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By Rev. D. Rebecca Dinovo
In many ways, my conversion to animal welfare was simply a "return" to my natural, early childhood inclinations. As a child I was aware of an innate sense of love and compassion for animals. I recall as a child of 6 or 7 announcing to my dad, “When I grow up I am going to be a vegetarian!” I also remember asking questions of adults like, “Why do we eat cows?” after learning that hamburgers are made of cows. What always struck me as a child was how loving, beautiful, and innocent all God’s creatures were. I had no desire to see any animal harmed. Once on a boating trip my uncle caught a fish and let it sit on the deck of the boat until it “suffocated” outside the water. I cried and held my breath trying to “be” with the fish in his misery. As he died, I felt we had done a terrible thing, but no one else thought so.
Later in elementary school I was leafing through an issue of National Geographic one afternoon and saw photographs portraying the slaughter of rhinoceros by hunters in a remote part of Africa. The article warned that extinction might occur if such "sport" continued. I shared the story with my best friend and we promptly made signs and brought them to school which read, “Save the Rhinos!” We carried our signs with us on our walks to and from school and spent a week telling everyone we knew about the plight of the rhinos in Africa. Unfortunately, we had little knowledge of what we might do to make a difference and felt helpless in the face of this violence.
And like most people, I have always loved my pets. I grew up with dogs, hamsters, rabbits, and cats who I cared for deeply. They were a constant comfort to me and I always felt we shared a bond of genuine love. I hated to see them suffer and I prayed for them constantly.
But with time, the issue of animals and their welfare faded from my mind completely. A significant event occurred at the age of 19, however, while I was staying with a native family in a tiny village in northern Thailand. The family had a few farm animals including a small black pig they kept in a pen. The pig was friendly and curious and I began to play with him, pet him, and took some photos of him with my camera. I felt I had made an instant friend. That night however, as we sat down in the little hut to eat dinner, I looked at the meal and saw pieces of meat with some familiar black hair in it; I panicked and looked out the window toward the pig’s pen only to see that it was empty. My heart pounded. I could not bring myself to eat it and I nearly gagged. The realization of eating meat, something I had done without thinking for so many years, had finally sunk in. I vowed never to eat pork again.
In college I became a vegan and while I still did not know much about animal rights, it was clear to me that eating a vegan diet was the only way to ensure good health, plus, I had never liked the idea of eating animals. I remained a vegan for many years and I spent a decade in this state, never investigating the issue any deeper.
While in seminary I discovered Franciscanism and joined a Franciscan Third Order in the Church. As I read about St. Francis of Assisi I was struck by his love and passion for animals. Eventually my vegetarianism became a natural part of my spiritual disciplines as a Franciscan, but again, it did not go much deeper than that because I had never been exposed in any serious way to animal rights issues. I felt that my love for animals was primarily sentimental and that such a “feeling” was not something to take too seriously. In fact, I felt almost ashamed of my “quirkiness” and my soft spot for animals.
My mind was changed forever and dramatically, however, when my beloved cat, Franc was trapped and killed just yards from our home by nuisance wildlife control trappers. As I tried, in my state of deep grief, to understand how something like this could happen without recourse in our society, I was confronted with the cold, devastating facts about the laws and treatment of animals in our country. The lack of protection and rights for animals is simply staggering. I began looking into animal rights groups and as I read through their educational materials, the true horror, along with a sense of incredible responsibility, began to come over me. I felt as though I had been ignorant to the reality of the violence perpetrated against animals for so many years that I had simply developed a “blind spot" for it.
I watched the video “Meet Your Meat” for the first time and cried for two hours after watching it. Suddenly I was ready to take up what I saw as the “secular cause” of animal rights.
It was not long until I discovered that animal welfare is not merely a secular issue, but one that my own faith tradition and denomination uphold. Christianity has deep theological roots and traditions of supporting animal welfare. To say that my discovery created a worldview shift for me would be an understatement. Suddenly things became clear and I realized that, without a doubt, an aspect of my vocation as a priest in the Church was to mediate God’s mercy and peace to all creatures, particularly the “least of these,” the animals. Recently I have become outspoken on the issue and am actively working for animal welfare; I believe it is an essential part of my ministry and an important part of all Christians' God-given responsibility to care for the earth. “Thy kingdom come” is a prayer for the peaceable kingdom of God to reign, a kingdom where there is no more violence and killing…and certainly no unnecessary suffering of any of God’s creatures. Thy Kingdom come!
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