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A Publication of


From The Ark Number 189 - Winter 2001


There is a debate as to whether animals can or cannot form part of the

‘legal community’, but at this year’s Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat

at Launde Abbey, Fr Mark Elvins explained an authentic,but neglected, traditional Christian attitude to this question

- especially in the light of the recent foot-and-mouth diseaster.

By Fr Mark Elvins OFMCap

The medieval idea of animal rights impinges on some traditional aspects of ecclesiastical jurisprudence.  This is particularly evident in the establishment of serious legal compacts between animals and humans.  The story of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio is well known, but few will appreciate that Francis was acting in accordance with a well established legal tradition.  That is, in medieval jurisprudence, a compact could be made with an animal, and the animal could be cited to appear before the ecclesiastical courts if the compact was broken.  The origin of this legal interaction with animals lies in the fact that the eccleciastical courts, being Christian, had the power to excomunicate any malefactor for murder, robbery or arson, even if their names were not known and thus could not be brought before a court of common law to answer for their crimes.

An extension of this procedure enabled the ecclesiastical courts to pronounce similar sentences upon wild animals, birds and even insects.  All these creatures could inflict serious damage on persons without their identity being known, and thus be exempt from common law.  On various occasions therefore the ecclesiastical courts saw fit to summons mice, ants, caterpillers, eels, snails and sparrows to demand that they desist from their mischief-making, and if they failed to comply charged them to appear in court to explain their behaviour.  The creatures were entitled to legal representatives, but, if they failed to put forward a convincing argument for their clients, the creatures could be excomunicated or banished from the local district.

Be fruitful and multiply!

The ecclesiastical courts were bound by holy writ which declared of all creatures ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and so they could not be called to account for excessive breeding.  The creatures could also claim the right of subsistence for they had been given the green herbage of the earth for nourishment as supported by scripture.

For instance if a plaintiff wished to proceed against a swarm of locusts he could claim only that the locusts had damaged a particular crop or had committed trespass upon land in human ownership.  The plaintiff could not insist upon the wholesale destruction of the locusts as such.  It seems there was such a thing as animal rights even at this early stage.  For example in the Diocese of Lausanne in 1478, certain caterpillars were arraigned before a local magistrate for consuming an inordinate amount of cabbage.   However, according to Scripture they had not been represented in the Ark - had they been recorded as passengers they could have established a good claim to subsistence citing Noah’s example.  However, if caterpillars had somehow managed to survive the Flood, by unlawful means, they could be considered nothing short of gatecrashers, who could be put down with divine approval!

Field mice, on the other hand, had clearly been admitted to the Ark and therefore had a right to subsistence; however they could be excommunicated if they ate excessively what did not belong to them.  This is recorded in a famous trial 1519 when field mice were arraigned before the local ecclesiastical court at Stelvio in the Tyrol.  The representative of the mice claimed that they did good by burrowing beneath the crops and so turning up the soil.  However, in the end, they were sentenced to banishment for destroying crops produced by human labour.  Their advocate however obtained for them the right to a suitable dwelling place where they could burrow away in perpetuity.   The court having agreed to this they also made provision for safe conduct to this new abode to protect them from the marauding cats of the local district.

Summary punishment

St Bernard of Clairvaux is said to have inflicted summary punishment upon a swarm of flies that buzzed incessantly about his congregation.  And as late as 1559 a Lutheran pastor of Dresden appealed to the Elector of Saxony for help against a flock of sparrows who distracted his congregation by their incessant chattering and scandalous acts of unchastity during the sermon.  The assumption in these cases was that insects or birds were quite capable of appreciating the dignity required of acts of worship, and that they should have left, or comported themselves in a more devout manner.

In Savigny in 1457 a sow was found guilty of murder and her six piglets found guilty of being accessories after the fact, but were pardoned because of their extreme youth.   This approach to animals may seem a rather quaint thing of the past but in 1992 a court in Tanzania jailed a goat for seven days for illegally eating a farmer’s crop of vegetables.

The whole subject of animal trials may seem a trifle odd but they were part of a more integrated society in which nature had an equal place in human attitudes.  A society that lives close to nature always shows a greater repect for animals.  The tradition of animal trials indicate a special place for animals in the scheme of creation.   Although incapable of appreciating the finer points of the law animals were given a respect that has largely been forgotten today, when cattle and sheep are treated simply as commodities in the food-chain.  Today the heroes of youth are often shallow and socially flawed, and hardly good examplars of anything except bad behaviour, making money and drawing attention to themselves.  Saints used to be the popular heroes and many were great animal lovers who taught respect for creation and the rights of animals.   Thus the care of animals was understood as good and virtuous and not just a sentimental attachment.

Awe and wonder - and shared living quarters

Medieval man still saw nature with a certain awe and wonder.  There is a charming account, dating from the thirteenth century, in which a householder, whose home gave shelter to swallows nesting under the eaves, was curious as to where his friends went in winter.  He therefore attached a note to one of the swallow’s feet reading ‘O swallow; where do you spend the winter?’  The following Spring the swallow returned, still bearing the parchment on which had been added,  ‘In Asia, in the house of a certain Peter.’

The familiarity with animals was certainly more natural in a society which, for the most part, shared living quarters with cows and sheep (these certainly provided a primitive form of central heating). Moreover in a Christian society that kept alive the story of a Child born in poverty and laid in a manger between the beasts of the stall this must have seemed the most natural form of harmony with creation.  Many a medieval peasant would have had personal experience of this harmonious co-existence.  Set against our modern times, with factory farming, the cruel production of veal and pate de foie gras, the medieval peasant would probably look upon our society as callous and self-indulgent.

New look required

A new look is required at the subject of animal rights in our own time.  Many people are concerned to see a ban on foxhunting, but is their concern misplaced, in that animal welfare should be even-handed and many other animals may suffer infinitely worse situations than do foxes?  Take, for example, the millions of chickens that make their last journey shackled upsidedown, or the pigs that endure brutal conditions to satisfy the taste for bacon.  A comparison of the lot of various farm animals may help us to realise that, in general, they do not receive humane treatment in our so called animal loving society.

Most pigs do not live in conditions that satisfy their most basic needs. By and large they are forced to exist on slatted floors with nowhere to lie down with no bedding and with nothing to occupy their time. This causes behavioural stress, added to which they have to suffer tail docking and having their teeth clipped.  They are also forced to have early weanings at about three weeks, which also is a cause for stress among animals which have been proved to be among the most intelligent.  Farmed pigs also usually suffer from loose bowels, a problem contrived in the pig industry by a blanket application of antibiotics.  This is an unhealthy treatment made necessary because of the early weaning and the unnatural mixing of litters.

Pigs are known to be particularly susceptible to stress, especially during transportation and suffer frequent travel sickness.  They are also often sensitively aware of their impending slaughter.  Dairy calves are taken from their mothers and are artificially reared from birth.  This increases the risk of infectious diseases because of a continuously unnatural environment with artificial food and the whole intensive programme.

The EU regulations have now led to smaller and smaller numbers of increasingly bigger slaughterhouses.  As a result of this, cows are having to be moved much longer distances and are handled with much less care than they would otherwise be in smaller local slaughter houses (this regulation moreover has recently helped to spread the foot and mouth epidemic over a wider area).  Cows are also stressed by transportation and by mixing with other cows from other herds.  They also suffer great anguish in the run-up to slaughter.

Broiler chickens are probably the worst treated farm animals. In general they have poor living conditions in extremely densely populated sheds; this helps the development of bone defects.  It is believed that 25 per cent of broiler chickens are in pain for 25 per cent of their lives.  The bone defects are also caused by a diet designed to make them grow unnaturally fast and in thus growing bigger and fatter they outgrow their strength, leading to joint problems and other abnormalities.  Again when they are being transported they are inevitably too hot or too cold, causing extra stress.  The problem is exacerbated by the cramped cages which increase pain in their already painful joints.  Prior to death they are suspended from shackles upside-down while still conscious and electrocuted.  Thus the stress before slaughter is intensified.

The foot-and-mouth epidemic

This brief survey suggests animal rights are greatly neglected today in terms of their entitlement to appropriate living conditions and a more compassionate approach to their transportation.  The worst aspect of all this is the treatment of living animals as financial commodities, which has been particularly apparent in the official reaction to the foot-and-mouth epidemic.  The reaction has been marked by the restriction on movement, the wholesale slaughter of livestock and the burning of animal carcases, and yet the disease in the animals is only equivalent to a bad cold in humans.  The panic and the newspaper headlines would incline us to think that foot-and-mouth was on a par with the black death in humans.

The foot-and-mouth disease rarely kills the animals that become infected.  They almost always, given the chance, recover within a couple of weeks.  The meat of the animals that have had it is fit to eat. Why therefore are we presented with this policy of wholesale slaughter?  The reason has nothing to do with respect or consideration for the animals; the concern is exclusively economic because they are difficult to sell while they have the disease or have had it.  The whole reaction was thus a rather cynical concern to avoid financial losses which, given the amount of taxpayers compensation being paid for culled animals, is highly ironic.  Animal welfare has been sacrificed on the altar of national economy.

Foot-and-mouth disease first appeared in Britain in 1839, brought into this country by live imported animals, also from infected hay in transport shipping and in Argentinian beef.  For much of the nineteenth century the disease was endemic in Britain, which in no way destroyed farming as farmers learnt to live with it as they learn to live with bad weather and poor harvests.  The owners of pedigree herds in 1869, however, were prompted to try to eradicate the disease, but this was done not by mass slaughter but by isolation, by movement restrictions, by temporary closures of markets and by the prohibition of live imports.  Slaughter was not found to be necessary!  As a result of this policy, avoiding slaughter, by 1900 Britain was disease free, but was still subject to spasmodic infections from continental and South American meat.   Subsequently, slaughtering was introduced at intervals but the policy of isolation continued.

Again in the 1920s foot-and-mouth visited these shores.  Cheshire was particularly badly affected, but the ministry officials were so long behind in their slaughtering programme that, by the time they arrived, the cattle had largely recovered.  The farmers naturally began to question the need for slaughter.  The ministry officials even asked what the farmers preferred, in the light of the wholesale recovery of their livestock from what seemed a somewhat trivial disease.  The most extensive outbreak of foot-and-mouth was between 1967 and 1968 when culling was widespread.

In the 1920s farming and the economy in general was localised and without the Damoclean quotas of the EU.  Today we are in the straightjacket of an intensive production economy in which a slower growth rate or a lesser yield is intolerable.  The global economy has become the great Moloch of the temple of Mammon, and for Britain to lag behind would mean to drop out of the rich pickings of the global economy.  World trade is now like some kind of wealth treadmill, in which member states are intimidated at the chance of not competing in the economic race and thus incurring financial losses.  It is therefore difficult to reverse such an aggressive economic system, except for those who regard morality as worth the sacrifice of financial gains, but then the morality is invariably concerned with the plight of poorer nations who do not share the benefits.   Animal welfare by and large is not even a consideration.

Shocked by pyres

The ruthless extermination programme that has presented us with photographs of hellish pyres of burning cattle has had the effect of shocking the public and causing even farmers to question an attitude so unsympathetic to animal welfare.  Human greed has in some way become symbolised by the smoking holocausts of dead animals.  Against this Christians must be revolted by such an abuse of the rights that animals should have in God’s world.  The history of Christianity in the lives of the saints has shown us another way, as we recall the sanctuaries described by Gerald of Wales, where animals so enjoyed tranquility ‘that they do not flee the footsteps of man’. Animal rights have a tradition in Christianity that has been too long neglected, and thus there is a need for a more authentic Christian approach.

Return to The Ark No. 189

For questions, comments and submissions, please contact:
Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare

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