their meat. These chickens have been bred to grow so large that their bodies can’t keep up with the explosive weight gain. Many die before the six week period when they are slaughtered. They are raised in large indoor sheds with only an about an A4 sheet of paper size per bird. A 2013 Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) report found over half of the chickens studied were unable to walk or move properly, with the implication that they were unable to fully access food and water. Problems also described in the report included joint infections, twisted legs and bone tissue death. And if this isn’t enough, the ammonia from their droppings burns into their feet and ankles joints.

These birds then get sent to slaughter at only around six weeks of age when they reach the weight of 2.5 kg, (although some are killed even younger). Handlers catch the chickens, dangling up to four in each hand by their legs and forcing them into small crates. Birds often suffer from dislocated hips, broken wings and legs, and bruising. Once at the slaughter house they endure the aforementioned shackles, electric current bath, electric cutter and boiling bath (to remove feathers). And this is all after a short stay on Earth in an enormous hellish shed. Sounds like a fun day at the park.

A poorly lit shot (probably taken at night) of a person reaching into a carton full of chickens. Other cartons can be seen on a shelf, presumably all with chickens.

I’m just keeping it real. While we are doing this kind of thing to animals is it genuine to say we recognise their sentience and have high animal welfare laws? Is it ethical to convince consumers that their meat didn’t suffer when it was a living breathing animal, or that their eggs came from a sunny place?

I know there are many people in the UK and NZ who love animals and have genuine compassion for them and hate animal suffering. And yet, the suffering on factory farms is as intense as it can get. Many love animals and still reach for that roast or that packet of eggs.

We may recognize animals as sentient, but it means very little if we cannot treat them as such.

Take Action – Put an end to NZ chicken cruelty

Chickens bred for meat are bred to suffer.

A white chicken with dirty feathers, sitting on a dirty brown floor. They are photographed from above and one of their legs is sprawled out to the side in at an unnatural angle.

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