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Spare a prayer for animals in war

03 November 2010

Humans consistently misuse their fellow-creatures, especially in conflict, says Dominic Walker

The National Theatre production of War Horse, now in the West End, has received outstanding reviews. It is the story of a horse that was sold to the British Army during the First World War. The horses on stage are remark­able life-size puppets, and, after a short time, the audience almost forgets that they are not real. The play highlights the relationship between the soldiers and their horses in that horrific war, in which it is estimated that about eight million horses died.

Since then, horses, elephants, mules, cats, dolphins, sea lions, and pigeons have been among the animals that have been used for military and naval purposes. Among the heroes of war­fare are animals whose endurance, loyalty, and daring exploits have been recognised: the PDSA has awarded about 60 Dickin medals (the animal VC).

Animals have been used to carry troops and equipment, to pull gun car­riages and supplies, and, along with the men they have served, millions have died of wounds, star­vation, thirst, exhaustion, disease, and exposure. In addition, domestic and farm animals have been abandoned when people have been displaced or fled, and deserted zoo animals have starved to death (as happened in Baghdad).

Some animals have had their natural behaviour modified: mules, used for transportation in the Bur­mese jungle, had their vocal cords severed to keep them quiet. More recently, during the Gulf conflict, dolphins were used to search for mines. These “Advanced Biological Weapons Systems” had their snouts tied to prevent them from eating, so that they were forced to return to base when they were hungry.

Away from the battlefield, sheep, goats, mice, rats, guinea pigs, monkeys, dogs, and cats are used to test the effects of biological and chemical weapons. Pigs have developed huge blisters as a result of mustard-gas experiments. Monkeys are trained with electric shocks to operate flight simulators and then given doses of drugs, poisonous gases, and radiation to test their reactions. The next development is to produce “roborats”, which will have electrodes implanted into their brains so that they can be controlled to carry out tasks.

IT IS a sad fact of animal welfare that whenever human beings and animals come into contact, often it is to the detriment of the animals. Yet there is a common bond between humans and animals, as War Horse portrays so graphically. Nevertheless, animals rarely get a mention in prayers in our churches, even at Harvest Festival, let alone Remembrance Sunday.

St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hamp­stead Garden Suburb has a bronze plaque to commemorate the horses killed in the First World War, and, in Novem­ber 2004, the Princess Royal unveiled a sculpture in Park Lane, London, which commemorates the animals that served and died along­side British and Allied troops.

Pet-blessing services are growing in popularity, but they can often drift into sentimentality, and miss the real issues of animal welfare. We need to be concerned about animals that are abused by being bred and treated as meat- and milk-production machines, and unable to live natural lives. Animal welfare is inevitably linked with human and environ­mental wel­fare because we share the same planet.

The proposed industrial-scale dairy for 8000 cows in Lincolnshire is meeting opposition. The plan is to keep the cattle in giant sheds so that they have little or no opportunity to graze, but produce vast quantities of manure and the greenhouse gas, methane.

One animal-welfare reform is the phasing out of battery-caged egg production, and already some food- labels, such as Hellmann’s, and supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose, have stopped selling eggs from battery hens; but other super­markets have not. Some people have taken former battery hens to keep in their back gardens, and they are re­warded by seeing them adapting to natural hen-like behaviour, as well as providing eggs.

God has given us dominion, but not domination, over other sentient beings. I believe that Christians should have an ethical diet, and, whenever possible, buy food that is locally produced, fairly traded, and animal-welfare-friendly. Every time we do the household shopping, we make ethical decisions affecting the lives of poor people and animals.

Half the world’s antibiotics, as well as growth hormones, are used on animals, often in crowded conditions, and there are concerns about the impact for humans in the food chain. Experts tell us that the increasing world demand for meat is unsustain­able, and the demand for cheap food is often at the expense of both animals and farmers.

Animal welfare should be on the Church’s agenda, not least because of its global impact, but also because animals matter to God. Jesus said that not a single sparrow falls to the ground without God’s knowing.

This Remembrance Sunday, it would be good to think that some churches might remember the millions of animals that suffered and died as a result of warfare, and to pray for the animals that are still suffering today.

The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS is the Bishop of Monmouth, president of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, and a vice-president of the RSPCA.

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