The rite stuff

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2000:

VATICAN CITY, PRETORIA, BANGALORE, PARIS, SINGAPORE, ISTANBUL––Pope John Paul II on March 12 asked forgiveness from God for the sins of Roman Catholics through the ages, mentioning offenses against Jews, ethnic minorities, women, and children.

The Roman Catholic Church has persecuted animals too, in all the same ways, and in many of the same places and times. But the closest the Pope came to mentioning animals in his prayer was a brief allusion to “those who abuse the promise of biotechnology.”

The Pope did not say whether this included the researchers of Cattletech Ltd., a British firm which has injected hormones from the urine of menopausal Italian nuns into milk cows in order to increase the frequency with which they produce multiple transplantable embryos. The idea is to produce more super-producing cows, faster, to replace the four million cattle Britain has killed in the national effort to stop the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease).

Hormones have been commercially extracted for human medical purposes from menopausal nuns’ urine for more than 40 years. The technique was developed by the Italian drug firm Serono, originally co-owned by the Vatican.

“Nuns’ urine is used not because they lead chaste and pure lives,” AB Technology vice president Trevor Steel told London Observer public affairs editor Antony Barnett, “but because convents offer a convenient method of collecting large enough quantities from a group of menopausal women.”

Steel was reportedly looking into adapting the Cattletech approach for American use.

The Pope in his March 12 apologia seemed to rebut the anti-ecumenical attitudes of Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, 71, Archbishop of Bologna, who on March 5 told a conference of philosophers and theologians that the Antichrist is at large, as predicted in Revelations. According to Biffi, the Antichrist is a genial philanthropist, who promotes vegetarianism, pacifism, environmentalism, animal rights, and friendly dialogue with Anglicans and the Orthodox.

Biffi is widely believed to be the top conservative contender to become the next Pope.

“The Cardinal did not say whether he had any particular world figure in mind,” wrote Richard Owen of the London Times. “His remarks appeared to mark out part of the conservative agenda ahead of the next conclave to elect a Pope. The physical decline of John Paul II, 79, has sparked off jostling for position among the Cardinals who stand to replace him.”

Biffi was not the only prominent Catholic to espouse anti-animal notions in the days before Pope John Paul II spoke.

Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Bloemfontaine, South Africa, in mid-February appealed on behalf of the African Catholic Priests Solidarity Movement for Church approval of “inculturating” services by incorporating animal sacrifice and ancestor worship into authorized ritual.

“Animal sacrifice has a special place in the scheme of things and is celebrated in almost all African families,” Tlhagale declared. “We have kept it out of the Church of God for too long,” Tlhagale added. “It is time we welcomed it openly into the Christian family of the living and the dead.”

John Paul II in 1995 formally accepted the principle of integrating indigenous religious rites into Catholic worship, but stated that borrowed rituals should be compatible with “the Christian message and communion with the universal church.”

Most observers took his words to mean only acceptance of traditional African music and dancing at services.

Responding to Tlhagale, the Archbishop George Daniel of Pretoria told Inigo Gilmore of the London Sunday Telegraph that he was aware that some animal sacrifice was already occurring within his diocese.

“When we first spoke about inculturation, we did not foresee some of the problems that would arise,” Daniel admitted.

Reported Gilmore, “In one recent incident at a township church near Pretoria, a video recording was made of a priest blessing chickens and goats during Mass. The animals were then slaughtered and their sacrificial blood was poured into a hole dug outside the church. Some parishioners have now transferred to another church.”

Said Daniel, “As to what would happen to priests who decided to continue with animal sacrifice, if we ultimately rule against it, we will have to cross that bridge later.”

Should the African Catholic Priests Solidarity Movement prevail, mingling Catholicism with animism and voodoo, they will in effect replicate the animal sacrifice-centered practice of Santeria, created centuries ago when animist Africans taken to the Caribbean as slaves were often forcibly converted to a medieval Spanish Catholicism they barely understood. Santeria established only a few strongholds in the U.S. before recent years, notably in and around New Orleans, but rose rapidly to prominence in Florida, Philadelphia, New York City, and other focal points of Caribbean immigration during the past two decades.

Suppressed by laws obstructing animal sacrifice, Santeria finally burst into the open when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that although animal sacrifice can be regulated to some extent, it may not be prohibited in a discriminatory manner, as it is in essence constitutionally protected religious activity.

Regular practice of animal sacrifice at Santerian churches now gives Americans of mainstream faiths frequent opportunity to contemplate why most find such killing in the name of religion abhorent, even as they eat the meat of animals killed in a similar manner.

Tribal traditions

A religious cynic might point out that the fundamental purpose of most religions––at least early on––seems to have been justifying the killing of animals by turning it into a sacred rite.

Though Christians, Jews, Moslems, and the overwhelming majority of Hindus and Buddhists abandoned animal sacrifice hundreds or even thousands of years ago, the language and teachings of each religion are still rife with sacrificial reference––and Christianity more than most, since in Christianity the founding teacher is supposed to have offered himself as the ultimate blood sacrifice.

Easter, Ramadan, Passover, and other religious occasions each spring recall the beginnings of organized religion in the traditions of early agrarian society. Herding cultures practiced ritual spring killings to dispose of bulls and rams who had already bred the female animals and were dangerous to keep around longer than necessary; newborn male animals, relatively docile through the summer and fall, would be old enough to do the breeding next year. Runts were also culled. And both herding and planting cultures tried to deal with predators and potential crop-raiding animals as expeditiously as possible.

“Sacrifice” might have begun as appeasing predators and crop-raiders who were too elusive or powerful to be killed: an offering of meat dragged some distance from an encampment might keep lions, tigers, or wolves away. Fruit might distract elephants.

Later, as a specialized priesthood emerged from among the tribal elders to teach and perpetuate the ways of each tribe, encouraging regular sacrifice became their way of coaxing others to feed them.

Persisting in India

Sacrifice as practiced by scattered rural ethnic groups in India, collectively called “tribals,” has frustrated animal advocates, protectors of wildlife, and teachers of gentler religions for at least 3,000 years.

There are essentially two forms of animal sacrifice still widely practiced in India: temple killing of sheep and goats done moreor-less out of sight of the public by devotees of Kali, the blood-goddess (though thousands of Kali-worshippers and some tourists may watch the killings at major temples), and the much less formalized tortures and massacres, mostly of wildlife, conducted in open air by “tribals.”

Kali-worship, practiced mostly by an affluent and otherwise mainstream Hindu minority, attracts little overt condemnation–– unless it bursts into the open, as it did along the Mysore-Tirupati rail line in 1997.

As recounted by Diana Ratnagar, chair of Beauty Without Cruelty-India, People For Animals volunteer Geeta Manja was aboard the Chamundi Express on Ayudh Pooja of Dassera, an important ceremonial occasion. The train stopped repeatedly at remote rural depots while Indian Railways staff killed goats and sheep on the tracks, smearing the engine with blood to “sanctify” it.

After letters to railway authorities accomplished nothing, Manja and two fellow PFA volunteers, Jai Malhotra and Harish Hegde, boarded the same train on A y u d h Pooja of Dassera 1998.

Each time the train halted for a sacrifice, they climbed out with copies of the 1959 Karnataka Prevention of Animal Sacrifices Act in hand, confronted the men with the knives, and prevented the killing.

Tribal wildlife massacres, especially prevalent in rural Karnataka, are contrastingly often denounced by Indian media––and tend to bring clashes among villagers, protesters, and police. Convoys of volunteers from Mysore and Bangalore typically first try to dissuade the tribals, using loudspeaker trucks, public assemblies, and house-to-house visits.

As frequently described by the Times of India, the attempted dissuasion may go on for weeks before massacres coinciding with local religous holidays are due to begin.

Sometimes the effort succeeds. More often, on the appointed day thousands of tribals––frequently including women and children––mass from hundreds of villages to beat the brush in a particular area and bludgeon any creature they catch. Jackals and foxes may be released with fireworks tied to their tails.

If authorities interfere, riots may break out. The tribals cling tenaciously to their customs, partly because centuries of conflict with the prevailing culture have become their very self-definition, and partly because they believe they will starve if they don’t exterminate wild competitors for their food.

Bringing the tribals into the mainstream of Indian economic and cultural life would seem to be the surest means of ending their form of animal sacrifice. But that would require a more effective extension of education and opportunity than India has accomplished even to thousands of villages whose people are mostly eager to leave old ways behind.


Islamic animal-killing at Ramadan actually belongs to a fast-breaking tradition, and is not accurately described as sacrifice. It is and always was simply killing for meat, turned to public excess by the continuance of custom long after the reasons for it faded.

The original idea was that when heads of households killed an animal for the spring feast, they should set aside some meat for the poor, whose animals––if they ever had any––had not survived the winter.

In that long-ago era, slaughtering was a routine chore, done mainly by men because they had the strength to hold sheep and goats still enough to cut their throats.

But over time the notion spread that men had to kill an animal for the feast, as a religious duty. And killing extra animals for the poor became a mark of socio-economic status. Competition developed over who could afford to kill the most animals.

As affluence in the Islamic world grew, there were proportionately fewer poor, and more men killing animals to feed them. By the 1980s, Ramadan had become a carnival of waste, and a public health hazard, as in many cities unclaimed animals left outside mosques for the poor piled up and rotted––or fed street dogs, who were suspected rabies vectors, and were poisoned.

Extensive Islamic emigration to Europe, especially France, meant the excess spread as well, quickly offending European sensibilities. Longtime animal activist and former actress Brigitte Bardot was so outspoken about the killing that she twice ran afoul of laws against inciting ethnic hatred, but she also got results, as the European Union began warning the faithful that slaughtering for human consumption must be done according to regulation, in approved slaughterhouses.

Islamic leaders have also tried in recent years to restrain Ramadan, as a net economic drain even if it does boost livestock markets. For starters, many of the animals killed are imported from abroad.

The Singapore Muslim Youth Authority in recent years has encouraged Islamic men to donate the price of killing an animal in a slaughterhouse, tinning the meat, and exporting it to famine-struck nations such as Somalia and the Sudan. Other Islamic religious groups have organized projects similar to the Heifer Project International, which send live animals to poor nations, as breeding stock for meat and dairy herds.

Slaughtering animals for public feasting in commemoration of other festive occasions is still commonly done in much of the Islamic world––just as the on-site slaughter of pigs, cattle, or poultry was common at U.S. public gatherings such as political rallies and church picnics as recently as the 1930s. Only the advent of refrigeration ended it, by making pre-preparation of meat more practical.

Turkish president Suleyman Demirel served notice in late December that he believes it is time for this outmoded custom to end in his part of the world, too.

Attending the opening of a dam in southeastern Turkey, Demirel asked that two rams scheduled for killing be spared.

“First inauguration without sacrifice!” blared Sabeh, the largest Turkish daily newspaper.

Explained Associated Press, “The European Union named Turkey as a candidate for membership earlier this month, and Turkish politicians have been pressing for quick reforms to meet EU standards.”

Be that as it may, many politicians might have insisted on killing the rams, in the name of religious duty, tradition, and honor.

Like then-U.S. president Harry Truman, who at Thanksgiving 1947 opted to spare the life of the White House turkey, Demirel opted to start a different tradition. Though Demirel’s concern may have been more for the sensibilities of other people than for the rams themselves, a gesture of respect for people who care about animals is no small statement in itself.

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