Cruelty in the Cause of Fashion
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Fr Martin Henig, Catholic Concern for Animals
December 2017

As we stroke our companion animals, do we spare a thought for other dogs and cats killed for their hides in China, of male calves taken from their mothers and starved to death to produce leather in India?

I am not surprised that we have wandered so far from the Way of Christ. We even marginalise, kill and maim in shameful wars between groups of our own species; indeed our governments are prepared to use nuclear weapons. At home we marginalise the poor just as we marginalise the rest of creation.

In his talk at the 2017 Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat, Fr Martin Henig describes the cruelties of the fur trade and how it cannot be acceptable to the Christian faith, along with all other forms of animal cruelty. Rev. Prof. Martin Henig is an Anglo-Catholic priest and a third order Anglican Franciscan.

Why have human beings historically worn fur, and why do some humans even today want to wear fur?

In one respect at least, we are very unlike other primates. They possess only limited amounts of hair, on the head and, in the case of males of the species, also on the face. Humans also have hair under the armpits and in the genital region, but elsewhere if it exists at all it is vestigial. Admittedly other apes, at least the males of the species, may have bare and even brightly coloured blue and red bottoms for reasons of sexual display but no other ape is naked. The reason for this is disputed but one explanation is that at one time our ancestors lived a semi-aquatic life on the edge of tropical seas. This is plausible because consider the whales, entirely aquatic, and elephants and especially hippopotamuses who like to wallow.

Advantageous as nudity might be in a swamp or on the edge of the sea or even in the mythical Garden of Eden, it certainly caused problems when hominids moved into temperate and colder latitudes. If food in the tropical forests and sea and lake sides may have consisted largely of fruit supplemented by shellfish, in the plains and tundra of the north humans became more carnivorous, which one might consider as one of the wrong turnings of our species. The other was the hunting and killing of animals for their furry pelts and their skins, in order to keep warm and to hide their nakedness which, of course, in Genesis, is seen as the second sign of original sin. Only humans have developed this peculiar taboo against nudity. At least in Genesis the clothing adopted by Adam and Eve simply consisted of leaves and not the skins which God had bestowed on their fellow creatures!

A history of the fur trade

From the distant Palaeolithic past till now, killing and devouring other animals, and killing and skinning other creatures has been a mark, some would say the mark of Cain, which has benighted our miserable species. We call ourselves Homo Sapiens that is ‘Wise Man’ though our actions and behaviour surely belie our wisdom and goodness before the all- seeing eye of Almighty God. Of course, the records for hunting and trapping and the production of leather goods has been extensive from prehistoric times and there is plenty of archaeological evidence, later supplemented by documentary records, for such production. My own expertise lies in the Roman period and we know that furs and skins were amongst the products of the British Isles. The Roman army even had ursarii, bear hunters, presumably to gather bear-skins for ceremonial uniform (think of the bearskins worn by British ceremonial guards today). Further south in Egypt, even crocodiles were valued in this way and, if you go to the British Museum, you can see a crocodile skin worn by a soldier from Roman Egypt. Furs were important commodities in the Middle Ages, while in early modern times the Muscovy Company in Russia and the Hudson Bay company in Arctic Canada were largely concerned with the fur trade, the latter with, amongst other animals, the annual slaughter of fur seal pups.

We write our own stories, of course, in our justification and in them, even in our Holy Scriptures, all too often we privilege ourselves; we come near to worshipping ourselves instead of God who we know is alone to be worshipped. It is refreshing to find psalms like psalm 104 and books like that of Job which centre on God rather than on human vanity.

The fur trade today

I have frequently preached against treating other creatures, including other humans, as commodity, though the agro-farming industry, Factory Farming, with its scant regard for the countryside home of so many of our fellow creatures, demonstrates the blindness, folly and, too often, the utter futility of human kind with its apparent inability to heed the demands of the living God of Love.

Today I want specially to single out the continued use of fur and animal hides which the availability of synthetics should have rendered totally redundant. I have always had mixed feelings about animal blessing services, not because I don’t believe that animals as individuals are blessed by God, just as human beings, both individually and en masse, are blessed by God, however little they deserve it, but because such services are too often viewed in an unacceptably patronising way, being seen, for instance, perhaps as a way of bringing the children into church or providing some vague sort of pastoral care to elderly dog and cat owners.

fur cruelty
Every year more than 60 million animals are killed and sold by the international fur industry.

I take animals, including the human animal, as absolutely central to my own mission, which can be summarised by one word, an Indian word, Ahimsa, which means trying to avoid harming our sisters and brothers in creation. That word, and the actions which follow from it, regulate for the Jains every aspect of life but those actions and that word are also fully consonant with the Gospel of Love which springs from Christ.

As we stroke our companion animals, do we spare a thought for other dogs and cats killed for their hides in China, of male calves taken from their mothers and starved to death to produce leather in India? Do we think of the silver foxes and mink, so closely related to our friends the dogs in the one case and to cats on the other, yet kept in small cages until they are large and furry enough to be electrocuted and skinned. I gather that in Finland silver foxes have been genetically manipulated to be fatter and have looser skins which render their short lives even more miserable, in order to produce larger pelts. Do we think of Angora Rabbits their fur cropped from their skin so that they squeal with pain? Do we think enough about the helpless fur seal pups, clubbed by brutal and degenerate humans, without pity and remorse, on the Canadian ice, to the distress of their nursing mothers? Do we think of the snakes and crocodiles skinned, sometimes when still alive, to produce stylish handbags? All of this is done in the name of vanity, all of this is done in the name of monetary profit and of greed; all of this is an aspect of treating nature as commodity. And all of these motives are utterly evil. If you purchase such items, you are inevitably complicit in egregious sin.

Cruelty and Christianity

Cruelty is never justifiable and for Christians, that is those who call themselves Christians, they are actually committing the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which, we are told, there is no forgiveness, because forgiveness can only follow from the deepest contrition and remorse. Animal studies reaching well back into the last century and even earlier (and I was brought up on Konrad Lorenz's King Solomon's Ring and Man meets Dog) have emphasised the complexity of animal relationships, though this will always have been apparent to those who share their living space with companion animals. Animals relate to each other as we do, they have emotions including pain, pleasure, anxiety, fear, as we do. Mothers have strong maternal instincts and bond with their offspring. Of course, humans who simply see other animals as economic units and fail to see this, are simply in the position of the slave owners, who treat human animals in the same way.

Hunting a fellow creature, killing a fellow creature, skinning a fellow creature demands a degree of desensitisation that can only be described as diabolical, particularly when sadism, vanity and the abuse of power by the strong over the weak are involved. The Revd Professor Andrew Linzey devotes chapters to hunting, to fur farming, and to the clubbing of seal in his excellent Why Animal Suffering Matters published in 2009 and nothing has changed since then to render any of these practices less abhorrent.

We can, however, go far beyond this, as of course Andrew does himself. I do not think most people who eat meat have the abattoir, the place of death, the factory which transforms a living creature with thoughts and emotions into a lifeless corpse in mind when they eat a meal at home or in a restaurant. Similarly, most people who purchase leather goods, or indeed furs, do not connect their purchases with the animals from which they come. To some extent, though not in many other instances, leather is a bi-product of the butchery for meat; but a coat made of silver fox, mink, a seal pup or any other furry animal has suffered simply for human thoughtlessness and vanity. Even in countries where the winters are chilly or even cold, artificial fabrics now provide adequate protection. We are, after all, no longer Palaeolithic cave dwellers.

If your dog, cat or gerbil is truly your friend, think about his or her relatives who have not been so happy to have known you and have been guarded by you, but have come to a miserable end after a miserable life. Genesis entrusts us with ‘dominion’ in other words with loving care. If we do not give it, our stewardship is unjust and we must expect harsh judgement. In a well-known passage in St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus compares those who proclaim their faith in love and justice in his name and do not do it, with those who do not actually acknowledge him but do his will (Matthew 25:31-46). As a board Member of the Animal Interfaith Alliance, I often find myself far closer to Jain and Quaker friends in the respect on which I talk than with many contemporary Christians, though we do have in our tradition, in stories of the Insular saints and in the life and Ministry of St Francis of Assisi (the subject of my other paper at this retreat) pointers towards the faith that embraces all creatures, the faith that will lead to the redemption of all creatures, for which Christ lived and died. Ahimsa means doing no harm to any living creature, and that includes, of course, a total abhorrence of the iniquity of hunting and of the farming animals for fur. And of course, killing them for meat. It means, instead, true sisterhood and brotherhood. If you do not treat your fellow creatures - creatures of the same God - with respect, hunting them with cruel weapons or with dogs for sport, for the exercise of power, do you think you can escape that reckoning before Christ? If you kill your sister or brother, if you experiment on your sister or brother, causing pain, distress and ultimately death (which is what vivisection involves) are you witnessing to Love as the supreme virtue?

I am not surprised that we have wandered so far from the Way of Christ. We even marginalise, kill and maim in shameful wars between groups of our own species; indeed our governments are prepared to use nuclear weapons. At home we marginalise the poor just as we marginalise the rest of creation.

May the act, the sacred act of offering ourselves for blessing in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist, as well as offering our friends in other species to the Divine Love for blessing, restore us to that divine harmony for which the prophet Isaiah and St John the Evangelist so fervently prayed.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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