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Octopuses will now have their feelings protected under U.K. law

'After reviewing over 300 scientific studies, we concluded that cephalopod mollusks and decapod crustaceans should be regarded as sentient, 'said Dr. Jonathan Birch of the London School of Economics.

Octopuses will now have their feelings protected under U.K. law
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/fjdelvalle

Octopuses, crabs, and lobsters will be recognized as sentient beings with the capacity to have feelings in the UK after new research concluded there is strong evidence they have a central nervous system and can feel pain. The U.K. government announced Friday that decapod crustaceans – including crabs, lobsters, crayfish and prawns – and cephalopod mollusks – squids, octopuses and cuttlefish – will be added to the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. The announcement said the bill "already recognizes all animals with a backbone (vertebrates) as sentient beings. However, unlike some other invertebrates (animals without a backbone), decapod crustaceans and cephalopods have complex central nervous systems, one of the key hallmarks of sentience."


The decision to expand the scope of the proposed legislation follows an independent review published this month by the London School of Economics, which found "strong scientific evidence" that the animals were sentient, with "the capacity to have feelings, such as feelings of pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, warmth, joy, comfort and excitement." Dr. Jonathan Birch, associate professor at LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and lead researcher on the report, said: "After reviewing over 300 scientific studies, we concluded that cephalopod mollusks and decapod crustaceans should be regarded as sentient, and should therefore be included within the scope of animal welfare law."


"The amendment will also help remove a major inconsistency: octopuses and other cephalopods have been protected in science for years, but have not received any protection outside science until now. One way the UK can lead on animal welfare is by protecting these invertebrate animals that humans have often completely disregarded," he added. The LSE review also evaluated the potential welfare implications of current commercial practices involving these animals and recommends against "declawing, nicking, eyestalk ablation, the sale of live decapod crustaceans to untrained, non-expert handlers, and extreme slaughter methods such as live boiling without stunning."


"The UK has always led the way on animal welfare and our Action Plan for Animal Welfare goes even further by setting out our plans to bring in some of the strongest protections in the world for pets, livestock and wild animals," Animal Welfare Minister Lord Zac Goldsmith said in the announcement. "The Animal Welfare Sentience Bill provides a crucial assurance that animal wellbeing is rightly considered when developing new laws. The science is now clear that crustaceans and mollusks can feel pain and therefore it is only right they are covered by this vital piece of legislation."


As per the government's announcement, the bill — when it becomes law — will establish an Animal Sentience Committee comprised of experts from within the field who will be able to issue reports on how well government decisions have taken account of the welfare of sentient animals. In the announcement, the UK government also said it would "not affect any existing legislation or industry practices such as fishing. There will be no direct impact on the shellfish catching or restaurant industry. Instead, it is designed to ensure animal welfare is well considered in future decision-making."


The recent announcement follows months-long efforts from a group of Conservative MPs to get the government to recognize the sentience of invertebrates. According to The Guardian, a report by the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation (CAWF) argued that cephalopods and crustaceans are discriminated against in legislation because their "neurological architecture differs from our own." It adds: "Common arguments against crustacean and cephalopod sentience focus on distinctions between these animals' anatomy and human anatomy (such as that they process information outside the brain, eg in ganglions). However, this anthropocentric view fails to capture what it means for an animal to be sentient."


"Crustaceans and cephalopods undoubtably experience the world in extremely different ways to ourselves. What matters, though, is whether that experience entails conscious experience of pleasure and pain. We believe that the evidence is sufficient to show that these animals do experience pleasure and pain," the report concludes.

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