Animals Feel Things Too, According to Changing Laws in Victoria

An image of pets in australia to illustrate animal rights

It might sound like common sense that animals besides people can feel things like pain and joy. After all, we tend to surround ourselves with little furry creatures whom we are certain experience pure ecstasy when we place a plate of food in front of them.

But, according to the law, that’s not the case. Legally, across the whole country, barring the Australian Capital Territory, animals don’t feel anything. It’s under this legal basis that the country has a high tolerance for the pain and suffering humans cause to animals.

In Victoria, that’s all looking to change with the introduction of new laws that formally recognise the sentience of animals. The legislation, which has been years in the making, is set to be drafted in December before being introduced into Parliament next year.

RSPCA Victoria has said the proposed changes, which have been created with stakeholders like themselves, are “positive” and include:

  • “Recognition of animal sentience in the new legislation – that is, explicitly recognising that animals have the capacity to feel, perceive their environment, and to have positive and negative experiences like pleasure and pain;
  • “Care requirements – to recognise that people have a duty to care for the health and wellbeing of animals, including providing appropriate nutrition, physical environments and behavioural interactions;
  • “New provisions to help authorised officers including RSPCA Victoria Inspectors protect and care for animals, including an improved enforcement toolkit and better provisions to provide appropriate care for animals held in custody due to welfare concerns”.

The key change here is the recognition of sentience. Animals to which this trait will be extended include all vertebrate species, crustaceans, and cephalopods. This means fish, frogs, reptiles, birds, lobsters, and octopuses, as well as dogs, cats, and farm animals.

On the last category, the Victorian Farmers Federation have expressed their concern over the impact of the laws on agriculture. They have argued that such laws shouldn’t interfere with farmers’ rights, should distinguish between the recreational and commercial keeping of animals, and stick to the science over animal sentience. They note that sentience should not mean animals are granted human-like legal rights.

If the laws pass, Victoria will become the first state to recognise animal sentience in Australia. The ACT did the same in 2019. Overseas, a number of nations legally recognise the sentience of animals, including New Zealand, France, Greece, Denmark, and some parts of the US.

What Is Australia’s Stance on Animal Rights and Animal Cruelty?

Animal rights organisations take a mixed but mostly dim view of Australia as a developed nation when it comes to animal rights.

Notably, there is no federal legislation governing animal cruelty, with the national government passing responsibility in this area over to the states and territories.

State and territory legislation varies when it comes to the treatment of animals, although all implicitly acknowledge that animals feel pain by protecting against the unnecessary suffering of animals.

Animal welfare has been a hot-topic issue of debate, given the country’s major cattle industry. After years of debate and international criticism, the federal government is committed to phasing out the live export of sheep from the country, which is still practised to this day. Not all national leaders support the ban, though, with WA notably pushing for the ban to be scrapped.

In 2004, the country adopted the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy, which explicitly covered “all sentient animals” as its basis. The strategy was accompanied by a national implementation plan set to roll out from 2010 onwards, but in 2013, the AAWS was defunded and the project abandoned. Funding for further welfare projects was also scrapped in 2015.

In 2018, a report commissioned by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources found that there was a “shifting mindset on farm animal welfare” in the country. 95% of the population believe it is a concern, and 91% want reform to address it, the report found.

At the most recent budget, $5 million was set aside to re-establish the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy. The move seeks to establish a national approach to animal welfare. So far, little has emerged about the scheme.

Animal rights groups are hoping that Victoria’s new laws can form the basis for further changes across the states and territories.

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