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Relationships between humans and animals

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In cultures with formalized or customary law, relations between humans and other animal species have varied greatly in space and time, and according to the animal, often with a particular status for game, domestic or animal species. animal-totems or symbolic or emblematic.

Animal status

Animal status has varied greatly according to eras, countries, customary law and the species considered, or even according to whether the animal is wild or domesticated; from the sacred or royal animal to the beast of burden, passing through the pet and the working or hunting or guard dog and up to the honey bee, etc.

Animals appear to have been considered criminally responsible throughout the Christian West from the mid-thirteenth century to modern times. The majority of known cases of animal trials took place in the 16th century, but these practices, which are ultimately quite rare (just over 200 cases recorded in Europe between the Middle Ages and the 19th century), are considered by historians to be manifestations of the survival of judicial archaisms.

The wild animal is still considered today by the rural code or the civil code or the environmental code as res nullius (that is to say not belonging to anyone in particular). Only species that are threatened or considered useful (for agriculture in general) can be partially or completely protected by law). Certain animals can be, under certain conditions, locally and for a certain time (during which it can be demonstrated that their populations are excessive) declared harmful (an old concept which is the subject of controversy with regard to the progress of science) and can then be hunted or trapped more widely. Animal welfare as well as animal rights and animal protection are growing concerns in many countries, especially in the contexts of animal husbandry, pet shops, hunting, fishing, circuses, bullfights, animal shows, animal experimentation (scientific, cosmetic, food or medical), animal transport, slaughterhouses, animal trafficking, abandonment of animals, etc.

Human use

(The dog is the first animal species to have been domesticated by man.)

The further back in time one goes, the more animals seem to have had cultural significance to human societies; the example of veneration for the cow, or for cattle, is the most significant among humans who have acquired agriculture: veneration at first common to all of humanity, as well as that of trees (Nietzsche , in its course the divine service of the Greeks, recalls that venerating trees was a practice common to all of humanity during prehistory and during antiquity, trees being the “first temples […] where the ‘spirit of the deities”, the sacred veneration of animals (or zoolatry; the gods often taking the features of animals, as in ancient Egypt) died out (Christianity having fought against it on the five continents), for surviving only in “animist” or culturally Hindu regions (“Mother Cow” is the symbol of this). This means that the more we advance in time, the more animals lose their holy or sacred status, a status that guaranteed some of them (especially living among men) respect, to become “animals” in the consumer society. -objects” (for leisure), or total “abstractions” (so as not to leave room for affect), their fate in fact leaving the majority of humans in this type of society indifferent.

Since the Paleolithic, to ensure the presence of animals that can serve him, man has domesticated a number of species and created farms. Breeders have been able, by selecting crosses in order to obtain animals that are more docile or more economically profitable, to change the characteristics of certain species and to create hybrids so that the animals respond more effectively to their utilitarian needs of producing either milk, eggs, meat, leather and wool, either beasts of burden or draft (zootechnics having not made it possible to avoid the genetic impoverishment of farmed animals, due to the significant inbreeding created by men).

Some animals are a source of income for humans, ranging from food to transport, including exhibition (bear trainers were paid to see their animal), clothing, etc. The use of animals (transport, breeding) exploded from the second half of the 18th century, previously the limited food resources were reserved for the family.

Man also uses animals for his hobbies by raising pets, filming them, discovering them in zoos or safari parks. These last two activities tend to become more respectful of the safeguarding of animals in their natural environment by promoting the reproduction of endangered species and the study for the parks.

Animal wellbeing

The different definitions of animal welfare are centered around the same concern: to preserve the welfare of animals, in other words to spare them unnecessary suffering. The well-being of the animal encompasses its physical and physiological condition, and reciprocally its good condition implies satisfactory physical health and a feeling of well-being. Animal welfare is broken down into five freedoms corresponding to the basic needs of the animal:

  1. physiological freedom (absence of hunger and thirst);
  2. environmental freedom (absence of discomfort);
  3. health freedom (absence of disease and injury);
  4. behavioral freedom (right to expression of normal animal behavior);
  5. psychological freedom (absence of fear and anxiety).


Carl von Linné(The Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné.)

In the West, Aristotle divided the living world between animals and plants. The latter does not yet clearly pose the question of the fixity of species, and the Christian theologians who follow him, by reading the Bible literally, establish fixism by considering that the universe and the known world have been created in a week, an idea that became an unquestionable dogma until the 18th century. In this vision, the animals were there to serve man, who dominated Creation. However, from the Renaissance, certain ideas were questioned. While the work of Carl von Linné in the 18th century sought to systematically classify all living species by giving them a unique and precise name (binomial name), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, then especially Charles Darwin, developed theories of an evolution of species. From these theories, and more particularly with that of Darwin, will arise a controversy with creationists who often claim their support for a Christian biblical vision of the origin of life. Darwin’s theory makes man an animal, the result of evolution through processes of natural selection, including sexuality.

Linnaeus initially defined three kingdoms (Mineralia, Vegetalia, Animalia) with the animals separated themselves into the following groups: Vermes, Insecta, Pisces, Amphibia, Aves, and Mammalia. This classification will gradually evolve over the discoveries in zoology or paleontology. This classification based on anatomical and physiological characters tends to become a phylogenetic classification, that is to say as close as possible to the phylogenetic tree.


The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) separate Man from the animal kingdom, in his nature and essence: Man is the only being created in the image of God; he must “dominate” nature.

This radical separation between humanity and animality was vigorously criticized by Claude Lévi-Strauss as corresponding to “posthumanism” which had its development with the social sciences drawing their source from Rousseauist thought.

“Animist” religions (African, Asian, American, etc.), Chinese religions (Confucianism, Taoism) and especially Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) completely integrate animal and Man into the Universe, without solution of continuity: the difference is of degree, not of kind; all beings are endowed with a soul, with the same vital principle (the “willingness to live” according to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer).


Sociology, in that it is interested in man and human collectives, also offers a point of view and angles of approach to the animal question. Sociology studies social facts and tries to perceive regularities in human activity in order to understand and explain the actions of collectives. It is with the help of theoretical and methodological tools that the discipline institutionalized by the work of Emile Durkheim on suicide or by that of Max Weber on Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism tries either to approach the motivations of individuals that lead them to act in a certain way, or to study the objective structures of society that direct their actions. We can, for example, cite Durkheim who explains that it is necessary to “explain the social by the social”, i.e. to move away from individual considerations of the actions of each to be interested in the social fact as a “thing” that cannot be explained by the aggregation of individual actions, it is the “sui generis” character of the social fact, and which has its own kind. Thus, individuals act within pre-normed and pre-regulated frameworks with a certain leeway all the same.

Sociology therefore aims to denaturalize individual and collective behavior by introducing the cultural dimension of societies and the socializing nature of the categories and representations present within them. Having explained this, we clearly see that sociological analysis takes on its full meaning when it comes to looking at the relationship between individuals and animals. It is in this way that individuals evolving in a particular society will have to act in the particularity that this same society and its standardized frameworks offer.

Howard Becker’s analysis can also enlighten us greatly in his analysis of deviance. Indeed, it highlights the fact that an act is not deviant in itself but that it presents a deviant character according to the rules and norms that it is led to transgress. According to him, there is a deviant process, a deviant career of the individual who will socialize with the deviant act and be labeled as deviant by other individuals who take as their field of possibilities the actions framed by norms and rules present in a collective. It is these departures from the norm that sociology therefore sets out to study; the mistreatment of animals or the over-humanization of the latter. This discipline considers that most actions are not natural and are, for example, governed by mechanisms of domination for some or, for another example, by acting.

The feelings and emotions of individuals also represent social forces for sociology in that they constrain individuals to act within a normatively predefined framework. Thus, Norbert Elias observes and explains to us that our emotions can be a force of inertia insofar as they already sanction actions that do not comply with social norms and this before they take place. In this perspective, the individual will conform to pre-existing social norms by adapting their positive or negative emotions vis-à-vis a behavior or the position of an individual. We see here that mistreating a cat will be strongly condemned by society and that as a result the emotions of the individual will take charge of possible impulses to force the latter to affection for the animal.

Socio-history of the animal

Dog killing a rabbit at the foot of the recumbent statue of Philippe d'Alençon in the Saint-Denis basilica.
Credit: Racinaire, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chien_tuant_un_lapin_au_pied_du_gisant_de_Philippe_d%27Alen%C3%A7on_dans_la_basilique_Saint-Denis.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0 license

(Dog killing a rabbit at the foot of the recumbent statue of Philippe d’Alençon in the Saint-Denis basilica.)

From a socio-historical perspective, we can see that the place of animals and their relationship to humans evolves over time. Indeed, it was first seen as a material end in itself (possibility of subsisting by consuming it, or recovering some of its organs for symbolic rites), with an anthropocentric humanist vision. From a Western point of view, it has gradually been integrated into human daily life, always with the same goal at the beginning (helping hunting in royalty for example), to obtain a place of choice with Man nowadays, sometimes considered as his equal. Animal rights exist with the aim of sanctioning certain mistreatments against them, this kind of practice can lead to more serious sanctions than certain offenses committed against other human beings, which could have been shocking barely a century ago.

The current intensive animal husbandry of Western societies in order to meet ever greater demands and ever shorter deadlines is developing at the same time as a certain way of life: that of not consuming meat at all, nor eating meat food related to the exploitation of animals (such as eggs and milk for example). This way of life has many variations, and is constantly evolving according to consumption practices. The word “Vegan” encompasses many of these lifestyles. Individuals call themselves “Vegan”, a word that continues to be used in English, spreading across countries through different social processes. The practices observed in certain slaughterhouses are also denounced through media reports. One can observe the development of certain contradictions with regard to respect for the dignity of animals and at the same time the intensification of animal production or the development of enormous production structures.

The place of animals has therefore greatly evolved over time, especially in recent years. Claude Lévi-Strauss said that a day will come when the idea that, in order to feed themselves, the men of the past raised and massacred living beings and complacently displayed their flesh in shreds in shop windows, will undoubtedly inspire the same repulsion as in the travelers of the sixteenth or seventeenth century, the cannibal meals of American, Oceanian or African savages.

Animal and culture

Culture is therefore very important for considering sociologically the individual and collective actions observable in society. Thus, Western culture will more integrate an animal like the dog when the Middle Eastern culture will consider the latter as impure. This supposed impurity of the dog will prohibit individuals from Middle Eastern societies from bringing this animal into their homes when a fellow animal living in Europe, for example, can settle on the sofa in the living room of a Parisian apartment. We see here that the categories are not the same depending on the cultures of the societies. We can further emphasize, for the example of the dog in Muslim countries, that we see in this prohibition a cultural expression of a cultic injunction. Indeed, dogs in Islam should not be present in the homes and properties of individuals unless they are used to keep a herd of animals, a farm or if they help men in the hunt. The whole challenge for sociology here is to denaturalize the possession of the animal and the behaviors that accompany this possession. These analyzes aim to avoid the ethnocentrism that leads individuals to over-legitimize their behavior and unequivocally condemn actions governed by other cultural prisms. It is a cultural horizontality that sociology proposes to understand the relationship to animals.


Men, since the dawn of time, have given animals virtues or characteristics that are either human or divine. Founding myths and mythologies give an essential place to animals that are sometimes real (wolf, pale fox, Caucasian eagle), sometimes fantastic (hydra, dragon, thunderbird…). The theme of the metamorphosis of man into animal comes up often (Lycaon, Callisto) and a number of mythical beings are half-human, half-animal (buffalo woman, Minotaur).

Certain animals have become symbols, and it is not surprising that popular expressions are teeming with them (to have the blues, to become a goat, to drown the fish). Many tales are anthropomorphic: African tales, for example, make certain animals archetypes of human qualities: the hare (Lëk in Wolof) and the spider (Jargooñ) personify cunning and intelligence, the hyena ( Bukki) gluttonous stupidity. Animals hold a large place in the vocabulary of love (deer, rabbit, toad dead of love) since the Song of Songs (sheep, dove), but also in insults (bittern, badly licked bear), sometimes called “bird names”.

Certain species of animals have also been deified by certain peoples. Animals in fictional universes are always very abundant. The animal martial art imitates animals, for their formidable martial efficiency.

Includes texts from Wikipedia with license CC BY-SA 3.0, translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu

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