Pets and humans, the history of their relationship.
In his presentation, James A. Serpell, professor of the University of Pennsylvania, emphasised the fact that although nowadays the presence of pets in our homes is overwhelming and their integration into our family lives increases day by day, this is something that would have been completely inconceivable in the recent past. Professor Serpell gave as an example the current cohabitation situation that is taking place in the United States, where in 2005, 63% of households had at least one pet, and 45% had more than one. However, as noted, the relationship between humans and animals has not always been so positive as it is nowadays; in fact, it has gone through very dark periods, as the one that took place in England about five hundred years ago.
Animals under suspicion
The history of the relationship between men and pets started at the dawn of our civilization, when both discovered how beneficial their friendship could be. However, their history – as any other story – is not free from conflicts and lack of understanding. Probably the darkest period of their relationship took place in England, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to Professor Serpell, during that period in that country, –which is nowadays very popular for their love of animals,– the owners of pets could run the risk of being accused of witchcraft and be executed.
As stated by the British historian Keith Thomas, witchcraft trials held in England maintained that witches were assisted by demons and ghosts in the form of animals. For that reason, the possession of cats, dogs, mice or birds, which were the typical pets of that period, was considered in many cases as irrefutable evidence to condemn a large number of people to the stake. In fact, in 1604, King James I of England approved a law that officially made it a crime «to consult, deal, invite, use, feed or reward ghosts under animal form in any way».
The worst thing about this law was that possessing pets was especially dangerous if the owner was poor, old or not well-esteemed by the community.… In these cases, the risk of being executed after being accused of witchcraft was quite high. This was life in England four hundred years ago; however, this situation was not exclusive to this nation. Art provides evidence of the way in which animals used to be related to witchcraft in other countries. In the fifteenth century, the Witches' Sabbath painted by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien showed a cat behind a witch. In Goya's art, the series of paintings devoted to witchcraft shows the devil in the form of a billy-goat escorted by two cats.… These are just two examples of how dark that period was for pets. Unfortunately, today, in the twenty-first century, there are still some countries that take very reprehensible decisions with regard to pets, such as China, for instance.
For a more human relationship
Since its Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the Chinese government orders regularly the massive execution or compulsory mercy killing of pets in the city of Beijing.
The last one took place in March 2007. In the context of the preparation of the Olympic Games, the Chinese authorities ordered pet owners of the city of Beijing to take their animals to their respective veterinarian clinic in order for them to undergo euthanasia. This measure tried to prevent cases of rabies among the massive amount of foreigners that would be swarming around the city.
However, according to Professor Serpell, the purges carried out in previous years, like the one performed in 1982, were justified by policy-makers as a way to get rid of a capitalist habit. This prominent veterinarian believes that behind these purges underlies prejudices of the Chinese authorities against the capitalist habit of having pets at home. We hope that all the changes that China is experiencing and will keep on experiencing in the future will help to raise awareness of the beneficial role that pets have in the lives of human beings. And not only in China, but in all those countries where such awareness has not yet appeared. It is easy to imagine that this new way of thinking would represent a sign of a higher social welfare and greater respect for all living beings rights in the societies of such countries. Let us hope this happens soon.