Today I give the floor to Charles Danten, a graduate of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, who sold his veterinary clinic after eighteen years of practice with pets, farm and zoo animals to denounce the undesirable aspects of human-animal relationships.
Despite the fact that Charles Danten is not a vegan, I’m interested in his point of view that echoes a certain embarrassment I feel towards some pet owners and animal advocates.
For a long time, I have wondered if is really caring for animals to make them live in an urban environment. Are we acting in compassion or in exploitation when we decide to have a pet at home?
This is a topic I wanted to explore with Charles Danten. Thanks to him for agreeing to answer my questionnaire. I do not endorse everything he said but he raises some key issues.
In 2015, you published a book entitled “Slaves of your affection. The myth of the happy pet” in which you vigorously denounce the relationship between humans and their pets, as a hidden form of dominance and exploitation. Have you ever met a happy pet?
Whether there are happy pets or not is beside the point. There are happy people in slums also. There were also a few happy slaves called Uncle Tom’s in the Antebellum South. This would hardly justify the existence of slums or slavery. You cannot judge the whole according to a small minority. You have to look at the Big Picture as I have done in my book. If you do read my book, with an open-mind, you will soon see our relationship with pets for what it is: irrefutably cruel and exploitative by definition.
Companion animals exist. Over centuries, humans have created specific breeds of dogs, rabbits or horses for example. Don’t you think that today their needs are obviously different from those of their wild cousins and they have acclimated to human life?
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. 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.
Says psychiatrist Hubert Montagner, from the French Institute of Medical Research (INSERM):
‘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 behaviours 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.’
What characterises companion animals? What is the difference between them and wild or farm animals?
I don’t’ like the term “companion animal.” This euphemism implies free choice and a heart-warming relationship on an equal basis. It’s hardly the case. I prefer a more honest term like “pet.” Pets are domesticated animals for the most part and by definition, bred and raised by humans for therapeutic and recreative reasons. Farm animals are domesticated animals used mostly for meat and other animal products like eggs or wool. Wild animals are not tame and are not bred and raised by humans although they can be captured and used as pets.
What exactly does not work in the relationships between people and pets and why?
It basically boils down to the very concept of pet. Because of the bond we impose on them for our sole comfort and pleasure, all pets by definition remain infantile never reaching any level of autonomy or emotional maturity. The maintenance of this infantile attachment feeds a permanent state of anxiety. This translates clinically to various psychosomatic diseases like colitis, bladder infections, and skin problems. Psychological troubles such as phobias, self-mutilation, and separation anxiety are as common and widespread as problems linked to domination, fear, and ambivalence. These animals will often be severely punished or abandoned by their owners who are unable for the most part to read correctly the meaning of these neuroses, which they mistake for some flaw particular to the animal. Curative treatments are doomed to fail from the onset since these diseases stem from the very concept of pet and a relation-ship flawed from the very start.
There are many other problems, which are the subject of my book: factory farms (animal mills), legal and illegal trade of wildlife, inbreeding (genetic diseases), anatomical monstrosities, inadequate physical and psychological conditions of captivity, nutritional diseases, veterinary anthropomorphism, surgical mutilations, vaccination abuse for non-scientific reasons, abandonment, massive euthanasia, bestiality, hoarding, etc.
For further details, see this Op-Ed published in the Montreal Gazette:
How do you explain the fact that such a large number of animal advocates own pets?
I have often wondered about this double standard. On the one hand, animal lovers are vegetarians, in some cases, vegans, because they refuse, with a vengeance, to exploit animals, in any way, shape, or form, while on the other hand, they do the opposite with pets, as if nothing was. Animal advocates don’t see the contradiction for several reasons:
- In our culture, we usually keep cruelty and exploitation dissociated from pleasure and affection, and this, more than anything else, makes the connection hard to see. Most people as a result think that pets are in a different well-treated and privileged category from other domestic animals.
- Ignorance about animal ethology is another important factor. Few people are able to discern the more subtle damaging effects of this relationship (see question 4). The leading animal activists are either lawyers, philosophers or journalists. As a rule most of them have no practical knowledge of animals.
- Many don’t see the Big Picture and cannot evaluate properly the impact of this fad on animals, nature and humans as well (see question 4)
- Some are posturing or using their purported love of animals as a social statement, a way of showing off their superior human qualities and boosting their own ego. Many influential people believe to this day that pets make us more human. And many more people wrongly presume animals to be better judges of human character than humans themselves. In other words, people want to love an animal and more importantly, want to be seen loving one because it makes them feel good in their own eyes and in those of the beholder. Celebrities, salesmen, bad boys and girls, politicians and people with poor self-esteem are especially good at using animals to boost their public image and to compel prospective lovers, donators, fans, clients, or voters to trust them. What they are really saying through this public show of affection is the following: “trust me, I’m a good person, you see, I love animals”. To question this love is a serious attack on the social progress associated with it. It is also an attack on those who have made a career out of it. This explains in part why there is so much denial, anger, and resistance every time you even mention this topic. There’s a lot at stake.
- Others, the more honest or ruthless ones, depending on how you look at it, are in it for the money or for career reasons. Animals and animal advocacy are big business and a good way to stand out and shine.
- Some do it because they are bored and need a cause to defend to put a bit of spike in their lives.
- Finally, there are those who are sincere but terribly misguided by intellectuals and do-gooders who know very little about animals.
All sincere vegans I know have no pets. They cannot stand the sight of an animal in captivity whether it is well treated or not. They find it immensely contradictory and offending to see lawyer Gary Francioni proudly hugging and petting his many pets on the one hand and advocating on the other, abolition. Several wonder why Peter Singer, promotes pets. It wasn’t the case when he first started out. What happened to him along the way?
You speak about the ‘”drifts” of anti-speciesism. What are they? In its original form, do you think that anti-speciesism could be a good philosophy?
Anti-speciesism is the equivalent in humans to racism or xenophobia. According to this ideology invented by philosopher, Peter Singer, animals should not be discriminated against because they are a different species. But animals are not humans and will never be. What is good for us is not necessarily good for them and vice versa. This can lead to many misunderstandings and problems for animals and people as well. The liberation of minks from a fur farm by Gary Yourofsky, the Trotsky, might be a good idea on paper, if you equate these farms, as Yourofsky does, to Treblinka or Auschwitz, but it can only end up in disaster for the released “deportees,” who don’t know the rules of the land. Unable to seek help from the neighbours or the “allies,” who have liberated the “concentration camp”, most of these liberated animals will die of hunger or be run down by cars. Another example: In the United States and elsewhere, parks and protected ecological sites are trampled and desecrated by Peter Singer clones. On a good day in San Francisco’s Fort Funston, reports journalist Michael Schaffer in his book One Nation Under Dog, there can be up to 400 dogs off-leash, spoiling the home of endangered species like the bank swallow or the western snowy plover. In the name of equality, fraternity, and liberty for all species, owners everywhere are waging “dog wars” to gain free access for their dogs to rare and protected land.
Do you think that extended animal rights are a good way to protect animals?
No I don’t. In the context of our legal systems, animals will always come last. We all know it is easier to write laws than to enforce them. Where will we get the resources to do so? Will we have a special animal brigade, the equivalent of the Miami vice squad? Come on. The best example is the multiplication of violent crimes in our society, or the persistence of behaviours contrary to the law, like drug usage, pedophilia, and prostitution, despite stricter laws, closer surveillance, and more and more severe punishments. The difficulty involved in getting people to treat animals decently is less surprising when we look at how people behave towards each other. Putting the focus on animal rights will serve only to make lawyers richer and animal activists more passionate.
Furthermore, by perpetuating the fallacies described herein, animal rights (AR) within the status quo will do more to nullify the wanted effect of saving animals and to amplify the dreaded effect of consumerism, with all its inseparable atrocities. Because of AR, it is now more and more difficult to exclude animals from certain sensitive zones like protected parks. Proprietors can no longer ban delinquent pet owners from their apartment buildings. The pet industry is laughing all the way to the bank. Business has never been so good since there is no law that can stop people from having pets. In the end, AR serves the pet industry more than animals.
How do you position yourself in this debate? Who are the thinkers and the leaders of the ideas you refer to?
Emancipation of a domestic animal may be meaningless, as explained above, but emancipation for animals in general would have meaning if it meant granting animals the right to live out their lives without interference or exploitation. This would mean the end of domestication and pets.
I have few soul-mates: Yi-Fu Tuan, Sergio Dalla Bernardina, and Jean-Luc Vadakarn.
You denounce human-animal relationships but do you care for animals yourself? As you are not yourself a vegan, is it not the pot calling the kettle black?
I was a vegan from 1992 to 2015. I was probably the first vegan veterinarian in Canada. And as you know, in 1998, I sold my clinic and left the profession when I finally saw the Big Picture and stopped deceiving myself about the real nature of my activities. My job as a veterinarian made no sense anymore. And nothing in the world could have made me change my mind. Recently, for personal reasons, I had to adjust my diet. I am presently 85% vegetarian. I still avoid animal products as much as possible in my every day life. I don’t eat milk or milk products like cheese. Naturally, I have no pets.
So yes, I do love animals, the world without them would be a graveyard, but I don’t love them like most people do, at the end of a leash or in a cage. I respect them for what they are, in their rightful place in nature, with a few exceptions, for reasons that are vital to public interest. I do not harm them for frivolous reasons like boredom, to enrich myself, or to stuff myself. I’m not overly sentimental about them. I’m pretty cool-headed when it comes to animals. I don’t treat them like humans and I don’t consider them my equal for obvious reasons.
What would be your recommendations to improve the animal condition?
For starters, I would question thoroughly the claimed physical and psychological benefits of pets. Animal advocates never point the finger at what can be considered the greatest scientific fraud of the century: animal therapy or zootherapy. Why is this? The claimed benefits of pets have been vastly exaggerated to increase their demand. So if you can show that these benefits are bogus, you can have quite an impact on the animal condition by reducing their popularity and exploitation.
Ask yourself also if animal activists are effective. Why are they so afraid to look at the Big Picture as I have done in my book? Ingrid Newkirk of PETA refuses to do so. Miss Newkirk and Peter Singer have in fact become the most ultra-sophisticated promoters of the pet industry. As it stands now, aren’t they part of the problem? Where is all this going?
Regarding diet, you support the vegetarian diet despite the fact that you are not yourself vegetarian. However, your arguments are only environmental. What do you think of changing a diet for the sake of animals?
Eating a plant-based diet wherever it is geographically possible is the sensible thing to do. One must accept that this is not possible for everyone, for different reasons. Inuit’s for example could not be vegetarians for obvious reasons. My arguments are much more than environmental. There are also health issues and cruelty issues. Animals should not be exploited just for fun or out of habit without thinking of the consequences. And if it is absolutely necessary to do so for vital reasons of public interest, outmost care should be taken not to make them suffer. Hopefully, in the near future, as technology and knowledge evolves, animal use will fade out, in many parts of the world.
What would you like to say as a final word to the people who will read your interview and will be in the vast majority vegans?
It is not generally true that keeping rescue animals gives them a life in which they fare well; nor is it true that rescue-keeping is consistent with any form of animal liberation. Many rescued animals are not truly rescued; they are just shuffled around from one master to another. These second-hand commodities are subject to the same misery as any other pets. As Condorcet argues in his landmark book, Reflections on Negro Slavery, saving a slave from death does not give you the right to enslave it. So unless you can actually liberate a rescued animal, it is wrong to assert that rescuing an animal is consistent with animal liberation. And since it is not a good idea to liberate a domestic animal, one should simply refrain from participating if one truly wishes to see the end of “affection-slavery.” Rescued animals have mostly symbolic value. Their numbers are quite small compared with the millions of animals that are put down. All things considered, unless we want this to go on forever, we should stop rescuing animals. The sacrifice of a few is a small price to pay in order to break this deadly cycle, once and for all. It’s like paying ransom for a hostage; we don’t do it because we know it only makes things worse in the long run. In other words, by contributing to the heinousness of the pet industry through adoption, you are also killing animals with your “love,” albeit in a less obvious way.
Puppy mills and lack of sterilization are not the root causes of the surplus pet problem. And we are all accessories to the fact the very instant we get a pet, no matter where we get it and how we treat it. Animals are certainly paying the toll. Millions of unwanted pets are destroyed each year by the mushrooming business of pounds and recycling outfits in disguise, euphemistically called “animal shelters” or “humane societies.” And millions of others are cruelly exploited under the auspices of kindness.
For every animal saved, countless others are handed a death sentence, or worse. Every animal on a leash, or lavishly displayed on the PETA website or on the cover of one of Ingrid Newkirk’s many books on pets for instance, is a publicity board which implicitly states: “The exploitation of others (nature, people, and animals) solely for our pleasure and comfort is morally right, natural, legitimate, and irrevocable.”
Is it really the case though?
And if not, when will we change?
How many animals must we rescue, how many more studies, forums, laws, reforms, protests, and campaigns must we orchestrate before we realize that what we are doing to pets is not better than what we are doing to laboratory animals, farm animals, zoo animals and the like?
To paraphrase Patrick West, author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes It Really Is Cruel to Be Kind: if you do genuinely care about animals, don’t just adopt an animal, become a vegetarian, wear an empathy ribbon, or give money to a pound or PETA. If you want to stop animal abuse, leave your ego at home, get to know yourself a little better, ask yourself why you really need an animal, and most importantly, consider your motives for helping them, and the real consequences of your words and actions. Next time you profess that you care about animals, try to look at the facts behind the good intentions. More often than not, the only animal you really care about… is yourself.
For more on Charles Danten, follow him on his blog