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In 1997, following a ten-year campaign by Compassion in World Farming, the European Union (EU) legally recognised animals as sentient beings (capable of feeling pain and discomfort. This fundamental agreement now underpins and paves the way for all future improvements to farm animal welfare in Europe.

From inception to recognition

Joyce D’Silva, Compassion’s ambassador emeritus and trustee shares our journey from 1988 when we started campaigning on animal sentience until the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997.

Farm animals used to be classified as ‘goods’ or ‘agricultural products’ in the European Treaty. Just like sacks of potatoes.

In 1988, Compassion’s visionary founder, Peter Roberts, decided we must campaign to change the Treaty. Animals could feel pain, they could suffer, but they could also experience pleasure and joy in their lives. Therefore, they should be classified as sentient beings.

Although we were a small team, we began lobbying the UK government to raise the issue in Brussels. This fell on deaf ears. So, we formed an alliance with several European animal groups and began collecting signatures on a petition to the European Parliament.

Presenting one million signatures to EU Parliament President Enrique Baron Crespo MEP (1991)
Presenting one million signatures to EU Parliament President Enrique Baron Crespo MEP (1991)

By 1991 we had one million signatures on paper - in those days before the internet. We took them to the Parliament and handed them in to its President in a blaze of publicity. After three years the Parliament endorsed our petition! But we still had to persuade the governments of all the EU countries.

Achieving sentient beings Protocol in the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997)
Achieving sentient beings Protocol in the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997)

Luckily, in 1997 there was a change of government in the UK and the new Animal Welfare Minister took up our case. Just six weeks later all the Prime Ministers of the EU met in Amsterdam to refresh the Treaty. Campaigners from all over Europe joined us outside their meeting to reinforce our message, peacefully of course. To our delight, the PMs agreed to recognise animals as sentient beings in the Treaty of Amsterdam.

Animals are sentient beings

Eleven years later this recognition became an Article in the Treaty of Lisbon, giving it firm and lasting status. The article states:

“In formulating and implementing the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the EU countries​ relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”

Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) - Article 13 of Title II

Since then, other countries, like New Zealand, and some cities and states have followed suit.

In 2005, Compassion held a major conference on animal sentience, with 600 attendees from 50 countries.

Today, we continue campaigning and lobbying on animal sentience. For example, we are working closely with the UK government on the new Animal Sentience Bill and we are lobbying the United Nations (UN) to give global recognition to animal sentience.


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