Spain approves new law recognizing animals as ‘sentient beings’

    01 Jan 2022

    Under a new law passed in Spain, domestic and wild animals are no longer considered objects. The relevant law was approved by Spain’s lower house, the Congress of Deputies, on December 3. And animal rights activists have been promoting it for 4 years, El Pais reports.

    Under EU law, animals are recognized as ‘sentient beings’, but the Spanish Civil Code still treats them as objects.

    What’s new: it is forbidden to leave animals. In Spain, about 200,000 animals leave each year; greater legal protection for animals in the division of property.

    New legislation regulates such issues:

    • animals can no longer be seized as assets in case of outstanding debt;
    • protection for companion animals is provided;
    • animal cruelty is prohibited.

    Thanks to the legislation – which was only opposed by the far-right Vox party – pets and wild species will no longer be considered as ‘objects’ in the Spanish Civil Code. The far-right Vox party has criticized the law as dehumanizing humans.

    From now on, animals will be treated as “sentient beings,” and as such will have a different legal standing than an inanimate object. They will no longer be able to be seized, abandoned, mistreated or separated from one of their owners in the case of a divorce or separation, without having their wellbeing and protection taken into account.

    The new law to modify the legal framework of animals was approved on Thursday with wide support from Spain’s Congress – only the far-right Vox party voted against the measure. The legislation changes the Civil Code, Mortgage Law and Civil Procedure Law, and broadly applies to all animals, whether they are domesticated or wild.

    Animals were already recognized as sentient beings, with rights and interests that must be taken into account, in European law, regional administrative laws and even Spain’s Criminal Code. But this recognition was not present in the Spanish Civil Code, which covers issues relating to property, family and obligations. This meant that lawyers did not have a legal basis to address certain problems, such as what to do with pets in divorce cases.

    “It’s a step forward and it says that in separations and divorces, the arrangement that will be applied to the animals will take into account not only the interests of the humans, but also of the animal,” explained María González Lacabex, from INTERcids, a legal organization specializing in animal protection.

    We are the only species that recognizes the suffering of others and as such we have an obligation to prevent that suffering

    Guillermo Díaz, Ciudadanos lawmaker

    The process to get the law approved has been long and winding. It was first proposed in 2017, but did not move forward due to the upheaval caused by Spain’s two general elections in April and November of 2019. It was not until April of this year that the initiative appeared before Congress, where it was supported by all parties except Vox. In September, the law was then approved by Spain’s upper house, the Senate, which introduced some modifications. And on Thursday, it was given the final green light by Congress.

    The conservative Popular Party (PP) largely supported the text of the document, but warned the coalition government, which is led by the Socialist Party (PSOE) and junior partner Unidas Podemos, that it will not back greater protections for animals. The warning was in reference to the Social Rights Ministry, headed by Ione Belarra from Unidas Podemos, which is preparing a draft for a new animal welfare law that includes stricter measures to prevent animal trafficking and abuse.

    Teresa Aguada, a lawmaker from the PP, called on the Socialists not to “cede to the extremist pressure of your partners [Unidas Podemos] to attack our traditions, culture and rural world.”

    Most of Spain’s congressional parties, however, welcomed the law’s approval. “It’s a moral victory in a country where 200,000 animals are abandoned each year,” said Juantxo López de Uralde, from Unidas Podemos.

    Sonia Guaita, from the PSOE, pointed out that similar legislation exists in most European countries, adding: “Those who are violent against animals are potentially violent against humans as well.”

    Guillermo Díaz, from the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), also defended the law. “We are the only species that recognizes the suffering of others and as such we have an obligation to prevent that suffering,” he said, explaining that up until now, “animals were not considered different from a television” in divorce cases.

    The sole voice of dissent came from Vox lawmaker Ángel López Maraver, who is the former president of the Spanish Hunting Federation. He described the law as “insanity, nonsense, stupidity. It humanizes animals and dehumanizes man.”

    The news was celebrated by animal rights groups who had campaigned for the change, Green Queen states.

    Proposals were lodged in 2017 to increase animals’ rights in Spain. Last month saw the Congress of Deputies approve new legislation, with wide support. The notable exception was far-right party Vox, who voted to throw out the bill. Party leader Ángel López Maraver commented that the law is: “insanity, nonsense, stupidity. It humanises animals and dehumanises man.”

    A cultural shift

    New legislation means that animals have the same rights as humans, being deemed “living beings”. Animals were already considered sentient under European law, but the Spanish Civil Code had not been updated. This relates directly to matters of family and property. Wild animals have been included in the adaptation, though focus is mostly on domestic companions.

    Animals have always been considered objects in Spanish law. Being granted living being status means they will now have to be considered akin to children in cases of divorce or inheritance. The welfare of individual animals will now be taken into consideration when deciding on a permanent home. Joint custody will be a possibility, with shared maintenance costs being given consideration. The move is designed to honour the bond between a family and its pets.

    The legislation could prove impactful. It has been reported that around 30,000 couples divorce every year in Spain, plus common law relationship breakdowns. 

    Spain joins fellow European countries France, Portugal, Germany and Austria in recognising animals in this way. The country is also conflicted about its legacy of bullfighting. In 2019, a poll for El Español revealed that 56.4 percent of Spanish people were against the practice.

    Consequences for non-compliance

    The penalties for not respecting the new law are serious. Mistreatment of pets will now be judged as if a human has been abused. Upon finding an abandoned pet, individuals have a duty to try to locate the owner, via relevant authorities if necessary. The same course of action is to be taken as if a child has been found. Animals can no longer be seized as payment for debts, either.

    The bill makes specific reference to recompense in the event of an animal’s death: “In the event that the injury to a pet animal has resulted in its death or in a serious impairment of their physical or psychological health, both its owner and those who live with the animal are entitled to compensation for the moral damage caused.”

    The bill requires mental and physical wellbeing to be taken into account. The change is a dramatic revision of Spain’s former treatment of animals. “This shows that we are changing our mentality and see animals as living beings with the capacity to feel pain, happiness, sadness and are nothing to do with a piece of furniture or a show,” said Lola García, civil rights lawyer, speaking with La Vanguardia.

    Animals to the front

    Spain’s new legislation comes as many other countries begin to analyse animals and their contribution to the world. 

    The UK now admits octopuses, lobsters and crabs are sentient beings. The paradigm shift means that they, along with other sea creatures, will no longer be boiled alive. In the U.S., animals have been recognised as legal persons and China is changing too. Historically a country at odds with animal rights, China reclassified dogs as pets, not livestock in 2020.

    Animals will now have greater legal protections under the law. Although wild animals are included in the legislation, it largely protects domesticated animals. In the case of a divorce or separation, an animal’s overall wellbeing must first be addressed before it’s separated from its owners. The law also makes it illegal for animals to be mistreated or abandoned.

    The law updates Spain’s Civil Code, Mortgage Law, and Civil Procedure Law. It was first introduced back in 2017. However, it did not appear before Congress until this year – passing Spain’s upper house in September – due to political upheaval caused during the country’s 2019 general elections.



    Spain’s animal welfare laws

    Prior to the law’s passage, a judge in Madrid granted joint custody of a dog to a couple going through a separation. 

    While this ruling was rare, the law will be a permanent step forward for domesticated animals like dogs and cats. In the case of divorces, Guillermo Díaz, a Ciudadanos lawmaker, explained that prior to the law’s passage, “animals were not considered different from a television.”

    “Those who are violent against animals are potentially violent against humans as well,” he added. “We are the only species that recognizes the suffering of others. And as such, we have an obligation to prevent that suffering.”

    But the new law does not address other instances of animal cruelty, namely bullfighting. Bullfighting is inherently cruel to animals. It is already banned in at least 100 towns in Spain, according to animal rights group PETA. But it’s still legal in the country.

    Spain joins a growing list of countries in recognizing animals as sentient beings. In November, the UK amended its Animal Welfare Bill to give additional protections to cephalopod mollusks and decapod crustaceans, the sentience of which was previously unrecognized. In 2019, the Australian Capital Territory became the first jurisdiction in Australia to recognize animals as sentient beings. Other countries to pass similar laws include ​​France, Brussels, and New Zealand.


    Fish and seafood or environmental protection? Let’s get acquainted with article, where the author from the UA Plant Based campaign pays more attention to the impact of fishing and seafood on the environment. You may read the full story here.

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