Pope Francis has an almost unrivalled gift for sparking controversy. Early last month he lamented the demographic winter – slowing global birth rates and rising numbers of elderly – and scolded people for choosing to have pets rather than children:
And many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one because they do not want any more, but they have two dogs, two cats…. Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children. Yes, it is funny, I understand, but it is the reality. … And in this way civilization becomes more aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood.
Unsurprisingly, there was a huge backlash in the media. Many people argued that he has misread the situation faced by young couples. A columnist for Bloomberg wrote:
… although I live with my long-term partner and have a stable job, neither of us feel financially secure enough to bring a new person into the world at this point in our lives. In comparison, adopting a canine or feline friend into our family feels much more achievable.
However, there is clearly a growing trend to give pets a status which rivals that of children.
As of last month, Spanish judges have to consider a pet’s welfare when couples divorce or break-up. According to Reuters, “The decision follows similar moves in France and Portugal and obliges judges to consider pets as sentient beings rather than objects owned by one or the other partner, a trend that was already underway before the law was passed.”
Victoria Shroff, a Canadian expert in animal law, comments that the new Spanish legislation establishes pets as “basically family members at law”. Dogs, cats and other pets are now deemed to be “living beings” “endowed with sensitivity” rather than mere property.