Helen Dunnett

Views on what is a sentient being

Helen Dunnett November 3rd, 2011 No Comments

From all sides of the animals testing and research debate, everyone agrees that animals are sentient beings and this has been recognized in the Treaty of Amsterdam. Sentiency is the ability to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences. In relation to animals, sentience implies the ability to experience pleasure or suffering.

During an interview session with brain researcher Peter Janssen, who uses macaque monkeys to understand depth perception, I asked him what it was like to perform experiments on non human primates who I would imagine have a higher level of consciousness than other animals.

This is Peter’s view.

Maggy Jennings from the UK’s animal welfare RSPCA  organization wished to react.

This is Maggy’s response to Peter’s comments and her view on sentient beings.

Maggy Jennings, RSPCA: The key issue is not whether animals can reflect on their experiences or on their fates, but whether they can suffer physical pain and psychological distress.  There is plenty of evidence that they do.  For example, it is now widely accepted that animals can experience negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and depression – not just primates, but also so-called “lower” animals such as rats, mice and fish.

Animal experiments are not benign – they can cause severe suffering, both as a result of experimental procedures, and also simply because of life in a laboratory.   Just confining animals such as primates in laboratory caging, when they have evolved to live in an extensive and highly complex physical and social environment, has a significant adverse impact on their welfare.  And in the end the animals will lose their lives.

It seems something of an anomaly to me that researchers who study primates in the wild emphasise their amazing capabilities, which are brought to television screens around the world for people to marvel at and admire. Yet in the laboratory, these and other animals are all too often confined in small cages, subjected to invasive procedures and viewed in a reductionist way as research ‘tools’.

The suffering of animals in experiments is a very serious ethical and welfare issue for many people and in my view, the necessity, validity and justification ought to be much more critically evaluated in every individual case.  Understanding and respecting the fact that animals are sentient beings is not anthropomorphism, it is basic humanity. If humans assume they have a right to use animals in experiments, they must also take on the responsibility of recognizing and reducing suffering and doing everything they can to avoid and replace animal use.  This must surely be the goal of a humane society in the 21st century.

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