Octopuses, lobsters and crabs are recognised as ‘sentient’ in the UK. Should Australia do the same?

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If you sit down to Christmas lunch next week and there is a lobster on the table, know that the deceased creature in front of you may have once had feelings for you.

This is according to a recent announcement by the UK government, which recognized succulents (such as lobsters and crabs) and cephalopods (such as octopuses, squid and cuttlefish) as “conscious organisms”.

“The science is now clear that decapods and cephalopods can feel pain,” UK Animal Welfare Minister Zach Goldsmith said in a statement.

Two giant pink and white squid swim under the water.
The UK government says cephalopods – like these giant squids of southern Australia – are sentient beings.(Supplied: Jane Jenkins)

While the move won’t lead to major changes to restaurants or homes in the UK, it is a very symbolic move, with animal rights advocates saying Australia should follow suit.

“Neglected” under animal welfare laws

The UK government is working to reform animal welfare laws in the wake of Brexit, including a bill that officially recognizes some animals as “conscious creatures”.

An organism is able to experience a range of feelings or emotions, from negative such as pain and suffering to positive such as pleasure, excitement and joy.

The UK bill has already stated that all vertebrates – animals with a backbone – are sentient beings. But last month, the UK government announced that the bill would be amended to also include decapods and cephalopods.

Jane Kotzman, a senior law lecturer at Deakin University and an expert in animal welfare laws, says the announcement was a big deal.

“Cephalopods and succulents are groups of animals that have generally been neglected by animal welfare laws,” she told ABC RN Sunday Extra.

“So acknowledging that they are conscious in a very prominent way – by including them in those laws – I think is important.”

The amendment followed a British government-commissioned report from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), which reviewed 300 previous studies and found strong scientific evidence that these creatures are conscious.

The London School of Economics (LSE) report used a framework of eight different factors to determine feeling, including the presence of pain receptors (pain receptors), and whether the animals respond to pain medication.

An octopus collects its shells to make an underwater house.
An octopus builds an underwater house near the Sydney suburb of Mosman.(Supplied: Jane Jenkins)

The researchers found that there was “very strong evidence” of sensation among octopuses in particular.

This report is just the latest among many that show the complex behaviors of octopuses. For example, a 2018 study found that if octopuses were given ecstasy to party, they became increasingly social with one another.

What does this mean?

While the UK bill, which has not yet become law, is set to reclassify these animals as sentient, that won’t mean any sweeping changes.

The bill would not regulate the seafood or hospitality industries, but is instead “designed to ensure animal welfare is well taken into account in future decision-making.”

“She’s doing quite a bit. [for animal rights]But it’s definitely not enough,” says Dr. Kotzman.

Two divers interact with a yellow cuttlefish underwater.
Squid divers meet at Manly in Sydney.(Supplied: Jane Jenkins)

“[The bill] It recognizes animal consciousness and sets up an Animal Awareness Committee, which will be set up to look into UK government policy and implement policy…but they will only consider future policies and policy implementation. “

“So all practices related to octopuses etc., which occurred in the past or are currently used, are not called into question.”

This means current controversial practices such as blanching alive lobsters or plucking crabs will not change in the UK, at least for the time being (although the LSE report has been highly critical of them).

“However, I think what is important about this recognition is that it is part of a growing trend to increase protection of animal welfare. And not just a trend in legal terms, but also a trend among the public to increase awareness of animal welfare,” Dr. Kutzman says.

What is the situation in Australia?

In Australia, animal welfare laws vary across states and territories.

In 2019, ACT became the first and only jurisdiction to change the legal status of animals from “ownership” to sentient beings in their own right.

The ACT reforms created broad protections for animals as well as specific bans on certain acts that cause cruelty to animals.

Victoria has committed to recognizing animal consciousness as the state reform its animal welfare laws.

Melina Tensen, RSPCA Australia’s chief scientific officer, says animal welfare legislation in every state and territory should include language about consciousness.

“These feelings that we as humans experience throughout our lives, there are animals that are capable of feeling similar emotions.”

When it comes to succulents and cephalopods, many Australian jurisdictions do not recognize them as animals, which means that they lose protection in current animal welfare legislation.

Decapods are not included in the definition of an animal in South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Cephalopods are not included in the animal definition in New South Wales, Victoria, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

A squid touches another fish underwater.
Two cuttlefish interact before mating, in waters near the Sydney suburb of Mosman.(Supplied: Jane Jenkins)

Ms Tensen says Australia is “clearly behind other offshore jurisdictions” when it comes to regulations around the treatment of decapods and cephalopods.

“Things need to change and have to change quickly, especially around Christmas when a lot of people like to eat lobster,” she says.

The power of consumers

Ms Tensen says that if Australia is going to take a similar approach to the UK with regard to succulents and cephalopods, it is not just for state and territory governments but for consumers.

“As consumers, we really have a lot of power, maybe more power than we realize in terms of what we buy and what we choose not to buy,” she says.

“So if we’re looking to buy lobster for Christmas, we need to make sure the animal is dead before we buy it.”

Ms Tensen says interested Australian consumers should “ask the supplier questions: How were the crabs killed? What kind of methods were used? And express your concern if the method was not humane.”

“The key is knowing how this animal lived its whole life, how much suffering and how much the suffering was alleviated,” she says.

“An informed consumer is an informed consumer.”

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