Practical Issues > Things to do > Religion and Animals

September 30, 2005

Our debt to the animal world

This weekend, while the world continues to face threats of war, famine and environmental disaster, many Church of England churches and cathedrals including the cathedrals of Canterbury, Liverpool and St Albans, will pray for animals. At the suggestion of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, October 6 will be celebrated as the first annual Animal Welfare Sunday, writes the Rt Rev Dominic Walker, OGS, Bishop of Reading.

This news will bring a mixed response. "And about time too," is one comment my ASWA colleagues and I often hear when clergy occasionally -- all too "occasionally" I fear -- address the issue of animal suffering. But, inevitably, there will also be those in the Church who ask: "Have we nothing better to pray about?"

To my mind those who ask that question fail to understand that we are required to extend God's limitless compassion to all his creation "I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh," (Genesis 9:15). They also fail to connect. They have not understood that our abuse of animals -- and there has never been a darker age for animals than the present -- not only demeans humans but almost invariably leads to human suffering and environmental degradation. Animal welfare issues cannot be separated from human and environmental ones.

Two stories in the news in recent weeks aptly illustrate my point. One reported remarkable discoveries about farm animal intelligence by Professor Christine Nicol and her fellow scientists at Bristol University. Their research reveals that pigs are capable of social behaviour of a level of sophistication previously only associated with primates. A pig which has located a hidden source of food can quickly learn to mislead his companions away from that location with a remarkable degree of and guile and skill.

Even hens, those so called bird-brains, have shown themselves to be capable of counting -- selecting and pecking the correct button a certain number of times in order to gain a reward -- learning by observing the behaviour of other hens on video and many other unsuspected mental skills.

This new evidence of farm animals' intelligence can only further disturb those who already feel unease at the thought of pigs enduring a life totally lacking any stimuli on metal slats between concrete walls, as do so many in British factory farms. Or laying hens crammed together in rightly notorious battery cages.

Even more disturbing is the evidence scientists continue to amass about the emotional capacities of animals; their ability to experience fear, frustration, friendship and, yes, probably even love. From the evidence of brain scans, Professor Keith Kendrick of the Babraham Institute near Cambridge revealed, in the same report, that a ewe will even think of her missing lamb if she hears a recording of its cry. Other studies have shown that sheep have "best friends" in the flock. This is science, not anthropomorphism or sentiment. It should make us think. So too should the fact that although we can and do change the bodies of animals we cannot change their God-given natures.

A hen, hatched in an incubator, confined for life in a cage, and which has never even seen the colour green, will never-the-less quickly revert to the full natural lifestyle of its primitive ancestor, the jungle fowl, if released.

And to what human ends are we treating such complex sentient creatures as if they were mere machines? A second story currently in the news illustrates just one of the adverse consequences of intensive systems geared to excessive production of cheap meat. An excess which has now become a glut, seriously depressing farmers' incomes. The world's leading nutritional scientists warn that obesity, already of epidemic proportions, is about to overtake tobacco as the major cause of premature death in the Western world. World Health Organisation reports have previously shown that as we export our factory-farming systems into the Third World, so we export our Western heart disease and cancer and other diet related degenerative ailments.

Only connect. If you do you will find that factory farming is one of the major causes of environmental pollution and degradation. In Third World countries it robs the hungry of much-needed calories rather than supplying them. Animals consume many more calories in the form of crops than they eventually produce in meat. To satisfy the huge demand for animal feed to fuel our European factory farms we import large quantities of crops grown in the poorest Third World countries. We scour and empty the seas. And so on and so on, producing an endless chain of ills.

As with farm animals so with wild animals. As we hunt them to extinction for frivolities such as fur we alter the balance of nature and diminish the diversity that God created.

There are big issues, major moral issues which effect us all to think about and pray about on Animal Welfare Sunday. Issues which the Church has been slow to address. This is not a day for merely patting or blessing our pets. Sentiment plays no part in true concern for animals. Rather we should be asking by what right we distort the bodies of billions of chickens, bred to painfully outgrow their skeletons so they can be breadcrumb-coated within seven weeks. Or whether laboratory animals should suffer in the ignoble quest of producing yet another brand of hair spray or lavatory cleaner.

I have said that abuse of animals nearly always reaps a harvest of human suffering and environmental degradation. But even if it did not, it would still be a very proper cause for true Christian concern. Unnecessary cruelty carried out by humans is simply wrong. Recent studies have shown the links between domestic violence towards humans and cruelty towards animals. Jesus teaches us the value of all life, so not one sparrow is forgotten by God (Luke 12:6).

My hope is that the introduction of Animal Welfare Sunday will mark a turning point, the beginning of a new awareness.

A free pack containing background facts, suggested sermon themes, prayers, hymns and service sheet for Animal Welfare Sunday is available from or ASWA, PO Box 7193, Hook, Hampshire, RG27 8GT (Tel 01252 843093)

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