Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill: What my dog taught me about life can help Britain regain its status as a nation of true animal lovers – Philip Lymbery

Sometimes I think my dog knows me better than I know myself.
Philip Lymbery's dog Duke is a sentient creature and not a pre-programmed automata (Picture: Philip Lymbery)Philip Lymbery's dog Duke is a sentient creature and not a pre-programmed automata (Picture: Philip Lymbery)
Philip Lymbery's dog Duke is a sentient creature and not a pre-programmed automata (Picture: Philip Lymbery)

Before I know it, I’ve given away a clue, betrayed my intentions to do one more thing before picking up the lead and going for a walk with Duke.

Maybe it’s the snap of my laptop, the tone in which I talk to my wife, or just the way I segue from doing one thing to another. I can see a soundly sleeping dog suddenly become alert. Then his eyes bulge. Soon, they are blinking, then staring, boring into me.

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That’s when I know he’s onto me. There’s now no way I can disguise what’s coming next. And more to the point, there’s no way I can now let him down. We must go for that walk and be quick about it!

I’ve heard it said that being able to remember the past and see into the future are traits that separate humans from other animals. But I just don’t buy it. What my dog has taught me is that memories of things past, good and bad, are very much remembered.

At least in a way that is meaningful to a dog. My companion canine, Duke, a rescue who came to us having been abandoned in a park when just eight weeks old, remembers very well who will offer him the most fuss or the best treats on our walks.

He remembers that the other day in that patch of wood, we met one of his favourite humans: Lee. He took off like a dog chasing a rabbit (which he doesn’t do by the way, chase rabbits) to greet favoured friend, Lee.

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For the next few days, when we reached the gateway to that same wood, he would look expectantly, nose twitching, eyes darting this way and that, just in case there was any sign again of Lee.

Similarly, he looks to the future. Like other dogs, Duke does so in a way that is meaningful to him. He anticipates when he’ll get a treat – when we come in from a walk, or before we go to bed at night. He expects.

And if I were to forget, his disappointment is palpable. So much so, it eats into me, jogging my memory and spurring me into corrective action.

Sentient creatures

No doubt there will be some scientists who will give an explanation as to why this is nothing to do with remembering the past or seeing the future. But then, some scientists and many others with vested interests have long done their best to try to demean animals, passing them off as pre-programmed automata.

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Thankfully, this self-serving dogma is starting to recede. More and more people are seeing the bleedin’ obvious. That animals have much more in common with us than we’ve previously dared to think.

They are after all, sentient creatures, capable of feeling pain, suffering and a sense of joy. They have wants and needs, hopes, dreams and expectations. They also know disappointment, fear, loathing.

Far from the ‘them and us’ that is often used to justify cruel farming methods or animal experimentation, they are fellow creatures. Fellow travellers on this lonely planet we call Earth.

But more than that, this kinship between humans and other animals as being sensitive, living, breathing, self-willed creatures is well on its way to being enshrined in UK law.

Having completed its “committee stage” through Parliament, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill aims to recognise the sentience of animals in UK law. When passed, the Bill will obligate government to consider the adverse effects on animal welfare of any new proposals. It will set up an independent committee to hold the government accountable.

A dream comes true

For those that have long argued for the better treatment of animals, legal recognition of animal sentience, is a dream come true.

It’s a recurring dream because the European Union first agreed such legal recognition way back in 1997.

I remember being in Amsterdam for the meeting of European ministers. A newly elected Tony Blair was there on one of his first outings as Britain’s Prime Minister.

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The agreement came after a decade of campaigning. The idea came from former dairy-farmer-turned-animal-advocate, Peter Roberts – the founder of Compassion in World Farming – who saw that ending live animal exports relied on attaining legal status for animals as something other than mere objects.

However, when Brexit happened, that part of EU law didn’t get transposed automatically. It was enshrined within an article in the EU’s founding treaty, rather than a specific law, so fell through the cracks.

For the love of animals

With the UK long known as a nation of animal lovers, it is fitting that people’s fondness for animals will be enshrined in law. Or at least, our recognition of the obvious – that they are not insensitive property like TV sets or tables and chairs. That they experience the world. That they know it in ways akin to humans.

Which is amazing when you think of it; we’re surrounded by life. Yet, think of all that money poured into space exploration, seeking out new life so that we as humans can know we not alone in this wide-open universe.

How ironic that we’ve been surrounded by life all the time. But then you knew that anyway. Living, breathing, thinking, sensitive creatures. And on that last point – sensitive – the law is finally catching up.

With St Valentine’s Day being traditionally when we hail the ones we love, why not extend that thought? Why not celebrate the diversity of life and our affection for it? Safe in the knowledge that deep down, we’re all much the same: proud, vulnerable and sentient. So, let’s raise a glass too, for the love of animals.

Philip Lymbery is global CEO of Compassion in Farming International, a United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf

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