Interview with Michael Aufhauser in hunde-online
about the future threat of tougher restrictions for dog owners
Read the full interview (dated 16.07.2007) with Michael Aufhauser here.
“The measure of a society is how it treats its animals.”
Millions of people know the name Gut Aiderbichl, and almost as many have heard of Michael Aufhauser, the founder of the properties, who donated much of his private fortune to establish the animal sanctuary. If you catch a glimpse of this animal paradise in the media or on TV, you may be curious to find out more. hunde-online explored Michael Aufhauser’s personal philosophy and asked him for an interview about the current situation in Switzerland.
Gaining even a small insight into Michael Aufhauser’s ideas is fascinating and thought provoking, starting with his explanation of how he went from vice-president of an American tourism company to animal welfare.
He explains this on the Gut Aiderbichl homepage. “I had this epiphany in Malaga, Spain, when I witnessed how they gassed stray dogs in that part of the world. All of a sudden I was feeling really sorry for those poor dogs and before I knew it, I started saving them. But I also thought to myself for the first time about the inhumane and cynical ways in which we deal with life in general. In the same vein, it also occurred to me what a sorry bunch we humans often are. Isn’t there a connection somewhere? I thought to myself. And then it hit me: Of course, there is! Look, if we can do this to animals, what’s to keep us from doing the same thing to ourselves?”
Michael Aufhauser at Gut Aiderbichl
He also has an interesting perspective on why animal protection is so important. “If we can apply compassion in the way we treat animals, we can also apply it in the way we treat those who are less powerful in general. At the end of the day, let’s not forget that animals are defenseless. After all, they never shoot back, they never lock us up and they never slaughter us, do they? They’re not indifferent or cynical the way we are. All they do is to follow their instincts. So our treatment of animals ultimately casts back on our advancement as a society as far as tolerance, responsibility and love for one another goes. Remember, for all intents and purposes, animal rights inevitably translate into human rights. After all, their fate today could be ours tomorrow.”
This ethics-based philosophy is what makes the Gut Aiderbichl estate special, and it also promotes a more unusual aspect of animal protection. The animal sanctuary favors publicizing positive examples of correct treatment over prosecuting and convicting people.
One of Michael’s chief aims is that people learn to offer animals the kind of life that’s true to their nature and animal-friendly, and that includes farm animals as well as pets. He is strongly committed to raising awareness, and his years of business experience means he is well equipped to do so.
hunde-online: Mr Aufhauser, despite the insistence of experts, politicians in Switzerland continue to draw up increasingly long lists of dog breeds which are either to be made illegal or to be kept only under strict conditions. One draft law wants all dogs to be labeled “dangerous”, which encompasses the categories “dangerous”, “potentially dangerous” and “not very dangerous.” How would you attempt to address this trend?
Michael Aufhauser: It will be difficult to address this trend. Our society is more individualistic than ever before. Dog owners are in the minority. Non-dog owners consider them to be people simply indulging in a hobby. The “hobby” of animal protection is unfortunately also perceived in this way. The general public doesn’t understand that you don’t get a big Alsatian just because you love dogs and have to have one, but because you want to protect a helpless creature that hasn’t got anyone else to take him in. Lawmakers just want to push things through with a minimum of fuss, and that’s why draconian and ruthless regulations and laws are passed, which deny dogs any individuality. They are shoved into those superficial categories you mentioned before.
The public must be made aware of this deplorable state of affairs. One way to do this is through media publicity for cases where a dog categorized as dangerous helps somebody. Sometimes it’s also a good idea to show media celebrities who own one of the dogs in this category. This is our approach at Gut Aiderbichl and it’s already helped to reduce a lot of prejudice. It’s only when the public at large is better informed that politicians will sit up and take notice of animal rights. Unfortunately, it’s not about fairness or truth. Politicians like to pick up on trends and go by opinion polls. Dog opponents are the most vocal, which is partly to do with the fact that dog owners, like smokers, suffer chronic guilt. They tend to think they are doing something wrong in owning a dog. They feel very anxious if they are caught without their dog on a leash or their dog does its business where it’s not permitted. And yet, for 15,000 years dogs were man’s most faithful companion: Avalanche rescue dogs, guide dogs, partner dogs and the many dogs that reduce people’s loneliness all show how important this partnership is.
Gut Aiderbichl: A name for millions of people
hunde-online: On your homepage, you mention that since last year, Austria, after Switzerland, has had the best animal protection laws in the world. Can you envisage that animal protection laws in Switzerland will now be improved? What do you know about the new draft law?
Michael Aufhauser: The best in the world is true, but that’s far from saying it’s effective. The animal protection law is a secondary law, and that’s where the biggest problem lies. Animals are sentient beings and deserve to have a completely different legal status.
The Scourge Of The Nation
As the world goes into meltdown, from North Korea to Lower Bavaria, from nuclear testing to rotten meat scandals, in Vienna, they have discovered the true enemy of modern times – dog pooh. Right in the middle of a beautifully clean urban environment with fragrant-smelling traffic fumes, model green spaces with crumpled Coke cans and cigarette butts and not far from a clearly defined hole in the ozone layer, the dog pooh lies stinking away. Actually, you can barely smell it over the stench of the city, but you can’t just ignore it either; a poop scoop is the only answer.
It’s unheard of for dogs to do anything else with their food than produce this thing called poop. If you check in a dog at the airport, it is weighed and treated as luggage. Can you imagine if suitcases suddenly started to produce poop? What would happen to our nice clean city then?
And why does Grandma need a cute little dog anyway? The dog would be perfectly happy living on its own and then it wouldn’t pollute the environment in the first place. The little old dear has to bend down with her poop scoop to clear up the mess when they go walkies three times a day, and she just can’t manage it any more. However, she’s always been strict about keeping her canine companion away from children’s playgrounds and taught him not to dirty the sidewalks and streets. She pays dog license fees out of her meager pension, saved up the money for his vaccinations and even got him an animal passport, which is now a legal requirement in the EU. Maybe she was a “rubble lady” clearing away the debris in Germany after World War II – and now she’s clearing up after her dog. I think it’s about time we thought about the real problems we face.
Note: Thank you to Michael Aufhauser for providing this comment for us to publish.
We shouldn’t be allowed to simply buy, sell and keep them as though they were objects. It’s more difficult to buy and own a car than a pet, plus you need a license to drive!
In order to give animals the legal position their very nature entitles them to, we need more information about them - about their sensitivity, capacity for suffering and similarity to humans. More than half of the public must be able to access and understand this information. Until that happens, we will only make very slow progress. People don’t ask themselves what they mean when they talk about animal protection. We aren’t protecting animals from natural disasters or epidemics, we’re protecting them from us, and as long as that remains necessary, we humans are always going to have a basic problem.
Michael Aufhauser: “We live in a democracy, and when we have a healthy relationship with animals, we can call for society to recognize our right to keep animals.”
hunde-online: After two years’ hard work and determination, you have succeeded in getting “animals as fellow creatures” accepted into the constitution of the Salzburg province. Switzerland also has a legal principle, which states, “An animal is not an object.” Is it politically correct to pass laws protecting people from animals and if so, should we make certain animal species or dog breeds illegal?
Michael Aufhauser: The constitutional status of animals is merely a declaration of intent. Describing animals as “fellow creatures” in the constitution is just the first step. Many more must follow, and certainly not forbidding or categorizing certain breeds. It is, however, worth considering whether their breed should still define dogs as fellow creatures. I have taken in many dogs that had to be kept on their own because of their breeding. They no doubt had a function in the past that we have little use for in today’s modern society. For me, dogs are special just because they exist. Breeding them specifically for my own purposes implies that they are there to fulfill my wishes rather than as creatures in their own right.
hunde-online: What is going wrong in your opinion? And how can we stop it?
Or can we even stop it?
Michael Aufhauser: The answer is quite simple and can only be found by being honest with ourselves. Why do I want a dog? Or, if a couple wants a dog, do they both want it equally? Have we got enough time for an animal? Have we got enough patience for an animal we don’t know? Are we sure we’re not just desperate for a dog because we have a problem with people? Can we afford it? Are we fully aware of the time commitment a dog entails? Can we organize our living arrangements in such a way as to avoid confrontation and discrimination?
We live in a democracy, and when we have a healthy relationship with animals, we can call for society to recognize our right to keep animals. Not everybody likes motorcyclists but they are regulated, and the situation with animals must also be regulated. I recently rescued fighting dogs from the gambling scene. One of them had had his ear cut off with a box cutter. I am now forced to hide them, so their previous owners won’t discover them. The point is that these people should never have been allowed to keep or buy a dog in the first place.
hunde-online: Finally, can I ask you to say a few words to worried dog owners in Switzerland? To families who fear they will no longer be able to keep their much-loved dog due to the restrictions of the new legislation (and the increased costs involved)? To dog owners who are harassed and discriminated against just because they have a medium-sized black dog? Or to elderly people with a constant and loyal companion, who will have to comply with futile legislation just because their dog exceeds a certain size or weight?
And lastly, but perhaps most importantly of all, some words to non-dog owners who have grown increasingly fearful of dogs in the last few years as a result of media reports bordering on the hysterical about dangerous dogs?
Michael Aufhauser: One thing should be made clear to responsible dog owners – loyalty is everything to a dog. In the worst-case scenario, you may have to consider moving house. But one thing you should never do is cave in to current public pressure and legislation and give up your dog. This attitude alone demonstrates how important our animals are to us.
I have built two huge dog parks in Salzburg province, where you are not allowed to walk your dog on a leash. There are benches and sandy paths. Among the tens of thousands of people who have visited, there’s never been a single serious incident between the animals.
I still get plenty of phone calls, e-mails and letters about disagreements and bickering between dog owners, whereas the dogs get along just fine. Unfortunately, no other local community has seen fit to build a park where dogs can run about freely. No one has thought to push for this anywhere else. There are soccer fields, tennis courts, shooting ranges, golf courses and sports centers everywhere. Why shouldn’t there be an off-leash dog exercise park in every district? I’ve set an example and I really hope other people will follow.
I would ask people who don’t have dogs to think about whatever it is that makes them truly happy in life – sailing, golf, surfing, shopping etc. – and not to assume that this would never come under attack from people opposed to it. The magic words are tolerance and altruism.
Text and interview: Erika Städeli Scherrer
Information about Gut Aiderbichl: www.gut-aiderbichl.com