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Animal Sentience: Setting the standard for the profitable, exploited and loved

Animal Sentience: Setting the standard for the profitable, exploited and loved

By Nathan Stubbings and Tremayne Symss


The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Vic) (POCTA) was enacted to prevent cruelty and promote the considerate treatment of animals.1 However, over time POCTA has become dated and scientific studies now demonstrate that animals are sentient.2 This means they can “feel, perceive and experience what happens to them in a negative or positive way”.3 They can “feel physical pain and also have emotions such as happiness, fear and distress”.4 The Victorian government (government) has responded by committing to replace POCTA with a new act and has engaged the public for their thoughts and concerns on the matter.

But will the recognition of sentience result in a trade-off between animal welfare, human enjoyment and preferred nourishment?

The profitable

The proposal to legislate animal sentience received significant resistance from the agricultural industry, with many stakeholders echoing the sentiment that recognition of sentience will not produce any tangible changes but will instead likely hinder production in the industry.5

So, what do we expect from our agricultural industry and should we hold it to a higher standard? Is it realistic to expect that animals can be given a respectable and wholesome life despite them becoming a consumable product?

The exploited

Former Minister for Agriculture Jaclyn Symes states “the laws must maintain the ability for people to conduct lawful activities involving animals”. She also recognises that “some of our most popular recreational activities involve animals”.6

Can the notion of animal sentience allow us to hunt, fish and race animals? Or would it be a burden to Victoria’s most popular pastimes, possibly never seeing another Phar Lap again?

The loved

Seized animals may be sold, re-homed or euthanised due to behavioural problems.7 Data indicates that seized animals are housed for an average of 114 days, drawing attention to the adverse effects of long-term containment to an animal and costs incurred by the government.8

What if our beloved companions exhibit behavioural problems and are deemed a safety risk? What options should they be given? What if their poor behaviour is a result of instinct or negative experiences, such as their confinement to our houses, yards, or enclosures?

Have your say

Even with recognition of sentience, decisions will still be made on behalf of animals regarding their welfare, our welfare and the economy. What is needed is clarity – likely formed from regulations, codes of practice or other subordinate instruments to complement the new act.

The government is currently finalising an exposure draft and consultation will occur as other subordinate instruments are developed.9 If you would like to get involved, monitor Engage Victoria to have your say.


Nathan Stubbings is chair of the YL Law Reform Environment and Sustainability sub-committee.

Tremayne Symss is a legal assistant at Gadens Lawyers and a law graduate.


  1. Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Vic) s 1.
  2. Victorian government, A New Animal Welfare Act for Victoria – Directions Paper, 2020, p17.
  3. Note 2 above p17.
  4. Note 2 above p17.
  5. Victorian government, A New Animal Welfare Act for Victoria – Directions PaperEngagement Summary Report, 2021, p9.
  6. Note 2 above p4.
  7. Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Vic) pt 2A div 6.
  8. Note 2 above p48.
  9. Note 5 above p4.

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