Sentience Bill recognises that crabs have feelings: Why this is a true mark of progress

Sentience Bill recognises that crabs have feelings: Why this is a true mark of progress

Emma Slawinski, Director of Advocacy and Policy at the RSPCA, explains why recognising that decapods and cephalopods (animals such as crabs and squid) are sentient is a scientific fact and far from the so-called 'woke' agenda.

When I first saw the recent report from the London School of Economics (LSE), which confirmed strong evidence of sentience in decapod crustaceans (such as crabs and lobsters) and cephalopods (like octopus and squid), I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The RSPCA, Crustacean Compassion and many other groups, have long been campaigning for these creatures to be seen as sentient in law and we believe the science is very clear in showing that they are.

However, over the past year, the humble lobster has become a poster child of a culture war. And despite the overwhelming science and public support, the issue of their sentience has been hijacked by some lobby groups as a symbol of the so-called 'woke' agenda. Instead, the lobster should be lauded as the animal that has put the UK back on the top of the animal welfare chart.

The Sentience Bill is unfinished business from Brexit

The Government's move to amend the Sentience Bill is an important step for lobsters but also potentially a much bigger opportunity for positive change in the way we view all animals. The Sentience Bill is unfinished business from Brexit as it was the only issue that was not carried over into UK law when we left the EU last New Years Eve. But, as the Government promised, it now improves on what we left behind.

By setting up a Committee to assess Government policy on how decisions impact animal welfare, we have bettered the process we had previously. Only two other countries globally have such a process. And, by agreeing lobsters and octopuses can experience pain and distress, we have widened our understanding of the animal kingdom and are rightly looking to protect the welfare of those animals.

Our aim is to create a more humane world

Of course, this has prompted wild speculation from some MPs, columnists and interest groups claiming that recognising these amazing creatures are sentient will bring the seafood industry to its knees. This idea is completely ungrounded and is another way that some groups are ignoring the robust evidence and instead branding this important step for animal welfare as something that it isn't.

By calling this part of the 'woke' agenda, not only does this undermine the evidence but it suggests that being 'woke', which is defined by calling out injustices, is a bad thing. Instead, our aim is to create a more humane world and we know that there is wide public support for this too.

When the Sentience Bill was announced, we called for decapods and cephalopods to be included in the scope of the Bill because the science indicates that these animals are sentient. The Government announced a review into whether this would be the case, with the highly anticipated LSE report coming out recently.

Countries have started making it illegal to boil lobsters alive

This report is the most comprehensive overview we have seen and demonstrates that there is strong scientific evidence that these animals experience pain and distress but also positive feelings like pleasure and joy, even containing new ways of assessing sentience. The science speaks for itself and if we were to ignore this we'd risk being left behind whilst other countries, for example, New Zealand, Switzerland and parts of Italy, have already made it illegal to boil lobsters without stunning, or killing them first.

Including decapods and cephalopods in the Sentience Bill will by no means put a stop to the seafood industries - indeed this is not even on the agenda. It will see the Government weighing up business needs with animal welfare concerns. The RSPCA stands by working with the shellfish, catering and fishing industry when making future policy decisions and we hope that with input from across the sector, it will put an end to the inappropriate keeping of these animals and cruel practices such as live boiling.

Crabs quickly learn to avoid painful experiences

The sentience of these creatures has long been a source of debate but we now know that crustaceans and cephalopods exhibit lots of abilities and behaviours which are accepted as evidence of sentience in other animals. For example, crabs show responses consistent with conscious pain perception and quickly learn to avoid painful experiences.

They are also capable of using tools and will hold tiny anemones in their claws which protect the crab from danger due to their stinging tentacles. Octopuses can use tools too - the Veined Octopus carries coconut shells around with them to use as a shelter if they are threatened. And octopuses and cuttlefish are even able to recognise individual humans and respond to them differently. Even shooting jets of water at a person they don't like!

As part of the Bill, there is to be a planned Animal Sentience Committee (an advisory body made up of independent experts) but it has been claimed that this would hold the Government to ransom and stop progress in policies that benefit humans. This is another ungrounded claim.

The committee would be able to assess how the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments' policies would impact the welfare of sentient animals - a groundbreaking model that only operates in a handful of countries. Recognising sentience in law has been positioned by some as the 'world gone mad' but it would be a mad world that ignored the interconnectedness of the fate of our fellow species on earth with our own future without doing so.

The pandemic we have all lived through over the past 18 months and the lessons of COP26 show us we cannot continue to dismiss the evidence before our eyes: that our health and our wellbeing is intrinsically linked to that of animals and the planet.

86% of the public are in support of a law on animal sentience

This is by no means a niche issue, 86% of the public are in support of a law on animal sentience. And there is strong evidence to treat decapods and cephalopods as sentient beings. On Monday 6 December, the Sentience Bill went to the Report Stage with no amendments, meaning decapod crustaceans and cephalopods are now under the Bill as sentient animals and the Bill is one step closer to becoming law. This is a much-needed step in placing the UK as a leader in animal welfare.

Recognising these animals' sentience in the way that we make laws, far from holding us back, is a true mark of progress.

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