dimanche 3 septembre 2017

How do animals think? What's wrong with no-kill shelters, adoption, animal rights, anti-specism, and animal healthcare?

One day, watching television, I saw a team of firemen trying to save a Labrador that was stranded on a piece of ice drifting along a river. While one fireman was holding the boat steady alongside the chunk of ice, another was trying to grab the dog and pull him to the safety of the boat. Suddenly, without warning, the panic-stricken dog, which obviously couldn’t fathom what this was all about, launched forward and bit the face of the unsuspecting fireman severely. Undoubtedly, the poor fireman had made a dangerous assumption: that the dog, like a human being, would know what he was trying to do. Such self-centeredness technically called anthropomorphism, which is the attribution of human qualities and needs to other species and objects, has endless consequences for both animals and humans.


Hollywood is particularly determined to entertain our ignorance and delusions regarding animals. In movies, animals are never portrayed as they are, but rather as mere props or narcissistic human projections. Movies like Marley and Me by David Frankel, The Bear by Jean-Jacques Annaud or The Emperor, a film sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, to name but a few of the major movies that opinion-makers are constantly spinning out, use animals exclusively to highlight human ideals – friendship, effort, the joys of paternity, sacrifice, honour, and so on. Animal lovers and ecologists in general are under the false impression that by putting a human face to animals, people will be inclined to do good by them. [1]

How do animals think?

Although animals have emotions and feel pain just like we do, they do not intellectualize these sensations. They lack – perhaps fortunately for them, depending on how you look at it – a symbolic language like ours, which allows us to name our feelings and categorize them according to artificial conventions. Hume’s famous postulate, can they suffer, is not the only point to consider when dealing with “sentient beings.” Do they think like we dodo they construct ideologies are crucial questions we never bother to ask precisely because we tend to assume they do.

About death

For example, animals, like young children, are not conscious of their impending death. The fear of death is a human concept that must be taught. In other words, we are not born with it. To fear death, psychologically, like humans do, one must have an idea of what death is. And without a conceptual language such as ours, death cannot be described or anticipated. Pets in pounds and veterinary hospitals – and farm animals in slaughterhouses for that matter – are petrified and anxious, but they can’t fathom the end is near. How could they anticipate their future death? They are reacting to an unusual situation which they do not understand and cannot cope with, but they have no way of knowing if the man with the white lab coat and the gentle voice is there to heal them or put them down. Hospital, pound, it’s all the same to them. From the animal’s point-of-view, that funny thing with a needle at the end could just be a toy. When I euthanized an animal, and I have euthanized hundreds of them, the better-socialized dogs were quite relaxed and undisturbed by the procedure as I injected them with a deadly dose of a barbiturate. I could probably have played ball with them right to the last breath.

Newtonian time

Newtonian time is a human-invented time scale. Other species have their own internal clocks and they do not judge the success or the quality of life by its length. They can’t even imagine how long their life is supposed to be. They couldn’t care less if they live 10 or 15 years. When we think it’s a good thing for animals to live longer, we are simply projecting on animals our own wish to live longer and evade death. We are the only death-fearing species on earth.

No-kill “shelters”

Those who work in no-kill shelters to unduly prolong the lives of animals that will never be adopted because of unredeemable physical or psychological flaws should think twice before imposing their egocentric way of interpreting life events on those animals. Some of these animals spend their lives cooped up in cages or runs at the total mercy of so-called Good Samaritans, who are only pleasing themselves by insisting on keeping the animals alive, as a matter of principle, or for business and image reasons regardless of the animal’s best interest, sometimes for years, under miserable conditions from the animal’s point of view. Have you ever seen these places? A house of horror in most cases. No one is less dependable than volunteers. I know, I’ve worked in shelters. They come and go whenever they feel like it. Animals are often left for days without being cleaned and fed.
 A lot of people make a living out of these incredibly self-centred views that see what is worthy in nature as that which resembles us. Their attempts to humanize animals with high-sounding words like “refugee,” “children,” ‘adoption,” "rescue," and “companion” is counterproductive, even dangerous. Dogs bite millions of people, for example, mostly children, because their owners think animals are like us in their thoughts and feelings. Most of the animals involved are destroyed. “It is folly and anthropomorphism of the worst kind, says scientist Stephen Budiansky, to insist that the intelligence that every species displays must be the same as ours to be truly wonderful” [2][3][4].
You have to agree with People for the Ethical treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. [5] Unadopted and unredeemable animals are better off dead. Yes, PETA puts them down, but so does the SPCA and other welfare agencies. Nobody makes an issue out of it because most reasonable people know it’s the best outcome possible for these throw-away left-overs of consumerism. Besides, pet owners who complain about the destruction of unwanted pets should take an honest look at what they themselves are doing in their own homes. As described in this blog, they are also killing animals with their self-centred "love," albeit in a less spectacular way.

Wildlife “shelters”

Others will rescue orphaned wild animals abandoned by their mothers for good reasons. How do they teach these animals, I wonder, the rules of the land so they can go back and successfully survive in their environment? Bear cubs, for example, stay at least two years with their mothers before going on their own. Many of these “rescued” animals are condemned to spend their lives in cages or they die incognito shortly after being released in nature. It’s all show for the most devious reasons imaginable. Always on the hunt for donations, these do-gooders will go to extremes to please their donators.  
I’m not suggesting that we should never help an endangered or sick animal; that we should systematically exterminate any animal that might threaten our survival or that any less-than-perfect dog or cat should be destroyed, but rather that we should be aware of the consequences our beliefs and delusions can have. Some of them are truly inextricable. Each attempt to improve things within the status quo just gives strength to the underlying false assumptions. From that perspective, every solution becomes part of the problem. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Animal rights

Take the concept of animal rights for domesticated animals, for example. It’s a hidden form of anthropomorphism because it defines the needs of domesticated animals according to human needs. While the emancipation of women and blacks makes sense, the same cannot be said about the emancipation of domesticated animals. From their cognitive perspective, emancipation within the status quo is meaningless. No domesticated animal will ever be free to exercise his rights. An emancipated domestic animal is by definition a contradiction in terms. Lawyer Anne-Marie Bourgeois Sohm, lecturer at the Faculty of Law of Clermont-Ferrand, France, is clear that the need to give rights to domesticated animals is a false one:

"Would this change [giving rights to animals] really make a difference in the animal condition? Would the end justify the problems caused by the change in our traditional legal structure? We must, alas, answer in the negative. The animal, the beneficiary of such rights, can never exercise them, it is his master, or a body authorized to do so in its place, which does so. However, in the present context, it is already the case." [6]

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 behaviors 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 in this blog, animal rights - and adoption for that matter - does more to nullify the wanted effect of saving animals and to amplify the dreaded effect of consumerism, with all its inseparable atrocities. it's like paying a ransom to terrorists for a hostage; we don't do it because we know it just feeds the problem viciously. 

Emancipation of domestic animals within the status quo may be meaningless, as explained above, but emancipation for animals in general would have meaning only if it referred to granting animals the right to live out their lives without interference or exploitation. This would mean the end of domestication and thus pets.


The notion that other animals should have the same rights as humans is another dangerous fallacy. In the United States and elsewhere, in the name of equality for every species, parks and protected ecological sites, for example, are trampled and desecrated by pet owners who feel they have every right. 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 love and anti-specism, owners everywhere are waging “dog wars” to gain free access for their dogs to rare and protected land. [7]

Near my home there is a small, pristine forest, a protected national treasure, where dogs are admitted only on-leash and where walking outside the trails is prohibited. Unfortunately, a number of dog owners use it as an exercise park and a toilet for their pets. On one occasion, I saw as many as half a dozen dogs running loose in the woods, barking, trampling rare plants, and scaring birds away. The trails are often littered with feces. Plastic bags containing excrement are thrown in the underbrush and left hanging on the entrance gates. Whenever I have asked dog owners to keep their dogs on-leash and respect the law, I have been treated with contempt and derision, even verbal threats and physical intimidation. One day, an aggressive pet owner, out of her wits after I had told her to put her dogs on leashes, actually shoved my sister out of her way as she continued along the trail. The comment I most often hear is: “If you don’t love animals, why don’t you move to another neighbourhood!” I’ve complained many times to City Hall, and several of my letters on the subject were published in local newspapers, but to no avail. The love argument is a powerful one.

Of course, there are selfish reasons behind this unruly behaviour. Pet owners feel guilty about locking their animals up most of the day while they go about living their lives. Slavery comes at a moral price. They find some solace by hiring a dog walker or trainer, buying their pets an expensive brand of food, playing ball with them on the week-ends, or letting them loose for a few minutes in the woods or with their own kind. Some make these outings into social events.

Animal healthcare

It is a case of wishful thinking to imagine that a pet can understand and appreciate whatever good intentions are behind veterinary medical care. It is simply above and beyond their cognitive possibilities. From their point of view, a veterinary hospital is indistinguishable from a pound.
How can we be so blind to the true needs of those we love? Or, do we only pretend to love pets? After all, we cause their diseases in myriad ways on the one hand, then play dumb and profit from them on the other. This schizophrenic absurdity suggests that our concern for pet health has much more to do with trying to meet our own needs than with anything else.

Generally, sick animals cooperate as little as possible when hospitalized. The unfamiliar odours, noises, colors, and the presence of strangers and other animals of different species scare patients to varying extents depending on their degree of socialization. Although cats, birds, and exotic species are more sensitive, dogs are also deeply affected. In particular, those that rarely leave the security of their homes are overwhelmed emotionally by this experience, an immensely traumatic one from their point of view. Hyper-excitation, distress vocalization, uncontrollable urination and defecation, fear, excessive submissiveness, and manifestations of dominance and aggression are the norm in what the animal perceives as a chaotic, hellish, and life-threatening environment. Restraint is often mandatory and badly trained animals are a serious challenge. The veterinarian and his staff are exposed daily to bites, clawing, and episodes of aggression. When things get busy in such an environment, the tensions are palpable on both sides of the species divide. [8][9][10]

Veterinarians and pet owners often rationalize this subtle form of self-centeredness with the paediatrician argument: “Our own children don’t understand medicine either, but they have to undergo treatment for their own good, whether they like it or not.” Veterinarians see themselves as paediatricians of sorts, but the comparison is completely invalid. Parents are more often authorized to stay with their children while they are being treated; they can even sleep over in some cases. They can reason with their children and explain what is being done to them. Eventually, kids can be convinced that the procedures are necessary if they want to get better. They are rarely left unattended and without care for long hours, even whole days and nights, like animals are. Veterinary clinics and hospitals that pay staff to keep watch over patients overnight, on weekends, and on holidays are the rare exception. Furthermore, when a treatment becomes too inconvenient or expensive, parents do not get rid of their children by dropping them off at a pound (euphemistically called a “shelter”) or by having them euthanized for a pittance by their paediatrician. Pet owners like to think of themselves as the parents of their animals, but they overlook the fact that the children they claim are not their own. They are rather children that were abducted from their biological parents, from species that were abducted from their natural communities. And yet this attitude is so trite as to seem perfectly natural and legitimate.

In conclusion, pets dislike being muzzled, tied up, penned up, injected, bandaged, pilled, groomed, or subjected to often-excruciating cancer treatments or a kidney transplant. Even when bearing positive results, therapeutic egotism must be counted as one more abuse added to the end of a very long list. After all, is there any other way in which animals could possibly interpret medical procedures? This, in turn, begs the question, whom does animal healthcare really aim to please? Obviously, owners and veterinarians are far more satisfied than the patients themselves. How could they know that we want to care for them and cure them? Our egocentric drive to make them better allows us to remain blind to their deeper needs…and in very old or sick pets, it can add a twist of cruelty to the end of a life that was spent at the service of man.

Children are subjected to our unnatural affection and solicitations for their entire lives, and we forget far too easily that they never asked for any of it. We give it in a misdirected attempt to meet our own needs, and this exploitation is at the root even of the medical care that we kind-heartedly administer to them.


Unless animal activists of all denominations - vegetarians, vegans, abolitionists, welfare advocates, lawyers, and philosophers, etc - deal with fundamental issues such as anthropomorphism, for example, how can anything change? Aren’t they feeding the problem by their mediocre actions on the surface? In other words, are animal lovers sincere or is their cause a huge self-serving ego trip?

“The eminently symbolic task of all these social agents,” says Italian ethnologist Sergio Dalla Bernardina, “comes down to clearing the name of the collective by maintaining the illusion that not all humans agree on the cruel fate reserved to other species, other people, and nature in general.” [11]

Agents of virtue boost their ego, and that of society as a whole since they are its emissaries, in the spirit of this quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

"Having sacred tasks, such as improving, saving, or redeeming mankind – carrying the deity in his bosom and being the mouthpiece of imperatives from the beyond – with such a mission a man naturally stands outside all merely intellectual". [12]

Animal activism is thus a form of sentimentalism, where the issue is not so much change but rather hope for change, with the meaningless feel-good emotions that come with it at a bargain price. La Rochefoucauld and other cynics of the seventeenth century were quite conscious of this cultural machination, which they defined as “the tribute vice pays to virtue.” [13][14]

Meanwhile, it's business as usual...

Budiansky, Stephen (1998). If a lion could talk. The Free Press.
Bernardina, Sergio Dalla (2006). « Épilogue en forme de satire. Du commerce avec les bêtes chez les Terriens civilisés. » L’éloquence des bêtes. Métaillé.
Hoffer, Eric (1951). The true believer. Thoughts on the nature of masse movements. Harper and Row.
West, Patrick (2004). Conspicuous compassion. Why sometimes it’s really cruel to be kind. Civitas.


[1] Éric Conan (1989). "La zoophilie, maladie infantile de l’écologisme".  Esprit, no 155, p. 124-126.
[2] Robert F. Brasky (1997). Noam Chomsky: a life of dissident. ECW Press, p.174 ;
[3] Stephen Budiansky (1998). If a lion could talk. The Free Press; (2000).
[4] Stephen Budiansky. “If they’re so smart how come they aren’t rich”. The Truth About Dogs. Penguin Books, p. 124.
[6] Anne-Marie Sohm-Bourgeois (1990). "La personnification de l’animal: une tentation à repousser." Recueil Dalloz Sirey, 7e Cahier: 
[7] Michael Schaffer (2009). One Nation Under Dog. Henry Holt, p. 41.
[8] Joanna Swabe (1996). “Animals as a Natural Resource: Ambivalence in the Human-Animal Relationship in a Veterinary Practice.” Amsterdam School for Social Science Research;
[9] Joanna Swabe (1996). “Animals, Disease, and Human Social Life: The Human-Animal Relationship Reconsidered.” Onderzoekers; Sanders,
[10] Clinton R. (1994). “Biting the Hand that Heals You: Encounters with Problematic Patients in a General Veterinary Practice.” Society and animals; 2(1): 47-66.
[11] Sergio Dalla Bernardina (2006). "Épilogue en forme de satire. Du commerce avec les bêtes chez les Terriens civilisés". L’éloquence des bêtes. Métaillé, p.183.
[12] Friedrich Nietzsche (1974). L'Antéchrist. Ecce Homo. Gallimard.
[13] Patrick West (2004). Conspicuous compassion. Why sometimes it’s really cruel to be kind. Civitas;
[14] Eric Hoffer (1951). The true believer. Thoughts on the nature of masse movements. Harper and Row.