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Catholic-Animals
THE ARK

A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals

 

Selections From The Ark
Number 201 - Autumn/Winter 2005

ANIMAL SENTIENCE CONFERENCE

In March this year Compassion in World Farming Trust hosted a major international conference in London, entitled From Darwin to Dawkins: the science and implications of animal sentience.

BY NIKI BREWER*

The aim of the two day conference was to raise awareness of the importance of animal sentience, although the comprehensive selection of speakers led to a range of views concerning its implications. Subject areas included sentience in both wild and farm animals; ethical and legal approaches to animal sentience; sustainability and animal welfare, and international policy issues.

The Dawkins of the conference title was Professor Marian Dawkins who opened proceedings with a talk on animal behaviour, emphasising that animal welfare can only be improved if we make the effort to find out what animals want rather than what we think they want. Her argument that animals must be given the benefit of the doubt until their sentience is either proved or disproved was also made by Dr Jane Goodall DBE in her keynote presentation and by several other speakers during the conference. Another key theme was the need to use common sense in the debate over animal sentience, highlighted in Peter Sandoe’s witty and yet ultimately thought-provoking talk asking ‘Does Science take Sentience Seriously? In this he argued the case for common sense to be considered alongside science, and concluded with the question ‘Do we take science too seriously?’

Tight programme

Fourteen talks on the first day and sixteen on the second meant that the timetable was relentless, with each speaker being allocated only a 20 minute slot. This time limit meant that we were only given a brief insight into each particular field of expertise, but it did have the benefit of introducing many different ideas and areas of research to a broad range of people. Questions were limited at the end of each session because of the tight programme but this was possibly a good thing as far too many people were keen to make a point rather than to ask pertinent questions.

The only occasion when questions became heated was after the talk by Professor Mahfouz Azzam on animals and Islam. After very carefully explaining the importance of animal rights and compassion towards animals within Islamic thought, and the need to raise public awareness through media, education and new laws, the ensuing question time quickly turned into an unprovoked attack on Professor Azzam as if he were personally to blame for ongoing ritual slaughter and poor animal welfare in Muslim-majority countries. Talks on animal welfare and sentience in the USA and China that indicated just how far behind the UK both of these countries are, with the USA still not regarding farm animals as sentient beings, did not however provoke any sort of hostile reaction. The Revd Professor Andrew Linzey provided the only other religious perspective, as he discussed why animal suffering matters morally. Arguing that the perceived differences between humans and animals provide a stronger not weaker case for moral concern, he emphasised the Christ-like innocence of animals – making an analogy with the concern that we give to human infants.

The most interesting and relevant talks for me were those that were directly related to farm animal production. How can we continue to use animals while ensuring that we improve animal welfare standards and being aware of what animals themselves require to maintain as ‘good’ a life as possible? Professor John Webster asked what we owe to farm animals, describing what he sees as the need to establish a social contract with such animals in order for us to take responsibility for them since we use them for food. From a scientific perspective Professor David Mellor gave a fascinating talk, explaining his research concerning the timing of the onset of sentience in foetal and newborn farm animals, and concluded that, while the foetus has the capacity for sentience, consciousness only occurs after birth with the onset of breathing, based on electrical activity of the brain. It therefore appears that the foetus cannot suffer before or during birth.

Putting animals at the centre

Roland Bonney of the Food Animal Initiative (FAI) gave possibly the most practical talk of the conference, appealing to me both as a farmer and a student. The FAI is striving to develop practical solutions to farm animal welfare problems by putting animals at the centre of the decision-making process and by breeding animals fit for their environment. He also emphasised the need to change consumer culture by showing the public the farming systems which are better for the animals and also that healthy animals produce healthy food.

After a long but stimulating two days the conference concluded with a vote in favour of the following statement:

‘This conference calls on the UN, the WTO, the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) and their member governments to join us in recognising that sentient animals are capable of suffering, and that we all have a duty to preserve the habitat of wild animals and to end cruel farming systems and other trades and practices which inflict suffering on animals.’

The key issue here being to change the emphasis away from ‘unnecessary suffering’ to ‘suffering’ since it is so difficult to determine what is ‘unnecessary’, and this leaves the door open for the continuation of unethical practices. While the vote was almost unanimous there were a few dissenters, possibly concerned with whether animal farming could continue if all suffering were prevented or maybe just unable to see how all suffering can be avoided.

* Niki Brewer is a dairy farmer living in West Wales and also a PhD student at the University of Wales, Lampeter. Her research is to investigate the ethical and religious perspectives of foot and mouth disease control with the aim of presenting an argument for the development of a global prophylactic vaccine on ethical and religious grounds.

Niki can be contacted at nikibrewer@ukgateway.net 

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