As a student in Roslyn High School, Long Island, there were requirements that Cornell University Veterinary College had for applicants for admission. One was called the farm practice requirement. This was in place to expose suburban students the opportunity to learn about farm animals. I did this for 2 summers, living with a farming family in upper New York State. Among the many fond memories, one stood out as a learning experience that forced me to evaluate my relationship with animals as sentience beings. Sentience is the awareness and the capacity to sense and feel, particularly pleasure and pain.
My personal evolution in appreciating the feelings of animals began with a mindless act that resulted in the wanton and unnecessary act of killing an innocent creature. At the time, I had not put much thought about hunting in general, and as a young man with a 22 gun on a large farm, I went out on a mission. In the process, I shot and killed a hedgehog. That mindless act haunted me and began for me a very conscious belief that animals are on this earth and should be privileged to a life just as much as humans. Over time, there has been an evolution in the consciousness of the right to life that animals should possess.
The concept that sentience exists beyond humans dates back millennia. The Buddhist and Hindu religions, for instance, have long advocated nonviolence toward all living things. But legal recognition of animal rights in developed economies didn't take root until the 19th and 20th centuries, when earlier proclamations by philosophers such as René Descartes — that animals were essentially biological machines — came under greater scrutiny, particularly from the antivivisection movement.
Initially, animal protections that followed were predicated largely on the notion that if someone was harming animals, they were likely to escalate to harming humans. The idea that animals have intrinsic worth wasn't recognized much until the 20th century, and is still developing, as demonstrated by the contemporary rise in veganism.
Regard for animal sentience in some countries' rulebooks is more implicit than explicit. For example, the U.S. Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, passed in 1958, without using the word "sentience," requires that animals be rendered insensible to pain during slaughter.
The European Union first explicitly recognized the concept of animal sentience in the Treaty of Amsterdam, a sweeping policy agreement by member states signed in 1997. The concept's status was escalated in an updated agreement signed in 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon, which says member states "shall, since animals are sentient beings," pay full regard to their welfare when formulating policy in areas including agriculture and scientific research. For example, the EU prohibits small wire cages for laying hens and bans the testing of cosmetics and ingredients on animals. The directive allows exceptions for religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.
Britain's vote in 2016 to leave the EU has prompted various interest groups, including the British Veterinary Association, to lobby for the recognition of animal sentience to be enshrined directly into UK law. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has pledged to do just that, but no specific policy has been put forward.
Countries that have explicitly recognized animal sentience in federal laws include France, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand and Tanzania, according to the Animal Protection Index which ranks 50 countries around the world according to their animal welfare policy and legislation. The index is compiled by the charity World Animal Protection and was last updated in March.
When I was accepted to Veterinary School I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to protect animal life and respect the gift of life given to all creatures. This extends to all living things including most bugs. It does not extend to ticks and mosquitoes…the rule is: cause disease in my patients and all bets are off!