France still needs to make progress on the subject. Like every summer, the Society for the Protection of Animals (SPA) is issuing the alert on the saturation of its shelters. Since the beginning of the summer, the association has already counted more than 12,000 animal abandonments. At the same time, many recent news items, ranging from the football player Kurt Zouma filmed hitting his cat to the two inhabitants of Essonne (Ile-de-France) who kept crocodiles in their cellar, testify to an all-too-common cruelty to animals.
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What do these phenomena say about our society? How to evaluate on these questions? What do animals feel? Georges Chapouthier, neurobiologist, philosopher and director of research emeritus at the CNRS, author in particular of Save the man by the animal (Odile Jacob, 2020), gives her analysis to Marianne.
Marianne: Who are the people who abandon their animals and what does this say about our society?
George Chapoutier: It is very difficult to define a type of profile. These are people who adopt an animal because it amuses them and abandon them as soon as it annoys them, like a simple object or a vulgar gadget. They have neither consideration nor respect. It’s also quite paradoxical because there is an increase in interest in animals, but obviously not for everyone. We can see a resurgence, every year, with the approach of summer, the main cause being the holidays. There are, however, many ways to keep your animal, whether it is in paid boarding or with a friend.
It’s a minimum of evil, but even there, that’s not why the ideal, because it takes the animal out of its home, which is problematic especially for cats, very attached to their territory. A dog, which obviously has the ability to become attached to its master, feels when it is abandoned. When we commit atrocious acts like leaving him on a motorway service area, he knows what is happening.
What should be done to solve this problem or at least allow a real evolution?
To protect animals, we must give them certain rights and establish laws. Even if this is already the case, the concept of animal rights still often has difficulty in being accepted. There are more advanced countries than France, which is currently focusing on donated animals. In Germany, for example, throwing live crustaceans into boiling water is prohibited. As for pets, in Switzerland, someone who wants a dog is required to undergo a certain training.
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With us, it is now easy to adopt, but the controls tested are further reinforced. The registration of pets should eventually be achieved, which could reduce the number of abandonments and make vaccination compulsory. Progress also requires education. Many associations work in particular to include notions of respect for animals in civic and moral education courses at school.
Do other societies, past or present, have different relationships with animals?
In animist societies, which see spirits in animals, they are much better treated. Same for polytheistic societies, like Hinduism and Buddhism, where the animal has a better status, for spiritual and religious matters. Originally, in Judaism and early Islam, there were also standards for respecting animals. In a way, it’s industrial civilization that has erased all that.
But already before, with René Descartes (1596-1650), there was the notion of the animal-machine, which amounted to treating the animal like a beast, which is there to be used by man. One of his successors, Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), went even further. According to the legend, he hit his dog and when the latter barked, the philosopher said: ” it’s like a clock striking the hour “. Besides, I often say that the theses of the animal-machine are described as unconnected, rather than Cartesian.
The question is nowadays very political, especially with the defenders of antispeciesism. Where would there be a happy medium?
There are all kinds of philosophies, more or less extreme. For example, veganism considers that the slightest inconvenience that man causes to the animal is illegitimate. I have vegan friends who also have a lot of trouble with their cats, because they want to give them soy to eat and as soon as their backs are turned, they attack thrushes. Other: vegans often rush, as soon as they are sick, towards drugs that are however tested through animal experimentation. We can see that it lacks coherence and that sometimes it goes a long way. Excessive positions always reflect problems.
At the Animal Rights, Ethics and Sciences Foundation, of which I am a member of the administration committee, we defend a more resistant line which consists in wanting to avoid any suffering to animals, without excluding their use by humans. Clearly, for the meat diet, it is to ensure that the animal, if it is killed, is in good conditions. But this happy medium does not please either side.
Today, the animal is recognized as a living being with sentient beings, but this often relates to the acts of cruelty they feel. Can they experience other emotions?
Their sensitivity is nervous. Some species, such as sponges, have none at all. Regarding pain, the overwhelming majority of animals have defensive reactions, what is called “nociception”, that is to say that they have a reflex when they are in danger. All obtained, as well as cephalopod molluscs, in addition to “nociception”, have consciousness. The alliance is defined by an English term, “sentience”. In mammals specifically, all emotions are common to those of humans, be it anger, anxiety, joy… The only difference is that they do not have a complex language, they do not verbalize, but they express themselves differently.
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Besides, animals also have a sense of humor. For example, researchers have conducted a study on rats that they tickle, and placed a microphone with ultrasound next to it. We see that they laugh all the time! Personally, I lived a year with chimpanzees and I became very attached to one of them. One day he approached me with a threatening posture and I didn’t understand him right away, but in reality he was playing a prank on me. As for dogs, when they are happy, they pant, which is very much like a form of laughter.
One of my theses is that, in these periods of war, for Man to get better, he must rediscover animal emotions. Today, cognitive and intellectual abilities are expressed much more. If we further developed our altruism and our animal empathy, humanity would be much better off!