The Viennese love their pets under and their meaty schnitzel on the table. A report on the animals we cuddle and those we devour

An elderly lady is walking by Schwedenplatz, followed closely by her golden retriever. She stops at a sausage stand to buy a Käsekrainer sausage in a bun and sits down on a shady bench to enjoy her snack on this hot summer day.

Some minutes later, the dog jumps up next to her, looking at her with big, longing eyes – until the old lady finally lets him have a bite. While this might seem disturbing, she is not the only Austrian who loves her pet so much she would share her lunch with it: According to a recent study, 90% of Austrians consider their pet a friend, 74% think of it as a member of the family and 64% of all interviewees said that when their pet died, they regarded it as equally tragic as the death of a (human) family member.

In Vienna, for example, there is more space allocated for dog zones than for children’s playgrounds. But aside from the facts and figures, witnessing the devotion many owners show their pets, some might wonder whether Austrians actually feel more affection for their animals than their children. After all, a pet never talks back and doesn’t visit only at Christmas and Easter. He stays at your side every single day and never asks for money.

This doesn’t mean that Austrians treat their canine or feline family members stingily: Veterinary appointments, vaccinations, food bills and stylists all take their toll. And if you want something more exotic than a lettuce eating hamster, you better have some serious cash on the side: “Like every little girl, it was my dream to own a horse,” says Birgit Hampl, a midwife from Vienna, who owned a horse for eight years. The stabling alone was 400€ a month – and that didn’t include the veterinary and blacksmith bills and the inevitable horse treats.

Even insurance companies have found a way into pet owners’ hearts: In the event that the keeper dies before their beloved companion, the insurance takes care of moving those left behind to a countryside farm where trained staff members feed and caress them and take them for walks.

Doggie gone Vegan

Nutrition, however, remains the most relevant cost factor when owning a pet – and even with the number of pet owners declining, business is thriving, as the expansion of the German animal food chain Fressnapf demonstrates, now with 132 stores in Austria. According to spokesman Jürgen Seiwaldstätter, their customers are increasingly willing to open their pocketbooks: “Back in the ’80s, the typical pet owner was an older man with a German shepherd that mostly fed on whatever fell down from the dinner table.”

Today, people seem to apply the same quality standards to their pets as they do to their own Ja!Natürlich soy Schnitzel: “Organic food is just the beginning – we get frequent demands for vegan pet food options as well. We have to explain to people that while humans are omnivores, their dogs and cats aren’t.” Sascha Kostelecky, former project manager of the Donauinselfest, brings pet nutrition to the next level at his Hundefeinkostladen (Doggie Deli) in Floridsdorf, where caring pet lovers can purchase raw food that is prepared following the “BARF” principle of biologisch artgerechtes Futter (organic, species-appropriate food).

When we asked him how the organizer of Europe’s biggest open air festival stepped off the island to open up a Tante Emma Laden (mom-and-pop store) for pet food beyond the Danube he had to laugh: “It all started with my own dog, Ernesto, who had all kinds of health issues from the regular dry food you buy everywhere. I stumbled upon the BARF principle and decided to try it.” After a few weeks, Ernesto’s problems were gone.

Along with curing Ernesto, he found a successful business model: “Our typical customer is female, single and seems to consider their pet a substitute for a partner. What surprised me was that many of them are actually willing to cut back on their own nutrition and spend their money here.”

A Pet Cause

With all that, one might think that Austria was a land full of animal-loving hippies – but of course that is only one side of the story. Being foreign is considered a character flaw by some in Austria, and that prejudice was recently extended to animals by the Austrian Freedom Party, which saw our identity endangered by the increasing number of “dogs with a migration background.”

Whether or not this shocking fact is true – that “six out of ten dogs in Austrian shelters” are refugees from abroad – the total number of people owning a pet actually dropped to 30% from almost 40% in 2012. And you don’t need any more statistics to know that among the remaining 70% there are a lot of people who regard the only appropriate state for an animal to be in is nicely sliced up and served with mustard and a pickle on the side.

Going for a walk on any given day in Vienna will bring you closer to the battlegrounds that have developed on the streets of the capital between dog lovers and haters. There are frequent stories in the newspapers about cats and dogs who have gotten sick or even died from eating poisoned food baits that animal haters deliberately dropped in the neighborhood parks. On the other hand, many pet owners don’t like playing by the rules, and consider regulations such as the obligation for a leash or muzzle a humiliation for their poor critters, only necessary because those ignorant passersby fail to see the adorable cuteness of little Bello.

Dogs on Leash
Photo by Matt Nelson on Unsplash

And while city officials are happy to tell you that the amount of dog excrement paving the streets of Vienna has been reduced through the installation of the infamous “Nimm ein Sackerl für’s Gackerl” (take a bag for your dog’s poo), this provides little comfort to anyone who just stepped into a fresh pile of dung.

“It is not the animal’s fault, but the owner’s” is an often-heard excuse when trying to evoke sympathy for the dogs. While that is absolutely true, there is almost nothing that keeps any distressed individual from buying one, except for the Hundeführerschein which is only mandatory for keeping fighting dogs. So in theory, any idiot can have a dog.

Speaking of fighting dogs: Talk to any Viennese and they will have an anecdote of when they witnessed a Rottweiler manically barking and throwing its 50 kilograms against the leash of their struggling owner who is barely able to prevent his nervous animal from attacking someone.

While the issue of the pros and cons of pets is a complicated one, the dinner table reunites people throughout the country: Austrians may love the pets they can put on a leash, but they happily convert the common farm animal to Schnitzel, Leberkäse or Würstel of all kinds and colors with no signs of remorse.

I could eat you up

“Ich hab dich zum Fressen gern” (I love you so much I could eat you up) is a popular saying in German, and we seem to interpret it in the most literal way. This may just be another sign of our notoriously schizophrenic behavior: As we all know, Austrians love to dwell in the glory of the past, while at the same time suffering from a disturbing inferiority complex. A true Viennese wants to live right next to a tram stop, but doesn’t want to be disturbed by the noise. Therefore, consuming massive amounts of meat while still loving one’s own pet seems like a minor incoherence among all those other adorable contradictions.

Let’s look at the facts collected by the environmental organization Global 2000: Austria takes third place in the EU for meat consumption. Each citizen devours a substantial 65kg of meat a year and 5.9 tons during a lifetime. This results in an average of 1,287 animals that are slaughtered to fulfill the carnivorousness of a single Austrian life. On a worldwide scale that means that every eight hours as many animals are killed by the meat industry as there have been human victims in both world wars combined.

That’s a lot of blood on each of our hands, say the animal rightsers. But we don’t seem to be too stressed out about it – unless of course it comes to the wellbeing of our own dear Balu, Luna or Rocky, the most popular dog names in Austria (yes, someone counted them, thanks to the Royal Canin-Welpen College Austria).

One just has to go grocery shopping to realize that there is an alternative to all this slaughter. Greenpeace recently did a check-up of Austrian supermarkets and the verdict from the notoriously strict NGO was surprisingly positive: According to Nunu Kaller, consumer spokeswoman of Greenpeace Austria, “Anyone who wants to host a meatless barbecue will find a good selection in most supermarkets.

lambsLivestock like sheep instead, while numerous and mild-mannered too, are mostly kept for the sake of the food and meat industry

Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash

In Vienna, especially in the hipper districts, there are lots of establishments that exclusively sell meatless dishes without going out of business. Still, let’s put this into perspective: According to a study by Marketagent, a mere six percent of all Austrians live as either vegetarian or vegan. In the countryside, where Vienna and its quirky tofu vendors are far away, going to an Austrian restaurant (and there are few alternatives in most smaller towns except pizza, Chinese or, if it gets really exotic, kebab) still means choosing between Schnitzel, Gulasch or Zwiebelrostbraten (pork roast with onions).

And perhaps ironically, these small towners might actually be saving the lives of their children with their stubborn dietary plan: Some doctors claim that relinquishing meat is unhealthy, can lead to depression and may even be life threatening. Other studies disagree, saying that especially the consumption of red and processed meat drives heart diseases and various cancers. You choose.

As for the environmental impact, the verdict is clear and short: The meat and dairy industry in its current form is killing the planet.

According to PETA, up to 51 percent of all greenhouse gases are caused by the meat industry. However, if the president of the most powerful country in the world ditches the climate protection agreement, why should we Austrians stop eating our well-deserved Schnitzel?

As always, balance could be key, and of course there is a term for it already: “flexitarians” who eat meat and dairy products, but reduce their consumption to a level that is healthier for them, the planet, and obviously the animals that don’t land inside their lunch kebabs. But then again, we live in Austria, a country that has just thrown a smoking ban overboard, proving once again that the little man doesn’t want any fancy politician or scientist telling them what evil poison they are putting into their lungs or stomachs.

Likes for Lives

This March, the animal welfare organization Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) just celebrated its 30th birthday, growing from a small bunch of hippies to a large international organization.

Back in their founding year 1988, you wouldn’t have wanted to be an animal in Austria: Elephants and tigers had to do tricks to entertain audiences in circuses across the country, some 60 pelt farms were up and running and the eggs we ate for breakfast were produced in locked away cages from chickens who never saw the sunlight in their lives.

“When we started out in the ’80s, animal welfare was something only freaks would care about. Then, people started to realize that the common farm animal has feelings and perceives pain as much as their beloved pets,” reflects Heli Dungler, founder and president of Vier Pfoten. Dungler identifies a serious problem in the devaluation of food in the society: “Our ‘Geiz ist geil’ (cheap is ‘in’) mentality produces three losers: The farmers are not compensated fairly, consumers buy cheap but inferior products – and of course the animals, kept, transported and slaughtered under horrible conditions.”

Others are supporting the cause on social media. For Isabel Göttlich, a young actress in Vienna who uses her network to advertise for animal rights, “Saving a life is an overwhelming sensation that cannot be put into words.” However, when encountering Austrian bureaucracy, she sometimes needs to rely on her idealism to keep going: “Even though shelters are full of animals, there are so many criteria one has to fulfill to be able to take an animal home,” she says. “Sometimes I get the feeling they don’t actually want you to free them from those cages.”

Every year, more than 99 million animals are slaughtered in Austria to meet the needs of meat-hungry eaters. In a lifetime, an average Austrian consumes a total of 817 chickens, 432 fish, 32 pigs, 3 cows and 3 sheep or goats. Some of that meat is
also devoured by dogs, of which 581,000 live in Austrian homes

Photo by Christian Regg on Unsplash

Claudia Gutjahr, founder of Austria’s most famous pre-Tinder dating platform Websingles, follows a similar mission with her association Die Pfotenretter. Working from home, she puts up ads for animals in need of a foster home. Through her efforts over a decade, she claims to have found homes for more than 4,000 cats.

Sometimes she asks herself why she is investing so much time into this, and she struggles with ethical questions that arise: “We are saving poor cats – who we then nurture with food produced from poor chickens. I eat meat myself.” Probably, she has decided, “those purring cats and cute dogs are just closer to us than the calve that gets torn away from his mother.”

Puppies & Tigers

Animal rights have come a long way in Austria, especially regarding awareness and financial support by the public. Some argue there is even too much of it: The support for animal welfare organizations is growing steadily. The older generation (which in Austria is numerous and active) happily donates a part of their small pensions to help helpless creatures. Critical voices claim that with all the humanitarian catastrophes that are going on around the planet, the money used for slick marketing campaigns or to fly lions out of war-torn zoos in the troubled Middle East should rather be used to save human lives.

The question is: Who gets to decide if a human life is worth more than the one of a tiger? And what about a dog, or an ant – where do we draw the line? Clearly, this is an issue where the boundaries of human reasoning are reaching their limits. Perhaps future generations of philosophers and ethics commissions will come to a final verdict. Whatever our opinion on this: we should at least have one. Eating meat neither makes you a devil nor a saint, but a little more reflection and dignity certainly is in order when consuming another living being.

Photo by Zach Shup on Unsplash

Back in the 1st district, the old lady and her dog have finished their Käsekrainer and are now working on digesting it by taking a little walk. The goldenretriever finds quick relief at a nearby window front, where he squats down right in front of the entrance to an elegant clothing shop. A saleswoman in a suit storms out to yell at both the dog and her owner, whereupon the older lady puts on a quiet smile and with a skilled movement whips out a plastic bag to collect the droppings of her companion.

Under the loving stare of her dog, which also reflects some confusion about the ongoing interest she demonstrates in his poo, they move on to disappear behind the next street corner, while the woman in the suit still looks after them fuming.