Saints Against Hunting
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Dr. Richard Ryder, CCA Catholic Concern for Animals
April 2017

CCA Scientific Adviser, Dr Richard Ryder talked at the 2016 Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat about the role of the early saints in animal welfare, particularly those who defended animals. His speech is reproduced here.

I think many people grow up believing that the medieval saints were all very prim and unworldly: a sort of combination of Mrs Mary Whitehouse with a Professor of Theology. But, of course, they were not really like that. There are three points that I am going to try to make:

1. That many medieval saints were practical, down to earth people with a hands-on approach to doing good, and that part of their applied compassion often included animal welfare. A concern for animals was not a rarety but was one of the usual signs of sainthood. They preached God’s word, they helped the poor and they helped animals too. It was the standard saintly package for at least 1,000 years of Christianity.

2. As far as Europe was concerned, everything seemed to change in the thirteenth century. The Cathars had taught that animals have immortal souls, and so they practised vegetarianism. When the Cathar heresy was totally suppressed around 1230, St Thomas Aquinas appeared on the scene and began to rediscover and promote Aristotle. Aristotle, not of course a Christian at all, had said that slaves, animals and women were of little moral importance. However, Aquinas, whose writings encompassed the church’s anthropocentrism, seems to have repented of his teachings shortly before he died, although we do not know if this affected his speciesism.

3. Things then went from bad to worse in Europe as far as animal welfare was concerned. The Black Death, prolonged periods of warfare and the Renaissance itself all seemed to underline in people’s minds the importance of themselves. Humans were claimed to be central. By the 1500’s speciesism reigned triumphant and, in Church councils, continued to do so until Laudato Si’ and the present Pope. Indeed, showing any concern for non-human creatures was considered, in some circles, to be almost tantamount to heresy and, for 800 years, the example of the early saints was, so I believe, deliberately suppressed.

Animal welfare was not just ignored it was often actively ridiculed and belittled. You still hear hunters, farmers and others with vested interests in animal exploitation, scoffing at animal welfare and trying to make out that it is sentimental or womanly and, therefore, irrational and wrong. What could be further from the truth? Compassion is central to Christianity. We try to love our neighbours, and non-human animals are surely our neighbours too. Animals are all members of our community. We share our society with them and we owe then equal respect. They too are conscious of suffering and pain. If they are sentient they are, in my opinion, persons too. All animals are God’s creatures and so we should love them. We have both a natural impulse and a moral duty to do so. All suffering things are PERSONS and our NEIGHBOURS.

Lessons from the Early Saints

So, all I am trying to say is that the early saints were an example to us all. Some were not vegetarians and yet still cared for animals. The early saints seem to have particularly opposed deliberate cruelty to animals. This is why there are so many stories of the early saints opposing blood sports and rescuing animals from the hunters.

saint anthony abbot
St Anthony Abbot and his pig

I have no doubt that deliberate cruelty is the greatest sin and that hunting for sport is indeed one example of this, as was wisely said at the CCA Retreat in 2015. In my opinion, causing any sort of unconsented and non-therapeutic pain is wrong, whether it is to a human or to a non-human being.

Let’s look at some of the early saints:

  • St Anthony Abbot was followed around by his pig whose illness he had cured.
  • St Benedict of Nursia was helped by a raven.
  • St Bernard of Montjoux was assisted by a dog.
  • St Blaise healed animals.
  • St Brigid protected foxes and boars and was followed by a cow.
  • St Cuthbert made friends with the birds who fed him while he gave them protection. They shared his meals.
  • St Colette understood the language of birds and had a pet lamb.
  • St Colum looked after a crane.
  • St Daria was protected by a lion.
  • St Fabian was elected Pope after a dove sat on his head during a papal election.
  • St Francis Jerome preached to oxen and horses who knelt before him.
  • St Francis of Assisi has a chapter all of his own.
  • St Francis of Paola had pet fish as well as a pet lamb.
  • St Gall had a pet bear.
  • St Gerard could talk to and understand the animals.
  • St Giles had a tame deer who gave him milk.
  • St Hugh of Lincoln was protected by a swan.
  • St Isidore shared his food with the birds.
  • St Jerome helped an injured lion who then never left his side.
  • St John Bosco was protected by his dog.
  • St Joseph of Cupertino rescued sheep and could speak with the animals.
  • St Kevin had a blackbird lay an egg in his hand and he stayed absolutelystill until it had hatched.
  • St Macarius helped a hyena.
  • St Madeleine made friends with a dangerous dog.
  • St Mamas preached to the animals and was protected by a lion.
  • St Martin of Porres looked after lost dogs and cats and was kind to mice and rats.
  • St Meinrad had ravens as his friends.
  • St Patrick looked after animals generally.
  • St Paul the First Hermit was cared for by ravens who brought him food.
  • St Philip Neri loved all animals, especially cats.
  • St Roch, when ill, was fed by a dog.
  • St Sabas made friends with a lion and shared a den with him.
  • St Sylvester cared for a bull.
  • St Veridiana cared for snakes.
  • St Vitas loved animals generally.
  • St Wulstan cured the King’s pet bird.

You can see it was a two-way process. The saints cared for the animals and the animals cared for the saints - dogs, cats, lambs, cows and lions. Birds also, especially ravens. It was mutual love and respect between God’s creatures: a brotherhood and a sisterhood with the animals - a community – as it should be. No speciesism or ‘tyrannical anthropocentrism’ as Pope Francis says in Laudato Si.

Saving animals from hunters

When I researched my book Animal Revolution in the 1980’s I found several books that praised the love of animals manifested by the early saints. These had been written just before the 1st World War. I record in my book the common story that the saints would save animals from the hunters. This usually meant hares and deer (for food) because nobody respectable hunted foxes (for sport) in the middle ages! It also occasionally mentioned large birds – birds large enough to be shot by bows and arrows. Some saints even anticipated the tactics of hunt saboteurs! St Neot saving hares and stags from huntsmen and the 12th century Northumbrian, St Godric of Finchdale, recuing birds from snares. St Aventine, who lived around 438 in Gascony rescued a stag from the hunters. St Carileff (c. 540) protected a bull that was being hunted and St Hubert gave up hunting after seeing a vision of the crucifixion between the antlers of a stag (around the year 700). St Monacella [St Melangell] (c. 604) in Wales protected a hare from hounds, as did St Isidore in Spain and most notably St Anselm (1033-1109).

saint giles
St Giles and his deer

Born in Italy, Anselm was eventually made Archbishop of Canterbury where he had to oppose attacks from King William Rufus – a dangerous and anti-religious king who, interestingly, was assassinated (or was it merely an accident) in the New Forest while – you’ve guessed it – while hunting. So, Anselm, who once gave sanctuary to hunted animals, had been at loggerheads with William Rufus the famous hunter.

In 1159 a monk of Whitby rescued a wild boar from the hunt. He was then attacked by the hunters and mortally wounded, forgiving his killers on his deathbed. There was a row about this and the hunters were forced to do penance.

All these stories were well known before the thirteenth century and people would have often tried to follow in their own lives the compassionate behaviour of he saints. We need to rediscover them today.

Medieval Anthropocentrism

This terrible human arrogance – what Pope Francis has called ‘tyrannical anthropocentrism’ - grew and grew until most people in Europe in the 1500’s believed, not only that mankind was all that mattered on Earth, but that the Earth itself was the centre of the Universe. Everything revolved around the Earth and the human species! This was really a combination of the views of that arrogant man Aristotle. We now know that Aristotle was wrong about almost everything – biology, astronomy and morality. And yet Aristotle is still taught and revered in schools and universities all over the world today. Aristotle was in effect a fascist! His books ought to be thrown into the dustbin of history and forgotten, like so many others who have been shown to be wrong.

saint neot
St Neot rescuing the deer

saint kevin
St Kevin and his blackbird

Then the Renaissance scientists began to question Aristotle. Copernicus said in 1543 that Aristotle was wrong. There was clear evidence, he said, that the Earth went around the sun. Sixty years later when Gallileo publicised this fact the church began to threaten him and, in 1633, he was put on trial for heresy and threatened with torture.

But this was the beginning of getting things back into proportion. Human beings were really not the moral centre of the universe. It was almost at the same time as Gallileo that compassionate men and women began to write in favour of animals. For 400 years human beings in Europe had arrogantly imagined that they were the only things that mattered. The sheer vanity renders one almost speechless!

Secular Saints of the Eighteenth Century

In the eighteenth century there were a host of secular saints who began to write earnestly about compassion to the animals – Richard Steele, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, Montaigne, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, John Oswald, George Nicholson, John Hildrop, Humphrey Primatt, David Hume, Richard Dean, Dr Samuel Johnson, William Hogarth, James Thompson (the poet), Andrew Marvell, William Cowper, William Blake, Robert Burns, Percy Shelley … I could go on.

But where were the leaders of the churches? Indeed, where were the medieval saints? It seems a thousand years of the Christian tradition of compassion had been forgotten! We now have a pheasant -shooting Archbishop of Canterbury! The record of the churches since Aquinas has been deplorable! Except for the glorious example of our current Pope. Rightly, he seeks to overthrow, not only our absurd human vanity, our tyrannical anthropocentrism – our ridiculous SPECIESISM, but also the unnecessary gap between RELIGION and SCIENCE (Laudato Si).

The next great blow to our speciesism was delivered by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in 1859 in On the Origin of Species, in which he argued that humans were just one species of animals among thousands of others. We were all related through evolution.

Again, this upset the pride and vanity of some Church authorities. It would not have upset St Anselm, nor St Francis, nor a hundred other medieval saints, so why did it upset the Victorian clerics?

saint sylvesta
St Sylvesta caring for a bull

Because they had lost sight of what is at the heart of Christianity and that is COMPASSION! Jesus Christ’s own teachings of LOVE to others, love to our neighbours – and surely our own evolutionary cousins are indeed our neighbours. They are persons who can suffer like we do. They are surely part of our own community. The Anglican bishops today should be thundering against cruelty to non-human animals – not going on and on about sex. They should be saving all animals – they should, in other words, be following the example of the early saints.

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