UK formally recognizes animals as “sentient beings”, rolling out new protection for pets and wild animals

In a move hailed by animal welfare campaigners, the United Kingdom will formally recognize animals as sentient beings for the first time. The move will also include a suite of animal welfare measures, such as banning the import of hunting trophies from endangered animals and cracking down on pet theft.

Palmerston, who used to be the resident chief mouser of the UK’s Foreign Office. He has retired last year. Credit: Foreign Office.

Ministers said Brexit, the country’s departure from the European Union, has allowed the UK to go further than previous EU legislation and establish its own rules, improving protections for pets and wild animals even further. Still, the new legislation will only apply to vertebrates, the government said, not to cephalopods such as octopus.

“We are a nation of animal lovers and were the first country in the world to pass animal welfare laws,” George Eustice, the environment secretary, said in a statement earlier this week. “As an independent nation, we are now able to go further than ever to build on our excellent track record.”

The measures

Animal welfare will be improved by tackling puppy smuggling through changes to import rules and introducing compulsory microchipping for cats. At the same time, controlled training e-collars will be forbidden and pet theft will be more strictly controlled by implementing a new government task force set to be announced. 

Simultaneously, wild animals will be further protected by making it illegal to keep primates as pets and introducing new laws to crack down on illegal hare coursing, a bloodsport where dogs such as greyhounds chase hares. The government will also restrict the use of glue traps and fund wildlife conservation programs in the UK. 

The UK will also encourage the protection of animals abroad banning the import of hunting trophies from endangered animals, as well as the sale of ivory. The import and export of shark fins will be prohibited and a ban on the sale of foie gras will be explored. Ads of unacceptable low-welfare animal practices will also be banned. 

However, the use of cages for poultry and farrowing crates for pigs will not be subject to an outright ban, a request that campaigners have long been asking for. Instead, their use will be “examined,” and farmers will be given incentives by the government to improve animal health and welfare through the future farm subsidy regime.

To deliver these reforms, the government will be introducing a series of bills focusing on animal sentience, kept animals in the UK and the welfare of animals. There will also be a series of non-legislative changes to promote animal welfare over the coming months, with a number of regulations due to be brought forward as early as this year.

Animal welfare advocates have given the proposals a measured welcome. They, however, warned against watering down the plans. Claire Bass said in a statement that “the devil will be in the detail,” adding that “countless millions of animals” are suffering both in the UK and overseas for food, fashion and entertainment. 

“Delivering on the plan will require understanding and real commitment. Respect for animal welfare is not only the right thing to do for animals, it will also play a critical role in tackling global environmental and public health challenges such as climate change, antibiotic resistance, and pandemic prevention,” she added.

The UK was first country in the world to pass legislation to protect animals in 1822 with the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act and later the landmark Protection of Animals Act in 1911. Since then it has carried out several reforms, ranging from banning the use of battery cages for laying hens and introducing compulsory CCTV in slaughter houses. 

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