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Adopting a humane approach to all species: Bug sentience

Buglife CEO Matt Shardlow writes on the need to take an inclusive approach to animal sentience, and to give the proposed Animal Sentience Committee a wide ranging remit.

July 2021

All animals exhibit some level of sentience, they are aware of their surrounding and respond to them. At Buglife we believe that avoiding unnecessary harm to bugs and treating them with respect are good aims to hold. However, the extent to which bugs have welfare needs that Government and individuals should take into account is a very complex area that is debatable and needs to be navigated sensitively. We believe that experts on animal welfare should be free to have this debate.

As I write this the Government is taking the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill through Parliament. The Bill recognises that animals are ‘sentient beings’, but then defines animals as being ‘any vertebrate other than homo sapiens [sic]’, thereby excluding over 99% of animals from the definition, although a later clause gives the Minister the power to expand the definition to bring specified invertebrates into its ambit. The effect of the Bill if enacted would be to establish an Animal Sentience Committee that would advise Government of the affects, or likely effects, of policies on animal welfare.

There is no universally applied definition of sentience. At one end of the scale, the dictionary definition is that an organism is ‘able to perceive or feel things’. If this criterion is applied then it is obvious that animals, whatever their relationship to humans, are universally aware of their surroundings and able to respond to them. Indeed, arguments that even plants are sentient seem to have substance (e.g. Calvo et al. 2017) However, in common usage people tend to think that humans are the yardstick of sentient beings and that the category only extends to other organisms that are self-aware, and communicate, think and feel emotions in the way that we do - perhaps we could call this the Star Trek definition. In the sci-fi series there are recurring themes of sentience, with legal debates about the sentience, or not, of artificial life forms and even a statement that cats are not sentient (TNG, Episode 6x08). In practice when scientists attempt to establish the existence or not of sentience they tend to look for evidence of complex behaviours and learning in response to environmental stimuli – and usually in relation to pain or distress, rather than joy or satisfaction.

Buglife’s aim is to stop the extinction of invertebrate species and to achieve sustainable populations of invertebrates. There is no assessment of sentience required to understand or apply these aims. However, animal welfare is not divorced from these aims either, it is often the case that drivers of population declines and extinctions will also be causing harm to the welfare of invertebrates – pesticide poisoned worms, habitat-robbed starving bees and invasive flatworm ‘gang-attacked’ snails for instance.

Invertebrates are essential to life on earth, they pollinate the food we eat, build the soil on which we depend and are essential for the ecological health of the planet. The Earth is their home and at Buglife we believe that our fellow Earthlings should always be treated with respect and care. However, we do not advocate for a universal approach to what this respect and care looks like in practice, and we understand that people drive cars, plough fields, eat shrimps and otherwise kill and maim billions of animals every year. In many cases there are no alternatives available that would avoid this carnage.

To achieve enough safe places for bugs to survive and thrive in the countryside, people will need to foster better relationships with invertebrate species. This means understanding and respecting their ecological needs, but it also means being humane in our consideration of the welfare of these beings. Our own sentience is the reason why so many people are upset by the disrespectful treatment of flies, worms, crayfish, cockroaches and other animals for cheap entertainment on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’.

As an example Buglife wants to see the legal protection of nesting bees - just as we have laws protecting bird nests, we should have laws protecting wild bee nests. In both instances there is an intermesh of issues relating to both the risk of extinction to rare bees or birds, but also the ethics of harming bird embryos or devastating an insect society.

While scientists continue to debate the definitions of sentience and try to apply experimental techniques to determine its presence or absence, given some consideration it seems pragmatic to conclude that there is no cliff edge. There is no sudden line where we can say this animal is sentient but this one is not, instead there is a gradient, a slope, or several slopes, along which there are no easy break points. This properly reflects how humans decide to personally treat animals, more people struggle with the idea of eating animals they perceive as having high sentience – e.g. dogs and dolphins, than eating animals they perceive as having lower sentience – e.g. cod and crabs.

Animal welfare protection laws have tended to apply to vertebrates only, although the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 protects laboratory octopuses, squid and cuttlefish, but no other invertebrates, to the same extent as laboratory monkeys and mice. Such laws are there to set clear boundaries around behaviour that society considers is unacceptable.

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill does not contain specific welfare measures, instead it sets up an august body of experts to consider animal welfare issues as they relate to Government policy. To prevent by law this body from considering the welfare effects of government policy on octopuses, lobsters, bees and earthworms seems arbitrary and unnecessary.

Over time knowledge and awareness change and grow, people’s attitudes and empathies develop, and social norms setting out acceptable behaviour change. Leaving it up to the Animal Sentience Committee to consider where sentience lies and therefore where the welfare implications of policies bite across the animal kingdom seems to be the best way to ensure that government is provided with dynamic advice that reflects the inherent complexity of this topic.

Matt Shardlow is CEO of Buglife

Follow @MattEAShardlow and @Buzz_dont_tweet

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.