PARIS – 1.
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It’s probably the most infuriating phenomenon produced by the summer vacation in France, at least in the eyes of a foreign observer. Not only because of its vast scale, but also because of the indifference with which it’s greeted every year, as though it were a force of nature or an innate national trait. This year was no different: In July-August more than 60,000 animals, most of them cats and dogs, were abandoned by their owners, according to the National Animal Shelters Service. At least a third of them died or were put to death because of the overload in the shelters. This week, in a recurring annual ritual, the same people went to pet shops or shelters and brought home another cat, hamster, rabbit or dog. After a recent falloff in the scale of this phenomenon, thanks to information campaigns and legislation, it made a grim comeback this summer: 2017 will probably be the worst year for the abandonment of animals in France since the 1970s.
The extent of the national denial of the phenomenon – although it exists in Germany, too, France is the European and perhaps world record-holder in this realm – is in part related to France’s consciousness of its position as the pioneer of human rights and animal rights. Between 1789 and 1794, draconian animal-protection laws were passed in the Republic, mostly with respect to horses, but for cats and dogs as well. In addition to aiming to do away with deeply rooted customs involving the slaughter of cats, the cruel exploitation of horses and the staging of dogfights, the French Revolution also sought to consolidate a broad secular ideology that would eliminate the concept of man’s supremacy over the other animals, as it was expressed in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Descartes wondered whether animals could even feel pain, and other French philosophers sought to implement the measures implicit in the idea of human ascendancy, distorting the original verse in Ecclesiastes (3:19) along the way (“For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing”). The Revolution established the first animal shelters; people who were cruel to animals were sent to prison, and in some cases to the guillotine.
Those shelters are collapsing now. The abandoners come from every social category – the same sort of data were recorded this summer in Marseille, a poor city, as in Bordeaux, a prosperous one: In both places, an average of 43 cats and dogs were abandoned each day. The only thing all these animal owners share are the pets that would prevent them from going on their long vacance, a basic right that overrides the right to life of their erstwhile best friend. In 1994, legislation was enacted imposing a high fine, and in some cases imprisonment, on anyone whose cat is found more than 800 meters from its home, or on anyone who is documented abandoning an animal without intending to bring it back. However, the same law stipulates that anyone who takes a cat or a dog to a shelter for abandoned animals is not subject to punishment. Accordingly, the public understands the law as officially legitimizing the abandonment of animals, as long as it’s done via an authorized shelter. The cat is thus stowed in the packed car, and on the way to the Riviera, Normandy or the Spanish coast, the family stops at a shelter and leaves it there – permanently.
As the moon would have it, Id al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, fell this year precisely on the weekend people returned from summer vacation. According to an official estimate, 120,000 sheep were put up for sale in advance of the holiday, in the Paris suburbs alone. That number usually needs to be doubled, because only a minority of believers buy a lamb from authorized dealers, who ensure that a veterinarian of the Republic supervises the ritual sacrifice. That drives up the price. The result is widespread illicit commerce in sheep during this period, with most of the sacrificial rites taking place in private homes. From the viewpoint of the spokespersons of the Muslim organizations, this mass slaughter is no different from what goes on in the “regular” abattoirs from which the French get their entrecote. But in terms of the law, it is different, because the method used in traditional ritual slaughter is categorized by the European Union as cruelty to animals. It takes place in France only by dint of a special exemption from the law that is granted for religious rituals – the same exemption that was granted in the past to the laws of kashrut, at the request of the Jewish community.
“The Feast of the Sacrifice without a sacrifice is like Christmas without chocolate,” a regional religious supervisor of the rite explained to channel TF1 – a comparison which, as was to be expected, didn’t go over well with the French media. The authorities authorized the sale of 120,000 sheep in the Paris suburbs, where, according to the standard estimate, about a million Muslim believers make their home. The spokesperson of the French Muslim council reiterated that this number could not meet the full need; his deputy thought that the permit should be quintupled. Yet, after the holiday it turns out that tens of thousands of sheep weren’t sold. According to police reports, the number of complaints about “pirate” ceremonies in private homes also declined sharply this year. Did France’s millions of Muslims undergo accelerated secularization?
Almost. What they did is adopt another custom of the Republic: the long summer vacation. Thanks to the calendar, then, the holiday fell at the tail end of the vacance, and French Muslims decided to extend their stay in their countries of origin. So they celebrated the holiday in Algeria and Morocco, thus granting a reprieve to the sheep of France. They returned to Paris on the first day of school – Monday of this week – exactly on the day when many French citizens went to pet shops to buy a new cat.
Last month in these pages I wrote about “Amiram: His Life in Israel,” a story based on the life of a boy whose real name was “Udi.” I assumed that the author, Francis Maziere, preferred the name “Amiram” for phonetic reasons. Not so: The author’s host in Israel was his good friend Amiram Avrutzky, who established Moshav Neot Hakikar in the Arava desert, among other accomplishments, and Maziere decided to name the boy for him. Thus another French-Israeli mystery is solved, and my thanks to alert reader Haim Lipa.