Friday, April 26, 2013

Parisian Pet Cemetery - Cimitière pour Chiens et d'autres Animaux Domestiques - Asnières...

"Any society, any nation is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest." 

These words of wisdom were said by a certain cardinal several years ago (C. Roger Mahony, 1998) and the last, the least and the littlest mentioned could be in reference to any group of living creature unjustly mistreated and maligned in the past or indeed the present. 

Ghandi is said to have remarked that "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Until the late 19th century, animals were largely considered, at best to be utilitarian objects, there to provide civilized man with food and other basic materials essential to life and to facilitate his work to obtain this. Such creatures could be domesticated to rid them, in part at least, of feral instincts and forms of behaviour that served to highlight all that separated man from beast. 
Nevertheless, a beast could never be seen as more than that, and it is not surprising that the French word for animal, 'bête' is also the adjective for 'stupid'. As creatures deprived of human consciousness and therefore intellect, it would generally be assumed that they were not sentient beings. In this light, animals were incapable of awareness, suffering or even any feeling whatsoever since they lacked the direct means of expression bestowed to humans.

 At worst, animals remained untamed and as such 'useless', serving no human need. Unwittingly perhaps, Man had always lived out Charles Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest, under the hard rules of a pitiless life of poverty that left no room for other considerations.
Detail from entrance façade
Sometimes only civilized by social, spiritual and cultural norms, Man's fight for survival was often not much more elevated than that of animals themselves. With an existence little better than that of a beast, how could Man concern himself with the life, let alone well-being, of these lesser beings?
 Children were treated no better than beasts of burden; a ready supply of labourers, available to work in the most inhumane conditions in mines, mills and even chimneys. Child labour in its most extreme forms was only banished by the Factory Acts in the mid-19th century, but in many parts of the world today the situation has hardly evolved over the centuries.
Central fountain feature
Governed by bestial ways, undomesticated animals could only endanger the survival and civilized state of Man. The threatening bestiality of animals was easily associated with the savagery of uncivilized primitive societies; both had to be contained, converted and/or crushed. There could be no inhumane treatment of a being that was not human, or at least belonging to a recognized form of civilization. It was generally felt that cruelty could not be acknowledged since these creatures were dumb in every sense, lacking the morals that define Man. 
 The Cartesian philosophy argued that animals were like machines. Indeed the founder, René Descartes (1596-1650), believed beasts to be devoid of consciousness and therefore sentience too. Visits to the abattoir supported his notion that the slaughter of animals and the treatment of their carcasses was like "taking apart a spring-driven clock"... 
 Ironically, it was the son of an actual clockmaker, the Genevan philosopher J-J Rousseau (1712-1778), who would question such arguments."If I am bound to do no injury to my fellow-creatures, this is less because they are rational than because they are sentient beings: and this quality, being common both to men and beasts, ought to entitle the latter at least to the privilege of not being wantonly ill-treated by the former" (1754).
Headstones used as steps
 Although concern for animals could be expressed, it was generally in the sense that animals were first and foremost the property of Man, there to meet his basic physical/material needs or as a source of social entertainment. 
 Wanton cruelty to animals was to be discouraged because it would ultimately be detrimental to humanity. Kant expressed this view in 1785 "cruelty to animals is contrary to man's duty to himself, because it deadens in him the feeling of sympathy for their sufferings, and thus a natural tendency that is very useful to morality in relation to other human beings is weakened". 
 Despite the fact that some animal welfare legislation dates back to the 17th century, it was not really until the 19th century that any moral obligation of man to beast was to form the basis of fixed laws - jus animalium - that left little room for misinterpretation or abuse. Although actual animal rights would not even be acknowledged for many years, the concept that animals should be given more consideration began to develop.
Bruno the heroic rescue dog
The British MP Richard Martin ('Humanity Dick') penned a bill to offer animals a certain protection from cruelty and led to the first animal welfare body. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1824, became the RSPCA once Queen Victoria had granted it her royal approval in 1840. 

In the latter part of the century Anna Sewel's Black Beauty - An autobiography of a horse explored animal sentiment and suffering and exposed these to a young public in order to avoid the repetition of the inhumane treatment dished out by earlier generations. "If we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and we do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt".
 The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) remarked that Europeans were increasingly "awakening " to sense that "beasts have rights, just as humans". Perhaps the question of the rights and humane treatment of any living creature reached the height of irony under the Nazi regime.
 Under the policy of Tierschutzgesetz environmental concerns and the welfare of animals became significant issues, causes that were defended personally by several key Nazi figures. Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler helped elevate the condition of beasts through a more humane approach, while simultaneously reducing specific groups of human society to non-identities, not even worthy of the status of vermin.
 When vivisection - a "Jewish science" was banned by Göring in 1933 as "unbearable torture", he pledged to send the perpetrators to concentration camps for the crime of treating animals as "inanimate property". That millions of humans would be treated as undesirable inanimate property, and that thousands would undergo medical experimentation at the hands of such doctors as Josef Mengele at camps like Auschwitz or Natzwiller-Struthof (France) seemed to be overlooked. The drive for a Nazi Aryan 'master race' led to levels of human bestiality unthinkable even amongst the 'beastliest' members of the animal kingdom. This idealogy seemed to turn on its head the concern later expressed by the theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) that "Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human life". 
To live in a civilized society, a human or non-human being needs its basic rights expressed, vital issues voiced in order to enforce, or defend these same rights. Deprived of the physical means to word what they may feel or think, however basic such feelings and thoughts may be, any living creature is vulnerable to abuse. 
 As the status of animals was increasingly called into question from the 18th century onwards, a parallel concern was gaining ground in society. While animals must always rely on Man to expound and decide on their welfare issues, all humans should have the right to expression in order to protect their rights in a decent society. This was not the case for women. 
 Denied the right to voice their concerns through suffrage or through other channels of expression women were like animals, reliant on menfolk to express all matters that concerned them directly or indirectly. The Revolution years in France sought to attain an equal society, one that would respect the rights of each and every man, yet the question of the actual role of women in that same society was conveniently bypassed.

 Olympe de Gouges (1748 – 1793), one of the first French feminists, fought for many causes which all had in common a demand for the consideration of weaker, oppressed groups, be they women, slaves or illegitimate children. She drily remarked that if women had "the right to mount the guillotine scaffold" then they must "equally have the right to mount the political rostrum."
 She struggled for women to attain the right to vote, and questioned male authority, largely in her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791). For her troubles she was herself guillotined in 1791...
Without an active voice, then as now, any opinion a woman holds may be taken for mindless cackling, malicious gossip or a temptress's whisperings. When denied the vote the status of women is little more than that of a subservient, yet frequently disobedient second-class citizen, needing to be corrected and contained, protected and preserved from her own perverse femininity.
  As much as Schopenhauer advocated the correct treatment of animals, he regarded women to be a far more dangerous species that needed to be kept at heel. Unrestrained and unfettered, a woman would be a dangerous entity whose animal drive to fertility and procreation went against the spiritual and intellectual goals of man.
 Corrupting the male with their feminine wiles, women thus hindered man's ascent and enforced a natural, more animalistic status. Kept in the safe confines of a domesticated role, a woman would hopefully become a dutiful companion to her husband and family, nurturing man's rise, through the suppression of this female instinct. 
 Whatever the society or the era, the power of 'feminine charms', whatever form these might have taken has never been fully repressed. Many of the women who endeavoured to fight the feminist cause, or other missions, for that matter, understood this and would use it at their discretion, for their own ends. Born in 1864, Marguerite Durand was very much a woman of the Belle Epoque through her desire to look 'coquette' in appearance and her apparent pleasure at drawing attention to herself. 
However, she used these attributes to achieve goals that made of her an exceptional being who contributed greatly to the feminist cause for all women, and fought against the chains that slowed down social advancement in general. 
 Despite being an illegitimate child at a time when the status of 'enfant naturel' was frowned upon, Durand did not lack self-confidence; far from it. While many actresses were still considered to be of loose morals, she went on to become a member of the Comédie Française and began to frequent influential social figures from the world of the arts, politics, law and journalism. 
 As her mother before her, she could be considered 'libertine et savante', but never vulgar or ignorant. This savvy blond was not afraid to express her views, to hold her own or attract attention. With great theatricality she paraded her pet lion cub 'Tiger' in Parisian social events, willing to use the spectacle as a marketing tool for the ideas she was trying to promote. Marguérite Durand recognized social injustice and inequality around her as fin de siècle society changed rapidly, but did not adjust to the changing needs of its people. 
Marguerite Durand and 'Tiger'
Working for the newspaper Le Figaro, Durand was sent to report on an International Feminist Congress in 1896. This confirmed her view that the situation of women was particularly precarious, in every sphere, but especially amongst the poorest. Work traditionally carried out by women was now being performed by machines in an increasingly mechanized workforce, which offered no protection or stability to its most vulnerable members.
 Without the vote, or membership to trade unions, such women had no way of defending themselves. Bourgeois women reliant on their husbands for financial security fared little better; there was no parity between the two sexes and no means to defend any rights. Which rights, anyway? Members of the fair sex were treated no better than children at best, and animals at the worse. Divorce had only just been reinstated in 1884 through the Loi Naquet, education was only accessible to a limited level, and any higher qualification obtained led nowhere since many professions were barred to women.
 The feminist congress acted as a catalyst to Marguerite Durand. At the same time as the 'Affaire Dreyfus' divided France with anti-semitic feeling, Durand, five months pregnant, decided to launch herself into a highly controversial project. La Fronde, a newspaper written for and by women, was born in 1897. The title of the newspaper itself set the tone, referring back to manifestations of civil discontent in 17th century France when the public took on the establishment. La Fronde would be 'une arme de combat' since it would allow women to express themselves and explore all issues concerning women, directly or indirectly.
  Naturally this "feminine and feminist" paper drew initial scorn, and was often dismissed as defending the Dreyfus cause célèbre. Critics gave it just a few months before inevitable catfights among the female staff would lead to its logical downfall. Despite financial issues, and a limited public the paper continued to publish each month and soon was referred to as "Le Temps in petticoats".
 La Fronde was addressed to educated middle-class women, but it was hoped it would have a broader influence and would free feminism from the extreme image that rendered it unpalatable to both men and women. The English Suffragettes under Emmeline Pankhurst advocated a militant approach that drew limited admiration or emulation in France. Likewise, the notion that feminism was synonymous with an androgynous or simply unkempt appearance did not do the feminist cause many favours on the continent. 
  Marguerite Durand herself believed that an emancipated woman should follow her own civilized instinct, not the dictates of social mores.While she may have admired the determination of feminists such as Madeleine Pelletier (1874-1939), who won the right to be become the first female intern pyschiatrist in France, she felt no obligation to dress in such a masculine fashion. On the contrary, Marguerite Durand embraced femininity, and fully represented "feminism in lace", remarking that her looks had advanced the cause of women "Le féminisme doit à mes cheveux blonds quelque succès... Je sais qu'il pense le contraire; il a tort". In short, Durand sought an acknowledged right to freedom from any type of oppression, limitation or social stigma. 
 La Fronde was a tool with which to express female opinions and concerns. Through this newspaper women could enter the tribune at a time when entry to the world of journalism was blocked to women, and active politics was still a largely remote domain. Although French women would have to wait until the middle of the 20th century to obtain the right to vote, Durand had set in place a means of expression. 
 She and her colleagues had set in motion a process that refused to be die down, a message that refused to be silenced, even when La Fronde ceased to be published. Her legacy was vast, and much of this can be traced at the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand which she set up in 1931, several years before her death. Today the library is situated at 79 rue Nationale Paris and as Durand intended, holds documentation of the feminist cause, photos and correspondence. However during her lifetime Marguerite Durand was also key to the creation of one of the world's first pet cemeteries in the town of Asnières, Paris...
  Until a law was passed in France in 1898, dead animals were not allowed to be buried in the ground for fear of disease. The solution to the problem was hardly more salubrious; animal carcasses were summarily dumped in the river Seine, contaminating all in their path. Reacting on the new authorization to bury pets, Marguerite Durand and a certain Georges Harmois set up the Société Française anonyme du Cimitière pour Chiens et d'autres animaux domestiques.  
 The cemetery was built on a stretch of terrain that had initially been an island, l'île aux Ravageurs, on the rive gauche of the Seine. The site had once been occupied by rag-and-bone men who hoarded their goods there, but when the Société purchased part of the grounds from the land-owner, it was devoted to the new project. 
 The Parisian architect Eugène Petit was commissioned to design the impressive entrance gate, which he carried out in Art Nouveau style. When the cemetery was opened to the general public in 1899, it drew crowds of people curious to see this unusual concept - a site devoted to the memory of loyal and greatly-loved animals. 
 The original island lost its insular, isolated quality in the 70's when a second stretch of water from the Seine was filled in. Yet today, more than one hundred years after its creation, the cemetery still has a magical quality. Set in a relatively poor area of town, surrounded by many busy roads and run-down buildings, the site now represents a pocket of greenery with its trees and alleys.
 Although you have to pay to enter the cemetery itself, the grounds outside are open to the public and we saw local people playing boules and attending dog training classes. Inside the cemetery, the visitor is won over by a sense of peace and tranquility, and above all the past feelings of companionship, gratitude and unconditional love that is reflected all around. The vast jumble of graves are all poignant in their own rightful manner, although the aesthetic display goes from the majestic and mysterious, to the kitsch and even mawkish. 
 To stroll in a place that is not tainted by anything negative, and is a tribute to nothing but affection is touching, even if over-sentimental to some visitors. If you walk around any graveyard, anywhere in the world, you know that you are surrounded by the traces of people whose lives were governed by a gamut of human emotions, drives and instincts, not all of which could be viewed as even vaguely 'admirable' or worthy, but these are what make us human, after all.

Yet some people just cannot deal with the notion that loving an animal does not necessarily mean lessening or belittling feelings towards fellow human beings. Making an affectionate gesture of any kind to an animal, alive or dead, does not systematically rob another person of their 'due'. How much of their time and person do these critics devote to human causes anyway? Much human suffering can often be  traced back to some willful act, or selfish lack of action on the part of other people, and much cruelty has been knowingly inflicted in the name of some noble cause.

It is perhaps not surprising that the cemetery initially received great criticism, not least from the Catholic faith in the form of articles published in La Croix. Certainly, at a time when humans were still buried in unnamed, mass graves 'les fosses communes' it would appear tasteless to indulge in an impressive tombstone for the family pet. From the beginning, it was made clear that the cemetery would not be authorized to use any religious ceremony or symbol in the burial of animals. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the cemetery seemed irreligious and attested to the "humaine stupidité et grotesque déviation du sentiment" (La Croix 1907). A colombarium had been intended for the grounds, but this was not realized so that today there is just the entrance and gardens beyond, housing the numerous graves of all creatures great and small, and a thriving community of semi-feral cats that sun themselves on the more accessible tombstones and take refuge in the nearby Maison des Chats when necessary. 
Opposite the entrance is the monument built in 1900 to honour one of the many service animals buried in the cemetery. The inscription attests to the bravery of 'Barry' the St Bernard rescue dog, saving 40 people yet dying on his 41st mission. The bodily remains of Barry do not reside at Asnières for he was in fact stuffed and put on display in a museum in Switzerland! Another monument commemorates several police dogs ('Top', 'Papillon', 'Dora' and 'Léo') who died after the years of service or were killed on duty, whilst other plaques demonstrate the friendship shared between soldier and dog during the First World World. 'Mémère', mascot to a foot regiment for fifteen years of faithful service is remembered by a sentimental statue, bearing the French flag.

A simple plaque elsewhere expresses the love felt by a soldier from the Front for his trench companion. This inscription was particularly moving as the dog in question, 'Dick' seems to have been the soldier's only link back to any form of humanity. Other graves show the gratitude felt when human life is indebted to an animal, as is the case of 'Louou' who saved his young master from drowning, despite having a broken leg at the time. Other animals remain anonymous yet symbolic in their own right, as was the case of a stray dog that had died at the cemetery gates in 1958 and was duly buried within the grounds, supposedly as the 40,000 animal to be interred there.

Certain animals were far from anonymous during their lifetime, and deserve a continued posthumus renown. Rin Tin Tin was the famous canine Hollywood star in the silent films of the 1920's. Far from being a pampered hound, Rin Tin Tin had been brought back to the US from the Front in France during the First World War where his intelligence and obedience had been quickly remarked. This remarkable dog is said to have saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy and even had his own fan club! I just can't wait for his life story to made into a film. Other dogs also took to the stage - one appeared over 400 hundred times in the Théâtre du Gymnase in Paris. 
 The animal companions of royalty, politicians, actors, composers and singers were not simply limited to the obvious canine variety; there were indeed a multitude of other creatures. Alongside the graves of numerous domestic felines was that of Marguerite Durand's lion, surrounded by the other tombs and plaques that make up the cemetery, all dedicated to some devoted animal or other, be that horse, fennec, monkey, gazelle, rabbit, hamster...or fish! 
 The cemetery underwent restoration work in 2001, and receives 3500 visitors a year. Some a little less desirable than others. The site hit the Parisian headlines in 2012 when a grave dedicated to a certain 'Tipsy' was opened by thieves to remove a valuable necklace that had been buried within. 
 Otherwise the grounds still continue to attract owners who wish to commemorate their beloved pets - and although the majority of these are French, there is demand from foreign clients too. The situation was considerably less rosy in the late 1980's when all activity was almost stopped definitively and the site closed. 
 Fortunately a commission placed the cemetery on a list of protected sites in the Hauts de Seine region, since it was of significant importance due to its "picturesque, historic, artistic and legendary interest". In 1989 the council of Asnières brought the grounds from La Société anonyme du cimitière pour chiens and handed the management of the concern to an independent organism.
 To catch a glimpse of another side of Paris, I would fully recommend the cemetery at Asnières with its truly unique atmosphere. What I appreciate too is the idea that much of this was down to one women, so many years ago, with her unique vision of life, social duties and rights for all members of society. Marguerite Durand helped elevate women from their down-trodden, mute animal status in a humane, dignified, feminine way that benefitted everybody. She showed that to improve the lot of one party would not be to the detriment of another. There was no exclusivity clause regarding rights; these were for all.


  1. Beautiful pictures! Is the gravestone with the horseshoe for Ms.Durand's horse? Do you have a photo of the gravestone of her pet lion, Tigre? Thank you -- I want to visit this place!

  2. Thanks for your comments!
    I don't think this represented Ms Durand's horse - as this was but one of a number of equestrian headstones that I came across. As for her lion - that too I know little of,I'm afraid, but perhaps that information could be found in the books written on her, and her extraordinary life. I hope you get to visit the site - it really is very moving - all the more so since there are so many feline visitors whose presence underlines the whole atmosphere in a literally living manner - bringing the graveyard to life, so to speak.

    1. Thank you. I have been learning about Ms. Durand and the pet cemetery. A very fascinating woman. They say her pet lion is buried there, but no one seems to have a picture of the gravestone. We will go back to Paris in two years -- I am going to visit the cemetery and take the picture myself. Thank you for the inspiration.


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