Our relationships with animals say a lot about ourselves.

“Man is an animal that claims to be not one,” says Laurent Bègue-Shankland, professor of social psychology at Grenoble Alpes University and member of the French University Institute Laurent Bègue-Shankland. In his wonderful book in front of animals (Odile Jacob), explores the paradoxical relationship we have with our “best friends”: a bond made up of infatuation, control, and attachment but also of cruelty… Why is our behavior toward animals so paradoxical? What do they reveal about us? How do we manage in our conscience the eating or skinning of animals in scientific experiments? maintenance.

Le Temps: Why did you write this book?

Lauren Paige – Shankland: More than a hundred scientific publications now link aggressive behavior in humans – a topic of research for twenty years – with animal cruelty. This idea has already been proposed by Pythagoras, Kant or Montaigne, but the data on this topic has multiplied in recent years. It seemed intriguing to me to evaluate our relationships with animals, because they reveal a great deal about our relationships among humans, and our perception of difference. Animals are screens on which we display our emotions and our inner worlds: we have a strong attachment to them but we also have darker behaviours.

Read also: Vinciane Despret: “There’s an octopus in us”

Are animals really our best friends?

It may seem strange that our best friends are also our best treats! We are so closely connected with the animal world that we have developed an emotional affinity that is hard to ignore. Several studies have shown the positive impact of pets on our health and morale: cuddling an animal lowers blood pressure or allows for a better recovery after surgery. In March 2020, the morale of people confined to an animal was 16% higher than others¹. But if animals contribute to our well-being, the opposite is not true: when an animal meets a human on this planet, it often ends badly for him.

We have always been fascinated by animals but have also sought to control them. We did not deprive ourselves of the use of all their resources: their driving force, their materials – meat, fat, skin, hair, feathers, bones, ivory … We also had to devise means to protect ourselves from the predators that terrified us. Only since the end of the 19th century have the fears caused by some endangered animals in Europe diminished: wolves and bears have been exterminated, insect pests have taken over …

We feel more sympathy for species that are close to our own in appearance, size, and intelligence

Are we establishing some kind of hierarchy between animal species?

We feel more sympathy for species close to us by their appearance, size, intelligence we attribute to them and all the morphological clues that make them comparable to us. Since we recognize ourselves in great apes more than in anemones, we are more closely related to primates, while morphologically very distant animals leave us completely indifferent. After watching the documentary The wisdom of the octopus (Oscar 2021 for Best Documentary Feature) Showing the sensitivity and cognitive abilities of an octopus, many will find it difficult to order in restaurants because we are so disgusted at consuming gifted with ideas…

You say our generation will have surpassed all others in its scientific understanding of animals…

Over the past 30 years, we have made significant progress in understanding their social, cognitive, and emotional capacities. Abilities we thought they inherently lacked. However, we don’t use it much for food or for scientific purposes: 65 to 100 billion animals end up on our plates, and nearly 115 million are used in scientific research.

Increasing our knowledge of animals does not automatically change our behavior towards them, but it nevertheless makes their massive consumption all the more unpleasant. We are forced to devise strategies to silence our empathy for them and resolve what American psychologist Leon Festinger called in 1957 “cognitive dissonance,” that is, a state of uncomfortable tension caused by the discrepancy between two cognitions that do not fit easily.: We love animals and yet we continue to eat them.

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To reduce this dissonance, we often resort to disguise: today’s slaughterhouses are located on the outskirts of urban spaces; We no longer display the body of an animal on the table with its wool or feathers… It is convenient to eat a piece of meat with a geometric shape on polystyrene… Reducing the abilities of animals is also another strategy: Study² ​​indicated that the simple truth, for a person, is to expect to consume a piece of meat Contributed to reduce the emotional and mental capabilities attributed to meat animals.

Does our empathy for animals also depend on our gender?

definitely. Already, in the nineteenth century, 60% of anti-partition leaders (against cruel experiments on live animals) were women, a high number at a time when they were almost invisible in public. Even today, the commitment to animals at public events remains very feminine. According to a study, a woman is 39 times less likely to be infected with an animal than a man is. We still wonder what causes this difference: Perhaps women are better prepared to take on care homes, maternity jobs…

Why is it important to realize our ambivalence towards animals?

The divide we create between them and us comes from a form of narcissism that can turn against us. Because of our interdependence, which we are increasingly aware of, the mass extinction of animals can also herald a somewhat troubling fate for ourselves. There is no doubt about the abolition of animal experiments, but we can, for example, develop more alternative solutions (cell cultures, mathematical modeling, etc.), which are sometimes more relevant according to the scientists themselves. Our view of animals must continue to evolve: we see them more and more for what they are, and not just for what they give us.

1) First Assessment Questionnaire 2020, quoted in “Barbaries. Animal Welfare: It is Urgent to Act” by Loic Dombreval (Michel Lavon, 2021)

2) Adapted in “Encountering a Wild Beast”, Joëlle Zask (1st Parallel, 2021)

3) “Gender Differences in Human-Animal Interaction,” Harold Herzog, Western Carolina University, 2007

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