History of canicide

From Mexico to Europe, Arnaud Exbalin investigates the mass killings of unwanted dogs in XIXe century based on unpublished documentation.

For around fifteen years, animal questions have continued to gain importance in the vast field of the human sciences. This dynamic has found in historical research a privileged field of expression which today makes this discipline one of the avant-garde sectors of animal studies.; this is illustrated, in particular, by the pioneering work of Eric Baratay, Damien Baldin or Jean-Marc Moriceau (on wolves) which has pushed historians, but also sociologists like Dominique Guillo for example, to now write history with animals. Among the latter, dogs appear to be experimental grounds of prime importance, less because they are the oldest (domesticated) and best friends of man than because they have fueled a relatively large documentary production of the in particular, the health problems that they have caused and pose even more particularly in cities. As Donna Haraway showed, their study appears to be a preferred way to understand the relationship between man and animal.

Arnaud Exbalin's work is in this vein and at the cutting edge of current events in this fruitful sector of research by focusing, as its title announces, on the question of the canid eradication enterprise being carried out on a large scale. scale and over the long term, several centuries, by the authorities of Mexico City. This is, it is not in vain to note, a new subject in many respects (diachronic approach, transcontinental spatial frameworks, themes addressed, methods of analysis) particularly in that it offers a case study that is as detailed as it is in-depth.

The author found in Mexico an unpublished documentation as abundant as it is diversified generated by authorities regularly confronted with an impressive inflation of the dog population since there were up to several tens of thousands of dogs in the streets of this city at the end of the XVIIIe century! Faced with this situation, recourse to massacre (or killing) was imposed on the public authorities. The analysis of this notion of massacre which is the heart of the introduction anchors the investigation in a reading that is both multi-scalar (political, social, cultural, material) and multi-disciplinary (historical, anthropological, zoological, health) authorized by a total mastery of the subject. . This is what appears when reading the eight chapters that follow, embellished with around twenty often little-known illustrations which come to clarify a dense but always very clear demonstration. In the appendix, around ten testimonies spread over time support the demonstrations with relevance.

The clash of two worlds

Generally speaking, the study is organized into two main parts. The first (chapters 1 to 5) focuses on the case of Mexico. The author starts from an original presentation of the place of dogs in the colonization of the Aztec Empire (1519-1521) considered in the light of clash of two canine worlds opposing on the one hand, the Indian-killing mastiff of the Spaniards and, on the other hand, the indigenous dog truly endemic to Mexico (this breed dates back at least 3000 years): xoloitzcuintles which are naked dogs with soft skin.

These dogs held a prominent place in the Aztec world (due to the miracle-working and religious powers attributed to them) which indicates the meaning of their name: dog god. This explains why the authorities of Mexico elevated, on August 12, 2016, this canine breed to the rank of Mexican cultural heritage and symbol.

It is the crossbreeding of these two types of dogs which gives, XVIIIe century, the stray dog ​​stigmatized as harmful by municipal regulations which denounced it as a real danger for the population. To try to curb the inflation of this dog population, the authorities in Mexico are opting for radical measures of mass elimination. This is the subject of chapter 2, which focuses on the analysis of the two major canicides of 1790-1792 and 1797-1800, during which 20,000 dogs were killed by poisoning in the first case, and 14,301 in the second. It turns out that the hygienist explanation is based on the fear of rabies, one of the great fears in second-century Europe. XVIIIe century which recorded a marked return of this disease does not stand up to reality because there was no rabies in Mexico at the time of the killings. We must therefore go beyond by questioning the place of the dog in Mesoamerican culture, which is particularly important even in American cosmogonies, by putting it into perspective with the European conquest. The author provides here an original analysis of the stories of this conquest by showing how dogs, common in the old and new worlds, were exploited by Europeans who made their canids (killers, hunters of men and game, guardians) not only instruments, but still symbols of their victory and their superiority.

After the speeches produced during dog eradication campaigns (chapter 3), the study moves from theory to practice with the presentation of municipal personnel responsible for killing canines, of whom the author paints a nuanced portrait (chapter 4). Finally, Arnaud Exbalin broadens his argument by comparing the case of dogs to other animals that populated ancient cities (chapter 5). This perspective allows him to see that dogs constitute an extreme case of evolution of domestic systems which concerns both the canines and their owners who are required to control them. Indeed, explains the author, by having stray dogs massacred by the thousands, the authorities imposed on their owners new modes of domination which reconfigured anthropocanine relationships in the long term.. Thus, dog owners had to no longer let them wander, which meant that they had to control them more and better by wearing a leash, a collar, or even a muzzle (later the tattoo and then the electronic chip would be systematized). The constraints imposed on owners for the control of their animals presuppose and therefore imply that they have assimilated the standards in force with regard to animals. And, in fact, the decanization of public space can be read as a specific illustration of a more general enterprise targeting all the animals which, since Antiquity, have roamed freely in towns and villages.

Industrialization of canicide

In the last three chapters constituting the second part, the author broadens his subject by changing focus. We thus move from Mexico to Western Europe with a questioning of the relationship between man and dog articulated around canicide which was not a colonial particularity. In fact, during the second half of XIXe century, dog killings tend to become more widespread while becoming more perfect (chapter 8) in the era of triumphant hygiene. This was the time of the development of canine pounds and gas chambers developed in England (where they were tested for the first time in 1873 and in 1880 in France), a process which quickly spread in industrialized countries and was supplemented by crematorium ovens. We can then speak of a real canicide system which can be deployed with variations depending on the country but which remains fundamentally the same everywhere. And the author suggests, as an avenue to explore, a possible relationship between these processes and the extermination practices implemented by the Nazis (p. 248-249): they were gassed in lethal chambers and the corpses were disposed of in crematoriums. The similarities are certainly not coincidental.

We are surprised to see how much a subject such as that of the dog massacres perpetrated in XVIIIe century today can be a prism as relevant as it is stimulating for revisiting the history of colonization by and with dogs, but also for a better understanding of the history of relations between man and dogs in the Old as in the New world. We thus understand that our domesticated companion dogs are the recent product of a long history of violence, part of a vast process of eradicating animal wandering. Here is therefore a new piece to contribute to the process of civilization of the walls, an analysis grid aimed at understanding how we become civilis by controlling himself more and more and better and better taught by Norbert Elias. We join Damien Baldin who, in his History of domestic animals, XIXeXXe century (Paris, Seuil, 2014), proposed a first variation of this evolution introduced in urban centers by showing that the familiarization of animals was part of a domestication process aimed at controlling them.

Ultimately, Arnaud Exbalin's work is an undeniable success that should be a benchmark.