One of the most striking and heartwarming things noticed almost immediately by visitors to France is how pet friendly the country seems. With 61 million domestic animals, France has the highest rate of pet ownership in Europe. Nearly half of all French households have a pet member.
Dogs in France are regularly taken to restaurants and both dogs and cats commonly maintain permanent residence in bistros.
One would expect that an animal shelter would almost be unnecessary in such an animal-friendly country, except for temporarily housing lost pets whose owners are frantically searching for them.
But there is a dark and unexpected side to the apparent French devotion to their pets. France has one of the highest pet-abandonment rates in Europe.
Just off the highway, and about 45 minutes from Paris, is the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Chamarande, which is always overcrowded this time of year for a specific reason. As French pet owners happily leave in August on the one-month vacations which are traditional in much of Europe, they abandon family pets they claim they cannot take and are unable to find someone to look after. This season can be a deadly time for the many pets left behind — permanently.
The SPCA estimates that at least 100,000 domestic animals are taken to the shelter each year and dumped there--with no seeming remorse by the owners.
Claire Brissard, who runs the Chamarande shelter, says some of the people don't even think they're doing anything wrong when they bring their pets to the shelter. They also don’t pay attention when they are told that the animal may not find a home.
"So we make them come with us to put the dogs in the cages themselves," Brissard says. "And when they see the stress of the animal they're leaving behind, at least they're not proud of what they're doing. And we hope that keeps them from doing it again."
Of course, taking the animal to a shelter is better than adding it to the many dumped in the streets to fend for themselves. Animal-abandonment is illegal but hard to enforce.
The Pet Abandonment Tragedy in Europe Extends Beyond France
The abandonment of domestic pets by vacationers is a scourge in many countries across Europe. This problem is reported as acute in Spain and Italy. (Yet in 2005 the resolve for responsible pet ownership that was so great that Rome passed an anti-cruelty law which included banning goldfish bowls lest they cause the fish to go blind. And the northern Italian city of Turin mandates that dogs be walked at least three times a day or owners face a substantial fine.)
Pet abandonment is becoming so serious in France that the French SPCA is preparing to launch a campaign online, and on giant posters in the Paris metro, says Director Brissard. One shows a sad-eyed dog, with the message: "Animals can't cry, they just suffer in silence. Don't leave your pet this Year."
Anne-Claire Chauvancy with the Foundation for the Assistance of Animals doubts that these campaigns even have an impact anymore.
"Everyone knows abandoning your dog is cruel, and he'll probably starve or get hit by a car," she says. "This campaign has become almost banal and just seems to mark the beginning of summer."