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Vertebrate animals in Spain will no longer be considered as “objects” in legal civil disputes thanks to a new law passed by Spain’s Congress of Deputies which expands their status as “sentient beings” already present in Spain’s Criminal Code into the Spanish Civil Code. 

The law, which had already been approved by the Senate, was only voted against by the far-right Vox party. It amends the Civil Code, Mortgage Law and Civil Procedure Law, to address the contradiction of animals considered sentient beings in criminal proceedings, but not in civil disputes such as involving divorces. From now on, animals of any vertebrate species cannot be considered as mere “objects” in the case of a divorce or separation, and can no longer be seized, abandoned, mistreated or separated from one of their guardians, without having their wellbeing and protection taken into account. This reform will affect the approximately 30,000 married couples with companion animals that divorce annually in Spain. 

It will now be unlawful to sell an animal in the event of divorce if both members of the couple do not agree, and it allows the judges not to give joint custody of the children when there is a sentence for animal abuse. With the approval of the new law, whoever finds an animal must hand it over to its guardian as long as there are no well-founded indications of abuse or neglect. 

María González Lacabex, from INTERcids, a legal organization specializing in animal protection, said to El País: “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.” Juantxo López de Uralde, a Congress member from Unidas Podemos, also said: “It’s a moral victory in a country where 200,000 animals are abandoned each year.”

Animals were already recognized as sentient beings in all EU countries as this is part of the Lisbon Treaty, but each country has taken different approaches about how to incorporate this into their national legislation. Spain had done so incompletely as it only did it regarding criminal law. In December 2021, after five years of debate, Spain has corrected the error and have added this recognition in civil law as well. However, this only affects vertebrate animals, such as mammals, birds or reptiles. Other countries recognise some invertebrates as sentient beings (i.e. octopuses, lobsters, etc.) but Spain has not yet. 

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.