‘Sentience’, as most dictionaries would agree, is the capacity to perceive, feel and experience subjectively. Princeton University Professor, Peter Singer, in his 1975 book Animal Liberation, writes that the foremost principle of equality is that no equal or identical treatment is required, but what is needed is equal consideration.
According to the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, when deciding the rights of a being, the question is not whether they can reason or talk, but whether they can suffer. By common knowledge, it is palpable that all animals inherently have the ability to suffer not only in the same way, but also to the same degree that humans do. With pleasure, pain, frustration, loneliness, fear and motherly love all common between us, it is clear to understand why animals too are entitled to certain rights.
State and federal laws usually regard animals primarily as property, so they in turn have little or no legal standing of their own. Globally, anti-cruelty laws stipulate that all animals in captivity be provided with basic necessities such as food, water and shelter, unless it is justifiable that they be denied these needs. The problem here is that as long as individuals comply with these very minimal standards, they may go unpunished despite committing actions not being in the best interest of animals, such as overbreeding or causing cosmetic changes that may lead to medical complications.
According to WWF statistics, Pakistan is home to at least 177 mammal and 660 bird species, making it part of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Unfortunately, conservation and rehabilitation efforts are few and far in between.
The types of animals entitled to rights may broadly be categorized into six sections, namely:
- animals used in farming,
- animals in captivity,
- companion animals (including strays),
- animals used for recreation,
- animals used for scientific research, and
- wild animals.
We will focus on the second and third categories for the purposes of this article.
Pakistan has been graded an overall ‘E’ on the World Animal Protection Index with an ‘F’ in government accountability and ‘G’ in animal protection, which ranks us lower than our neighbour India and higher than only a few countries where even the human rights situation is abysmal. Although the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1890 (PCTAA) may be a good base for animal rights which acknowledges that animals feel pain and suffering, sentience has not been explicitly recognized in any form of legislation.
Animals kept in zoos and wild animals owned privately are both examples of animals in captivity. Although Articles 3 and 5 of the PCTAA apply in these situations, such wildlife is considered the responsibility of provincial governments; there is no national policy regarding zoos. As a matter of fact, they are not even regulated under most provincial wildlife ordinances. As far as wild animals held privately are concerned, the Northern Areas Wildlife Preservation Act 1975 prohibits wild animals from being kept as pets without the permission of the Chief Wildlife Warden for either scientific purposes or as part of a ‘recognized’ zoo.
As for companion animals, though Articles 3 and 5 of the PCTAA may again apply, there are no express provisions relating to them specifically. Interestingly, despite Article 429 of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 which makes it a criminal offence to kill, poison, maim or render useless any animal of value above 50 rupees, there still exist innumerable instances of inhumane acts, such as the culling of stray animals, particularly dogs.
National legislation does not present the issue of animals in distress as an independent problem worthy of any particular notice. The physiological and ethological needs of animals, particularly in zoos, are difficult to meet while this responsibility is delegated to provincial governments which offer very few protections to their subjects.
In the wake of the current coronavirus pandemic, it is estimated that thousands of pet animals have been left for dead and have either been shut down in pet shops without food, water, or fresh air or simply disposed of by being dumped into sewers. Considering how most pet animals are very young and constantly dependent on their parents or owners for care, the loss of life has been inevitable. The situation could have been avoided had the pet stores been regulated and remained under the inspection of provincial bodies.
To remedy this predicament to some extent, the government of Pakistan should improve upon the PCTAA with a more focused approach that caters to species-specific welfare, especially in zoos. Such regulations must include requirements concerning the handling, feeding, housing and farming of animals and promote the internationally accepted Five Freedoms of animals which include the following:
- freedom from hunger and thirst,
- freedom from discomfort,
- freedom from pain, injury or disease,
- freedom from fear and distress, and
- freedom to express normal behaviour.
Moreover, it is necessary to create an accountability unit that ensures animal welfare. Such accountability is particularly necessary in captivity facilities and requires regular inspection, the results of which should be made public.
A list of species fit to be kept as companion animals is also encouraged, based on the criteria of animal welfare and international standards. A comprehensive duty of care for animal owners towards their companions should also be established, protecting the Five Freedoms.
Considering how culling has been rendered scientifically inefficient, the government is also encouraged to adopt a humane stray animal population management system that is centered not only on responsible ownership but also mass vaccinations and reproduction control. Engagement with the International Companion Animal Management coalition to learn from their humane treatments and methodologies should also prove beneficial.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which he might be associated.