Jean-Pierre Digard

  • "Humans play with animals like children play with modelling clay."


The French passion for pets is growing all the time. French ethno-anthropologist Jean-Pierre Digard, emeritus research director at the CNRS and a member of the Académie d'Agriculture, decodes one of our era's biggest social phenomena.


Let's start by differentiating between domestic animals and pets.

Domestic animals – sheep, goats, cattle – have a function; a gundog helps you hunt. Pets have no specific use except as companions. In your book* you point up that keeping pets isn't a recent practice. It's age-old and universal. Numerous societies – Amazonian Indians, Australian Aborigines, New Guinea Papuans, African Bushmen and Pygmies, Eskimos, Siberian peoples, Japanese Ainu – are fond of baby wild animals, which the hunters bring back alive to the villages for the women to rear.


How does that translate today into our modern Western societies?

Two factors in the practice have chang­ed: its nature and its extent. Pets today have acquired a family status, being perceived and treated like humans. That's not new but it has become paramount. Nothing is too good or too expensive for our pets, hence the advent of new types of med­i­cal care such as hip replacements and cataract operations, and a boom­ing pet-food market worth €4 billion. The vogue for animal trainers also underlines this trend. In the last 50 years the number of pets in France has doubled, standing at 63 million today; 53% of households have a pet, so it really is a major aspect of our society.


Why such enthusiasm? Partly it's our race's almost
megalomaniac tendency to appropriate nature, work on it and transform it. As a result, today we have 400 breeds of dog when a dozen would be more than enough for all our needs. I often say that humans play with animals like children play with modelling clay. Isn't it a way of connecting with increasingly distant nature too? Yes, because of our societies' growing urbanisation. But the development of this phenomenon is also due to what I call "the rede­eming animal". A valid hypothesis is that possibly we love our pets so strongly and ostentatiously in order to shed our guilt about the fate we force other animals to endure by farming and slau­ghtering them industrially so we can eat them.


Aren't pets also a reassuring point of reference?
Indeed. They reflect back a valorising image that's doubly reassuring since it often contradicts our day-to-day reality. In the face of family break­down, the spectre of unemployment and social exclusion and the fear of environmental disaster, for animal lovers pets can be the sole stable, consistent factors in their modern human lives, the only beings always there when needed and which they still more or less control.


To return to domestic animals, what do you think of the Glavany Amendment according them the status of sentient beings?

What nonsense! Not that domestic animals aren't sentient beings, but introducing that idea, already in the Rural Code, into the Civil Code is going to complicate things massively. The Civil Code differentiates between goods and people; as animals aren't people, they are therefore goods. But now they've created a special category of goods, which is absurd, par­ti­cularly in the context of supposedly simplifying and modernising the law. What's more, does speci­fying "domestic" animals mean that wild fauna doesn't consist of sentient beings? An elephant in the savannah is less sentient than a cow in a field? Ridiculous. But worse than that, it's another step towards what I call animalism, mean­ing the ideology that puts animals on a par with human beings.


And in your book you denounce animalism as anti­humanist.

Yes. Treating dogs and children, animal rights and human rights, as equal demonstrates a disturbing disregard for humanist values. That people can only find consolation from others with a cat or dog, that we have to have a universal decla­ration of animal rights to remind humans of their duties to other species – that's what is really worrying about modern humans' aptitude for living together and taking collective responsibility for their destiny.


Par Alexandre Benoist