First raised in ancient times, the question of animal suffering is now a subject that is important to a large number of people throughout the world. Livestock, traditional and exotic pets, animals in zoos and circuses, and even wild animals now benefit from forms of protection which all, although they vary in accordance with animal category and the State, converge on the recognition of the right not to be mistreated.
French law recognises two major animal categories: wild animals and domestic animals – in other words, any animal “kept or intended to be kept by humans for their enjoyment.“ Domestic animals are also divided into two categories: pets and livestock. Since a law introduced in 1976, animal law in France is guided by three major principles: animals are sentient beings that must be placed in living conditions compatible with their biological needs; mistreatment of animals is prohibited; and using animals in an abusive manner is prohibited.
Since 2015, the legal status of animals has changed – it has gone from being a “material possession” to a “sentient being”.
The fundamental cornerstones for the awareness of animal suffering
The question of animal protection goes back to ancient times and has an ethical basis. It refers to questions of the place of humankind and animals among living things. This question arises in all philosophies and relates to the issue of knowing whether or not animals have consciousness. In other cultures, the question also refers to the cycle of reincarnation.
The philosopher Peter Singer, in his 1975 work Animal Liberation, gives a new dimension to the perception of animals. He addresses it from a utilitarian perspective, in other words taking the view that the goal of society and ethics is to provide “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, including animals on the basis that they, like humans, also feel suffering.
Animal protection movement
The 19th century saw the creation of the first animal protection movements, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals founded in England in 1824. The French animal welfare organisation Société Protectrice des Animaux has been operating since 1845. These movements have now become international. They provide such services as shelters for abandoned animals, adoption, veterinary care for injured animals and even advocating for legislation on animal exploitation, cruelty and abuse. Some movements and some militants resort to violent action, sometimes categorised as ecoterrorism. The Animal Liberation Front and similar groups are therefore classified as terrorists. Advocates of direct action, they sabotage installations such as laboratories and farms and attempt to free confined animals.
Usually practised to provide food for humans (but also for medical laboratories, cosmetics or even fur production), over the last few decades, livestock farming has reached an industrial scale that is presently difficult to reconcile with animal welfare. Pigs and chickens – to name but two examples – are crammed into huge sheds where they never see the light of day and where they can barely move. The Rural and European Directives, however, stipulate that they must be placed “in conditions compatible with the biological needs of their species and that all measures must be implemented to avoid suffering during breeding, penning, transport and slaughter” – animals must be stunned, for example, except for ritual slaughter. Finally, biological, medical and scientific experiments must be limited to those cases where they are strictly necessary.
Changing dietary habits
Some diets may be driven by a desire to boycott and defend animal rights. Vegetarianism (a diet that excludes consumption of animal flesh, including fish) and veganism (a diet that excludes the consumption of all animal products, such as milk and eggs) fall within this category, although these practices are still in the minority in France, where they involve just over 2% of the population. Without going that far, it is enough occasionally to review some of our eating habits to mitigate animal suffering. By choosing eggs from hens reared outdoors, for example, or by favouring certain industries that are more respectful of the living conditions of animals and that distance themselves from the more scandalous aspects of animal exploitation and intensive farming.
In France, nearly two out of three homes have a pet, and the number of cats and dogs is estimated at over 18 million. French law focuses on pet welfare, and article 521-1 of the Criminal Code severely punishes (2 years’ imprisonment and a €30,000 fine) acts of cruelty or abuse against a domestic animal. For example, abandoning a dog in a public place can be seen as an act of cruelty. According to the SPA, France has the highest level of pet abandonment in Europe.
Law relating to animals in the entertainment industry
There are rules in France concerning the conditions for keeping circus animals, although only a few towns and cities have adopted by-laws prohibiting the presence of circus animals in their area. A large number of organisations argue for such a prohibition on a national scale, as has been introduced in other countries, particularly in South America and Europe, where the banning of circus animals spread from town to town before being adopted at a national level.
Zoos are also subject to strict regulation, although several NGO reports have pointed the finger at numerous zoos in Europe, including in France, that are not in compliance with European regulations.
Finally, the penalties stipulated by the French Criminal Code do not apply to bullfighting or cockfighting when these practices are based on local traditions. Attitudes are changing, however, as in August 2011, Catalonia decided to ban bullfighting.
The protection of wild animals from suffering focuses on hunting activities in particular. These are the subject of heated debate between defenders of Nature, who deem them cruel and disproportionate, and the hunters, who see themselves as guarantors of tradition with a role to play in regulating the species. In France, wild animals receive no special protection as, on account of a concept of Roman law, they are deemed to be Res nullius, which means they belong to no one up to the moment they are hunted. However, the national parks and some legal provisions offer protection to certain species. The hunting regulations distinguish three categories of species: protected species that may not be hunted and the others for which hunting is authorised, including ‘nuisance’ species, which are subject to hunting plans. The law prohibits certain hunting practices such as the use of jawed traps, although conservationist call for the banning of other types of traps, like glue traps, or hunting with hounds.
Animal rights groups
The protection of animals and the protection of the environment are often linked. However, they are not identical. That is why animal rights groups are sometimes in opposition to environmentalists (which refers to those who are more concerned with ecosystems). Some environment groups can accept that certain animal categories must be killed to preserve the ecological balance. For example, they will encourage elimination of rats or even hedgehogs on some islands that are home to protected species of bird – rodents are responsible for a number of extinctions. On the other hand, they will criticise certain practices related to domestic animals, how they are kept and their impact on the planet. Accordingly, domestic cats are the world’s leading predators: they kill more than a billion birds or small rodents per year. As for dogs, they consume so much meat that they are – indirectly, and if fed canned food – responsible for more CO2 emissions than a 4×4.
However, the differences between these two leanings are rather vague and flexible; they do not prevent those who align themselves with them from considering the main conservation issues.