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Claudette Vaughan, Editor of Abolitionist Online, interviews Olga Parkes, May 2007
Abolitionist: What are your views on religion and animals?
Olga: I think some eastern religions have thought far more about animals than have the Christians, but I shall confine myself to what I know, which is the Christian religion.
I would have to say that over the centuries it has done little to help animals. That word “dominion” in Genesis seems to have been interpreted as domination, which can easily become a kind of permission to use animals for whatever humans require, irrespective of animal suffering. This led to humans failing to see themselves as part of an ecological system, but instead as the most important creatures on earth. Of course, there have been many visionaries, St. Francis being one. And over the last couple of hundred years many Christians, as well as many non-believers have been involved in trying to lift the burden of suffering from animals. As you may know, the RSPCA was established in the UK in 1824 by an Anglican priest in response to the cruel treatment of animals at that time, in particular the suffering of horses which were the main form of transport.
It does seem to me that the Christian churches are ideally placed to put thought and effort into helping the animals. They have wide experience in helping the oppressed, and I am not alone in believing that it is time for them to widen their circle of concern to include animals. I think this is happening, though slowly, partly in response to environmental concerns, because when you talk environment, you can hardly leave animals out of the equation.
Abolitionist: What are your views specifically on the Anglican religion and its treatment of animals?
Olga: Well, just as with Christian churches generally, I don’t think the Anglican Church has done much at all. However, I feel hopeful. You may know that every 10 years Anglican bishops from all over the world gather in England for the Lambeth Conference. It last took place in 1998, and a main area of concern was the environment. It was recognised that “creation is a web of inter-dependent relationships bound together in the Covenant which God, the Holy Trinity has established with the whole earth and every living being.” I won’t go on with screeds of quotes, but I do like this one:
...the Lambeth Conference recognizes that we as Christians have a God given mandate to care for, look after and protect God’s creation.
Now to me that means all of it, including the pigs in the piggeries, the live export animals, the hens in the cages and so on.
I think that since 1998, although progress is slow, animals are receiving greater recognition by the Church, and their suffering is becoming of concern. I hope the 2008 Lambeth Conference will build on the 1998 groundwork.
On a personal level, a few years ago I was reading “Animal People” and I came across a reference to the UK-based Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals. I was really excited about this, joined, and am supported by the Society in my efforts to raise awareness of animal issues in the Anglican Church in Australia. The Society’s website is www.aswa.org.uk
Abolitionist: You organise the Blessing of the Animals every year around the time of St Francis of Assisi’s Feast Day (4Oct) in Newcastle. Can you tell us about that please?
Olga: Well, it’s true I have a lot to do with the organisation, but the service happens because of the Dean of Newcastle, the Very Rev’d Graeme Lawrence OAM, and his willingness for this special service to happen year after year in Christ Church Cathedral. It is quite a production as many people bring their animals – donkeys, horses, dogs, cats, rats, lizards and so on. The local animal and environmental groups send representatives and usually they take some part in the service – a prayer, a reading, a reflection etc. At our last service, October 2006, the Dean gave the address, the theme of which was – when you see oppression of humans or animals – do something about it. Each one of us can do something.
Abolitionist: In Islam they have a decree that animals, especially animals going to slaughter, must hear the name of Allah beforehand. What do you think the role of prayer is in the name of God for animals?
Olga: I think prayer for animals needs to be along the lines of reflecting on what we can do to help them. It is we who are the problem. Not the animals. I won’t comment on the Islamic decree you mention, that they must hear the name of Allah before slaughter. The footage I have seen of killing in Islamic countries is surely far removed from the Islamic original intention to kill mercifully.
Abolitionist: What kind of work for animals do you do at Hunter Animal Watch Olga?
Olga: Hunter Animal Watch was set up in 1998 with the intention of raising money to subsidise the desexing of pets belonging to pensioners and low-income earners. We have a small committee of which I am the Hon. Secretary. At first we said if we could just subsidise half a dozen animals a month by raising enough money on market stalls, we’d be happy. But we weren’t happy, so we got ourselves an op shop, and now we subsidise the spay/neuter of an average 180 animals a month. This all happens in the Lower Hunter Valley of New South Wales and around 35 local vets participate in our programme. To date we’ve given financial help for the desexing of around thirteen thousand animals. Even so, it is a drop in the bucket to what is needed.
Hunter Animal Watch also lobbies on many animal issues.
Abolitionist: In developing countries they really try and use the techniques of Trap Neuter Return to assist their stray dogs yet in the West they have opted for the pro-killing method as a quick and final solution to solving the “pound animal” problem. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Olga: I think it is a shameful reflection on western society that so many hundreds of thousands of animals are killed in pounds and shelters. What is needed is an educated and compassionate society, plus governments and organisations willing to put resources into spay/neuter and re-homing programmes.
TNR wouldn’t be appropriate as a method of controlling over-population of dogs in many western countries, because in Australia, for instance, we don’t have a major stray dog problem. We do have an over-population problem though, caused by irresponsible humans not desexing their animals.
Abolitionist: What about cats? What can be done for them in NSW?
Olga: Cats are a huge problem as they breed quickly, and unfortunately people seem to think cats are disposable creatures and take less care of them than they do of dogs. I would like to see desexing enforced, and in fact at the last NSW Local Government conference held in October 2006 a motion was passed that this should be a recommendation to the Minister. Perhaps after the State election the issue will be pressed. It seems a very good idea to me, and even though there would be a high level of non-compliance, it would at least be a start.
Abolitionist: Should local religious communities take up the cause for animal rights, and do you see this happening in the near future? If not, why not?
Olga: Yes, they should, but I think the churches have traditionally concentrated on human needs, and largely lack information on animal issues.
In my case I have been able to present evidence to my own Anglican Diocese of Newcastle, NSW, in written and vision form on a number of serious animal issues. As a result of this the Dean of Newcastle presented the following motion to a full committee of the Church (the annual Synod) in 2004.
This Synod, recognising that all Christians have been given the stewardship of God’s creation including the animal kingdom, expresses its concern at unnecessary suffering inflicted on animals by human beings.
This Synod calls upon the Diocese to seek ways to challenge the Australian community about the care and welfare of animals.
It further calls upon the Parishes to take the opportunity provided by St Francis-tide (4th October) to focus on the Christian responsibility to God’s animal kingdom and requests the Diocesan Social Responsibilities Committee to consider ways in which the Church might be assisted to a better understanding of its role and responsibilities in the care of animals.
One outcome of this has been a general raising of awareness that animals matter, and the establishment of an Animal Welfare section on the diocesan website under the Social Justice heading. (www.angdon.com)
If a church has one or more people who believe as I do that the church as a moral leader has a part to play, those people can encourage their church to become aware and to take appropriate action. This could take many forms. The thing is, to push the cause of animals with a view to improving their lives.
I would like to say, though, that without the effort of the people who actually get in and investigate cruelty, be it in factory farming, on the land, in the Middle East, and so on, I would have had nothing to present to the Church.
Abolitionist: What’s the solution to the rampant breeding traders who have no restrictions placed on them or on who, how, when and where they breed animals?
Olga: As government control is not on the horizon, I think the only way forward is to make the community aware that this way of producing animals is frequently unethical and can involve serious neglect of animals used for breeding. Their lives are miserable. So, make it fashionable not to buy from unregistered breeders or pet shops, but instead to go to the pound and have the heart-warming experience of saving a life.
Abolitionist: What is your hope for animals for the future?
Olga: My hope is that humans will turn away from the sickening cruelty animals currently experience at our hands, and live compassionately.
Just as I finished preparing these answers, and before I submitted them, I was exchanging emails with the animal theologian Rev’d Professor Andrew Linzey, Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He drew my attention to an article he wrote for The Times in December 2006. It was all news to me, and absolutely fascinating.
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