The animal mystique
Alleged educational benefits
Contrary to popular belief, the biggest consumers of pets are not the elderly or individuals who live alone, but rather children. (7) Often, parents buy animals for their children because they believe that having a pet will teach their kids to become better human beings – more loving, responsible, and respectful, not only towards their own kind, but also in regards to nature and other species in general. It is commonly thought that children who are raised with a pet have a greater sense of empathy and compassion. This notion was explained in the introductory chapter. (8)
Yet none of these assertions is true.
If it seems that a pet might be just what a child needs to become more disciplined and responsible, it is only because parents are overlooking other, more effective options. A paper route could better serve the purpose, as could becoming a scout, learning to play a musical instrument, or any of a number of other means. To learn to navigate society, children need mostly to be with their own kind. A pet is a poor substitute for a parent or a human friend. Plus, chances are good that once the novelty wears off, the parents – and more often than not, the mother (9) – will end up taking care of the pet anyway.
Children raised with animals are not necessarily destined to become better human beings for it. At least one decent study has shown the contrary. (10) Many serious authors have also debunked this notion. (11) As stated by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Hitler and the Nazis in general (12), for instance, were quite fond of pets and other animals, as were Pol Pot and Jimmy Jones, two of the world’s most famous monsters. Even mass murderer Charles Manson is a devoted animal lover. Who in his right mind would say that animals helped these individuals become better human beings? This is a touchy subject matter, so much so that many animal lovers consider it taboo to even mention the fact that many a hardened criminal has also been an animal lover. Those who dare to note the phenomenon risk being pilloried and dismissed completely. (13)
Finally, having pets does not make children more respectful of animals. On the contrary, it only teaches them to overlook the disrespect inherent in the concept of the pet. Every species has an essence, an innate core that includes a compulsion to engage in a series of intrinsic activities and to meet specific needs that were formed over several millions of years of evolution. As this book has shown, no animal in captivity can fully incarnate its essence. Although they have lived by man’s side for thousands of years, today’s pets carry with them most of the instincts of
their wild predecessors; however, in the interest of survival under domestication, these must be kept in check.
The dog will always be a denatured wolf deprived of satisfying its pack instincts; the domestic cat will always be a carnivorous predator in a permanent state of inhibition; the bird in a cage, like the others, will remain a creature deprived of its most fundamental prerogatives: to come and go freely, to explore its territory, to socialize with others of its kind, to reproduce, to eat the right foods.
An animal constrained to life in an environment that is not its own is subjected to an almost constant disequilibrium. Impoverished by captivity, bored by inactivity, it necessarily develops a host of neurotic behaviors due to the emotional ties of total dependence and to the lack of factors that it needs to incarnate its true nature.
The truth is that our use of animals as pets is the negation of true love and empathy. Sometimes, it is indeed cruel to be kind. (14) As stated by Ingrid Newkirk, all forms of exploitation and abuse are wrong, but even she fails to acknowledge that having pets is one such form. Says psychiatrist Hubert Montagner in a speech given in 1998 at the French Information Center on Pets:
Man does not hesitate to control every aspect of his animal’s existence. He tampers with its appearance. He confines it to spaces under his control, imposing exclusive or near-exclusive proximity. He limits his communication with others like it. He selects for behaviors that meet his
expectations and conditions his animal to follow rituals. He imposes his whims and self-serving decisions. He encloses it within his own emotions and projections. (15)
Beautifying this unpleasant truth with various shows of affection, such as hiring a professional dog-walker, using high-sounding words like companion, love, and child, getting your pet vaccinated each year, having it treated for cancer, defending it, putting boots and a coat on it, decorating it with jewels, giving it rights, lifting them all onto the podium of humanity whether they like it or not, does not make things right. In his book Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets, Professor Yi-Fu Tuan of Yale University shows how affection, a latent form of violence, is used as an instrument of power:
Love is not what makes the world go around. […] There remains affection. However, affection is not the opposite of dominance: rather it is dominance’s anodyne – it is dominance with a human face. Dominance may be cruel and exploitative, with no hint of affection in it. What it produces is the victim. On the other hand, dominance may be combined with affection, and what it produces is the pet. […] Affection mitigates domination, making it softer and more acceptable, but affection itself is possible only in relationships of inequality. It is the warm and superior feeling one has towards things that one can care for and patronize. The word care so exudes humaneness that we tend to forget its almost inevitable tainting by patronage and condescension. (16)
What children are most likely to learn through a pet and through zootherapy in general are self-centeredness and a deep disrespect for animals. These traits of character will become the ground rules for all of their future relationships. We interact in more or less the same way with animals as we do with human animals – and not always in accordance with safeguards like laws, rules, and principles. The animal condition is essentially a
transposition of the human condition, “the duplicate in positive and negative of our relationships with our own kind,” as stated by Jean-Pierre Digard. (17) Thus, we treat our own children, spouses, employees, friends, citizens, and on a larger scale, nations, and the environment, like animals, and that is precisely the problem. (18) The damaging nature of our relationship with animals stays out of focus simply because there is no other behavioral point of reference with which to compare it.
Dr. Charles Danten is a graduate of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, who practiced veterinary medicine for eighteen years, ten of which were spent in his own veterinary clinic near Montreal, Quebec. At different times during his career, Dr. Danten cared for companion, farm, and zoo animals. A growing awareness of the undesirable aspects of human-animal relationships led him to sell his clinic and leave the profession altogether.
2. Michaels, David (2008). Doubt is Their Product. How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens your Health. Oxford University Press; Patsy, Bruce (2006). “Recent Trials in Hypertension: Compelling Science or Commercial Speech?” Journal of the American Medical Association; Smith, Richard (2005). “Medical Journals Are an Extension of the Marketing Arm of Pharmaceutical Companies.” www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020138PLoSMed. For an insider look at the mind boggling world of “research” in zootherapy see: Kaiser, Lana et al. (2004). “Can a Week of Therapeutic Riding Make a Difference? A Pilot Study.” Anthrozoös, 17 (1): 63-72.
3. Digard, Jean-Pierre (2005). Les Français et leurs animaux: Ethnologie d’un phénomène de société. Paris: Hachette littératures, Pluriel: ethnologie: 41;
4. Beck, A.M. and Katcher, A.H. (1984). “A New Look at Pet-Facilitated Therapy.” JAVMA; 184 (4): 15.
5. Allen, David T. (1997). “Effects of Dogs on Human Health.” JAVMA; 210 (7).
6. Kruger, K.A. and Serpell, J.A. (2006). “Animal-Assisted Interventions in Mental Health: Definitions and Theoretical Foundations.” In: Fine, A.H. (Ed.) Handbook on Animal- Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, 2nd Edition. New York: Academic Press: 21-38.
7. Digard, Jean-Pierre (2005). Les Français et leurs animaux: Ethnologie d’un phénomène de société. Fayard: 26; Léger survey for the Académie de médecine vétérinaire du Québec.
8. Kete, Kathleen (1994). The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century France. University of California Press; Baratay, Éric (1995). “Respect de l’animal et respect de l’autre, l’exemple de la zoophilie atholique à l’époque contemporaine.” Des bêtes et des hommes: un jeu sur la distance; p. 255-265; Grier, Katherine C. (2006). “Domesticity and the Qualities of Men and Women”. Pets in America. A History. Harcourt; Grandin, Temple and Johnson, Catherine (2009). Animals make us human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ; Matignon, Karine-Lou (2000). Sans les animaux, le monde ne serait pas humain. Albin Michel.
9. Grier, Katherine C. (2006). “Domesticity and the Qualities of Men and Women.” Book cited: 160-187.
10. Daly, Beth and Morton, L.L. (2003). “Children with Pets Do Not Show Higher Empathy: A Challenge to Current Views.” Anthrozoös, 16(4): 298.
11. Vilmer, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène (2008). Éthique Animale. Presses Universitaires de France (PUF); Spencer, Stuart (2006). “History and Ethics of Keeping Pets: Comparison with Farm Animals.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics; 19: 17-25; Sztybel, David. (2006). “Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?” Ethics and the Environment; 11 (1); Irvine, Leslie. (2004). “Pampered or Enslaved? The Moral Dilemmas of Pets.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy; 24 (4): 5-16; West, Patrick (2004). Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes It Is Really Cruel to Be Kind. Civitas; Nibert, D. (2002). Animal Rights/Human Rights: Entanglement of Oppression and Liberation. Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; Tuan, Yi-Fu (1984). Dominance and affection. The making of pets. Yale University Press; Spiegel, Marjory (1996). The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. Mirror books; Canto-Sperber. (1997). Dictionnaire d’Éthique. PUF; Swabe, Joanna. (1996). Animals as a Natural Resource: Ambivalence in the Human-Animal Relationship in a Veterinary Practice. Amsterdam School for Social Science Research; Wolfensohn, S. (1981). “The Things We Do to Dogs.” New Scientist: 404-407.
12. Pinker, Steven (2009). “The rights movement”. The better angels of our nature. Vicking: 462; “Une gouteuse de Hitler se confie à la presse britannique”. Le monde (February 19 2013); Hardouin-Fugier, Élisabeth (2002). “La protection de l'animal sous le nazisme”. Luc Ferry ou le rétablissement de l'ordre. Éditions Tahin Party: 129-151; Sax, Boris (2000). Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats and the Holocaust. Continuum; Ferry, Luc (1992). Le nouvel ordre écologique. Grasset.
15. Montagner, Hubert (1998). “Un élément de qualité de vie.” Rencontres à Nantes, éditions AFIRAC: 5. In: Talin, Christian (2000). Anthropologie de l’animal de compagnie: L’animal autre figure de l’altérité. Paris: L’Atelier de L’Archet; see also Bernardina, Sergio Dalla (2006). “Épilogue en forme de satire. Du commerce avec les bêtes chez les Terriens civilisés.” L’éloquence des bêtes. Métailié: 183.
16. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Book cited. See also Spiegel, Marjory. Book cited.
17. Digard, Jean-Pierre. Book cited.
18. French ethnologist André G. Haudricourt wrote a very interesting article precisely on this topic: (1962). “Domestication des animaux, culture des plantes et traitement d’autrui.” L’Homme; 2 (1): 40-50.
- Published: 28 May 2014
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