World religion and animal welfare

Joyce D’Silva

What do the world’s major religions –­ Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism ­– say about animal rights and animal welfare? What of the less known spiritual beliefs such as those of the Indigenous peoples from the USA and Australia, Jainism, Sikhism or Rastafarianism? Joyce D’Silva, Ambassador Emeritus for Compassion in World Farming, thought it would be interesting to find out and the result is a really fascinating new book: ‘Animal Welfare in World Religion: Teaching and Practice’. Very generously, she agreed to write a piece for ‘The Alternative Dog’ on how she became interested in the subject, her research and her findings. I have read her book, incidentally, and can strongly recommend it. Jonathan Self

Recently, a dear friend of mine spent over £600 on medication for her ageing goldfish. Other friends are spending a fortune on treatment for their terminally ill rescue dog and are giving him gentle palliative care. We sincerely love our companion animals and most of us do our very best by them. This level of care is a beautiful thing.

Are these ‘pets’ the lucky ones? If we asked any animal, would they rather be a much-loved pet or live their lives in the wild, rather than be an animal in a factory farm, they would surely say ‘Yes’. The factory-farmed animals do not have names, only numbers – and these numbers are skyrocketing. Every year over 80 billion farmed animals are slaughtered for their meat, as well as trillions of fish. In addition, 192 million animals are used in experiments every year, some to aid medical progress, others for testing cosmetics or household products. Other animals are hunted for ‘sport’, forced to entertain us in tourist ventures or are trained to fight for horrific spectacles such as bullfighting. The levels of deprivation and suffering endured by such animals is devastating.

With over 80% of the global population claiming adherence to a religious faith, it is clear that many people of faith are involved in these cruel activities. Do their faiths not teach compassion for others and respect for all creatures? Do their holy books, founders and current leaders take a stand against cruelty?

Surprisingly, I have been awed by some of the beautiful writing about animals contained in the scriptures of many faiths.

In the Qu’ran I discovered that Allah had given cattle to the people not just for food and clothing but so that ‘you find beauty in them when you bring them home to rest and when you drive them out to pasture’. I found that animals are regarded in the Qu’ran as ‘communities like you’.

In the Bible I found that one of the reasons why Moses was chosen to lead his people was that he showed compassion to a thirsty lamb who had strayed from the flock.

I was heartened by the lovely Buddhist metta (loving-kindness) prayer: ‘May all beings everywhere be happy. May they be healthy. May they be at peace. May they be free’.

I loved the story in the Hindu scriptures of Yudisthira, who was prepared to give up his place in heaven to that of a faithful dog.

How about the primacy of compassion over pilgrimage, as recorded in the Sikh’s revered book, the Guru Granth Sahib: ‘The merit of pilgrimages to the sixty-eight holy places, and that of other virtues besides, do not equal having compassion for other living beings’.

What of the beautiful words of the seventh century Saint Isaac the Syrian who described a merciful heart as ‘a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals … and for all that exists’?

There really is an abundance of inspiration to be found in the sacred scriptures of the faiths.

Yet we need only look at an intensive chicken farm to see the abhorrent ways in which we have come to treat the creatures we rear for our food. The laying hens may be kept in cages so small that they cannot even spread their wings; the chickens reared for meat, the broilers, are not usually caged but kept on the floor, with maybe twenty or thirty thousand in each shed. They have been bred to grow so fast that a fluffy yellow one-day-old chick will get to around two kgs in weight in just five or six weeks. The ‘farmer’ can then send them for slaughter and start yet another batch. More batches per year equals more profit per year.

But growing so fast has destroyed the health and strength of these birds. Their skeletons cannot sustain the weight of muscle (meat) and a substantial number go lame before they even reach slaughter-weight. Figures of painfully lame chickens range from 27% to over 50%. Many are fed antibiotics, ostensibly to keep them free of infections, but also because this encourages fast growth too. (And the over-use of antibiotics in farmed animals is a major factor leading to the major global health threat of antibiotic-resistance.)

There is a further, hidden monstrosity in the intensive poultry industry. The breeding birds, who are bred to produce those twenty thousand chicks, are kept on short rations. Why? Because they have been selectively bred for very fast growth. If they ate as they wished, they would almost certainly go lame before they reached puberty and started to breed.

So, they are fed just once in twenty-four hours. After the mad rush for their feed, they then spend the next twenty-three hours and fifty minutes feeling hungrier and hungrier. Even a British High Court judge has admitted that they are in a state of ‘chronic hunger’.

Could such abhorrent treatment really be sanctioned by faith leaders? Could people of faith actually own such factory farms?

Truth is, there has been a deafening silence from most faith leaders on all these institutional forms of animal cruelty.

Thankfully, there are wonderful exceptions. Rev Andrew Linzey has repeatedly challenged his Christian peers, asking, ‘Does the Church really see the suffering of farm animals?…Has it really grasped that now, as never before, we have turned God’s creatures into meat machines?’

Theologian David Clough urges Christians ‘to resist production systems that have no regard for the flourishing of animals’.

Recently a Muslim High Court judge in Pakistan ruled that ‘Like humans, animals also have natural rights … to live in an environment that meets the latter’s behavioural, social and physiological needs…It is inconceivable that, in a society where the majority follow the religion of Islam, that an animal could be harmed or treated in a cruel manner’.

Followers of Judaism are taught not to inflict suffering on any creature. A distinguished Jewish leader, Rabbi David Rosen, declares that factory farming is a ‘flagrant violation’ of this principle.

Mahatma Gandhi, himself a vegetarian and devout Hindu, declared ‘I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body…the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection’.

The recently deceased Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, also promoted a non-meat diet and begged his followers to eat in ways ‘that can preserve compassion and preserve our beautiful planet and help beings suffer less.’

It is wonderful to have these modern voices speaking out against the horrors of factory farming, but sadly they appear to be the exception. If you counted all the sermons preached by faith leaders in the course of a year, how many would talk about caring for animals and treating them with compassion?

We definitely need a revolution amongst faith leaders – and their followers too. I hope they can be courageous and take on the institutionalised cruelties to which we subject our fellow sentient beings. Perhaps we could all take on board what Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, where he called for a spirit of ‘loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures but joined in a splendid universal communion’.

In my book ‘Animal Welfare in World Religion: Teaching and Practice’ (Routledge, 2023), I have looked at the inspiring religious texts, the founders and saints of all the major faiths and compared these beautiful teachings with what actually happens on the ground today in places where each faith is predominant.

About Joyce D’Silva

Joyce D’Silva is Ambassador Emeritus for Compassion in World Farming International, has lobbied for farm animal welfare at Westminster, Brussels and the World Bank and her latest book is ‘Animal Welfare in World Religion: Teaching and Practice’.