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PROPERTY VS SENTIENCE

January 5, 2011

In the 19th Century, when federal legisation was first enacted regarding the Criminal Code: Crimes Against Animals Section in Canada, animals were viewed as property.  They were put into the same category as furniture or machinery, able to be bought and sold with no strings attached and with the assumption that the right of ownership conferred absolute control over the lives involved. 

 This was allowed because general assumptions in that era were that animals had no souls and, therefore, that they were subhuman, unable to experience pain or feelings.  Animal abuse was generally ignored in courts of law.

Nowadays, in the 21st Century, we know better.  Both anecdoteally and scientifically, the proof is overwhelming: animals are sentient creatures, just like humans are.  Both feel pain, both experience loss and both welcome pleasure.

So, what are we to do with these facts?  They are impossible to ignore and they are the reason why we are so frustrated in our attempts to revise and amend the 19th Century legislation.  Attempts at change revolve around penalties and definitions of ‘wilful neglect’ when they should, firstly, address the basic assumptions.  Owning something that is called ‘property’ requires no particular ethical behaviour on the part of the owner.  Caring for a sentient creature demands an entirely different degree of responsibility and suggests a need for effective controls over aberrant behaviour on the part of the care giver.

The reality of sentience forces one to make a dramatic shift in standards and expectations when it comes to  relations with the other animals on this earth. 

What does its general acceptance mean to our country’s approach to matters of animal welfare?

Sandra Pady, DSC Executive Director

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