“Abandoning an animal is utterly cruel,” says Reha Hutin, president of France’s leading animal charity, the Fondation 30 Millions d’Amis.
“A pet lives with a family for years, shares their lives, loves them and then suddenly one day, they find themselves alone in a cage. How can they understand what happened? And pets are still thrown into bins, sometimes with their newborn offspring. It’s abhorrent.”
The charityis France’s largest supporter of animal shelters and rescue groups, campaigns on all animal protection matters, and has a monthly magazine. Until last year, it also produced what was one of France’s longest-running TV shows, having first aired in 1976 it ran until January 2016. It is now on YouTube but a petition to reinstate it is circulating.
Ms Hutin says: “All this lobbying and awareness-raising about animal rights has had an effect. Twenty or 30 years ago, 400,000 pets were abandoned every year in France. Now it’s socially unacceptable [although the figure today is 60,000].
“Today, the younger generation doesn’t just say ‘I love animals’, they say ‘I love animals and want to help protect them’.”
Born in the US, Ms Hutin spent much of her childhood travelling with her Turkish diplomat parents. Educated in Switzerland, she became a journalist in France after graduating from Geneva University.
She launched 30 Millions d’Amis on TV, then 30 Millions magazine in 1978 and established the foundation in 1982.
It gives around €2m a year to some 300 different animal shelters and rescue organisations.
Leading campaigns to end bull-fighting in France, hunting, animal abuse and neglect, animal and fur trafficking, puppy and kitten farms, vivisection, the use of animals in circuses, the euthanasia of feral cats, the abuse of horses and more. It does not confine itself to France, supporting projects all over the world, including in Africa, Indonesia and Ukraine.
Some of the stories of abuse and neglect are horrifying, but many are more banal. Getting rid of an unwanted pet by leaving it in a bin, dumping it outside a shelter or a vet’s door, abandoning it in a lay-by or miles away in the countryside is the most common problem.
“People use any excuse. They say the dog is sick, their kids are allergic, the wife is pregnant, they are divorcing, moving away, etc. But it’s all rubbish. If you love an animal, you keep it for life.
“Let me tell you about one man. He came to us, adopted a puppy and brought it back 10 years later saying he didn’t want it any more because it was too old!”
The memory makes her furious she cannot stand the idea that, to irresponsible owners, animals are just playthings.
“In 2015, we won a change in the law. In France, animals are recognised as sentient beings with needs that have to be met. French law no longer classes them as insensate objects; goods, like tables and chairs!”
But a law change, even combined with evolving attitudes to animal rights, still does not protect pets in France.
“We’re down to 60,000 abandoned animals a year but that’s still shocking,” Ms Hutin says.
The figure is imprecise but it includes all pets which end up in refuges each year. Countless others die: run over, attacked by wild animals or starve.
“Most of them are brought into shelters, or abandoned by the gates. But some really are tied up to trees in the middle of the forest,” she says, alluding to 30 Millions d’Amis’ current publicity campaign, which shows a man doing just that.
The figures peak every summer as pets are left when their owners go on holiday. Just over half of French households own a pet, and there are about 63 million pets. But we are seeing changes. There used to be more dogs than cats but that has changed; people are beginning to understand the commitment needed to own a dog.
“It is becoming socially unacceptable to abandon one.
“But people don’t think ahead and plan for their pet. They suddenly realise the dog can’t go with them on holidays and they use it as an excuse to dump the pet.”
Every summer, the charity runs a campaign urging people not to dump pets, and publishes information to help holiday-makers care for them, whether they take them or leave them behind.
Its 30 Millions d’Amis smartphone app geolocates animal- friendly beaches, restaurants, hotels and other services, the free car sticker warns other drivers (and the emergency services in case of an accident) your vehicle contains pets, and the brochure (free by post or download at 30millionsdamis.fr) is a mine of information.
“One of the best things owners can do to keep pets safe is have them chipped and keep your contact details up to date.
“We advise how to find kennels, how to identify pets, how to organise pet-friendly holidays and we even run a service putting pet-owners in touch with each other so they can exchange pet-sitting or even exchange small services like tidying the garden or painting fences in return for pet-sitting.”
She says there will always be a need for animal shelters.
“Cases when an owner has to go to a retirement home, or dies, sometimes people are separated from their pets... that’s what shelters and rehoming charities should be for, not for commodity reasons.
“People think they can’t be bothered any more and dump their pets, like unwanted toys, and that’s unacceptable.”
11 out of 12 kittens born in France die...
France's main pet charity-federation, the SPA, says at least 11 out of 12 kittens born in France die and has called for more owners to get their pets sterilised. Dominique Dupont of SPA said: “Only 5% of cats are sterilised – fewer in the countryside – so there are too many kittens.”
Lynn Stone of the Chats de Quercy charity says kittens are abandoned, in woods, fields or streets. “Dozens are dumped in bins and crushed by refuse lorries. Some are left outside refuges and get run over, or put down. Kittens ‘adopted’ free can be fed to reptiles as live bait, or thrown into dog fights.” The answer, she says, is sterilisation but it is expensive. The cheapest way to get a sterilised, vaccinated, chipped cat is from a refuge - and in summer there are a lot needing homes.