French Pets: Cats are So Yesterday!
For anything up 130 euros a time Dog in the City will preen and cosset Parisians answering to the name of York, Felix or Diane. Little wonder Sabrina Elbaz, the patronne of this pampered pet parlour in the bohemian Marais quartier, calls all her clients “princess”.
The beauty pitch for these overindulged domestic animals might go something like this: “A mud wrap or an anti-stress massage for your moggy Madame or perhaps a fur combing with a touch of lacquer? A doggy shampoo? Certainly and would he like a bowl cut or a dégradé to go with that?”
But dogs and cats – all 18 million of them reportedly– are very much yesterday’s pet parade flavour. For the French have switched affections from cats in pyjamas and spa holidays for dogs, to truffle pig hikes, ornamental hen competitions, colourful iguana meets, hermit crab away days, venemous snake challenges, ferret flaneurs and yes, an unimaginable display of 34.99 million pet fish.
According to Marianne magazine France (pop: 65.7 million) leads Europe in the number of pets it keeps — an astonishing 63 million — broken down into: 34.99 million aquarium fish; 11.41 million cats; 7.42 million dogs, 6.43 million birds, 2.66 million rodents and 1 million reptiles.
Plain vanilla chats and chiens have been dethroned, replaced by once despised and dangerous species. No longer is it considered odd to hear that your neighbour harbours tarantulas and truffle pigs as pets and if you are a gite owner or holiday accommodation provider a recent change in the law means you can no longer turn away guests who insist on bringing their pets.
Today these could include what are now called the ‘NACs’ for nouveaux animaux de compagnie — or new pets. Some 5% of households are believed to favour lizards, boa constrictors, and tarantulas as pets.
Toto an 8kg iguana with skin as wrinkled as a centenarian, has for instance been welcoming visitors to La Ferme tropicale, a Parisian pet shop for some years now. This shop, says Marianne, carries a vast stock of NAC from turtles at €19, helmeted chameleons at €79, and boa constrictors at €375. Walt Disney’s Rapunzel has sparked a huge fad among girls: they all want Pascal the chameleon as a pet. Indeed the law has been updated to establish upper limits to this all consuming NAC passion. For those who wish to keep crickets, cockroaches and mice only 40 specimens per household are allowed, Marianne adds.
To treat what is now a rapidly expanding patient base, there are specialist NAC veterinarians. Lionel Schilliger one such Paris vet, operates on turtles and iguanas and says he has got used to drying the tears of the owners of reptiles he has failed to save.
The more social turmoil and economic woe sends families into a tail spin, the greater the need — say sociologists cited by the magazine — to cherish increasingly strange creatures, free from the baggage of social upheaval.
So intense has the relationship become that in ten years the annual amount spent on pets in France has now doubled to €4.5 billion, according to Xerfi Etudes, a market research firm. Services have diversified and specialized medical aid coverage now allows Fido to have his Oedipus complex treated by an animal shrink and his gallstones removed in an animal hospital.
Each year indeed pet lovers on average spend €1,680 on dogs, and €1,200 on cats. “A pet is sweetness in a cruel world. At no time does a pet judge us, instead it indulges us”, according to Jean-Luc Vuillemenot, general secretary of AFIRAC, a pet information and research group, which publishes ‘How animals help us to love life’. “In our society where increasingly we no longer shake hands, where displays of affection are scarce, the animals that bid for our affection in our homes replace the isolation society as a body now imposes on us”, he adds.
According to a 2012 survey by Nikon, the camera-maker, 77% of the French recognise the photos of their pets better than they do those of their loved ones. Pets are increasingly the stars on social networks: the most popular dog in the world, Boo, a Pomeranian, has 7 million fans on Facebook!
So, ask Marianne writers Marie Huret and Clotilde Cadu, what on earth has bitten us? According to anthropologist Jean-Pierre Digard, author of “The French and their Pets” (Français et leurs animaux – Hachette) and a renowned expert on human-animal relationships, the exaggerated love we show to our pets can be explained by a thirst for redemption: “There is a very strong animal hierarchy, there is the elite, the pets that we overvalue with ostentation, and the plebs, the farm animals, locked up, ignored, raised for the sole purpose of putting food on our plates”, he notes. “The love we give to pets is meant to exonerate us from the way we treat our food supply”.
The behaviouralist Claude Béata, author of ‘At the risk of love’ (Au risque d’aimer – Odile Jacob), who has practised in Toulon as an animal therapist for 20 years, tempers this analysis: “There are some bereaved pet owners who stand rooted to their dog or cat mausoleums and who no longer dare leave their homes for fear of leaving the deceased animal alone. But they are a tiny minority. The relationship pet/owner is only a problem in around a third of my consultations”, he says. In his surgery, Dr. Béata has in his time dealt with jealous parrots, and inconsolable, schizophrenic and bipolar dogs… “almost all can be treated. We are very scientific in our approach: we combine therapy and psychotropic drugs, a veterinarian can change the behaviour of a suffering animal”, he says. “Its medicine, not voodoo”.
To truly understand the relationship between the French and their pets, one must visit pet paradise: the pet cemetery at Asnières, a suburb north of Paris, where gravestones in the shape of hearts or the heads of a cat stand in long mournful lines. This is the Pere Lachaise of the pet world, a kind of Disneyland, except that here, Mickey has died. On tombstones are engraved moving epitaphs, photos adorn the graves of rabbits, dogs, parakeets… : “You, my faithful Pussy, I will keep you in my mind for all time ” reads one. Here we come across Elodie, 33, decked in dark glasses, rhinestone rings in her ears, she is smoking a cigarette in front of the tomb of Neptune, her loulou who died in 2012 after 15 years together. “He was the youngest member of the family, we never referred to him as the dog he was always called the ‘little one’ ” she said.
If Yves Montand were still around he’d have to update his lyrics.Story: Ken Pottinger
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