The holidays are upon us, and along with mall bargains and festivities, many people look forward to the calming presence of their church's nativity scene. Yet some of these tableaux include camels, sheep and donkeys, which is stressful and dangerous for the animals and also an inaccurate rendition.
In his new biography of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI points out that, contrary to popular belief, there were no oxen, camels, donkeys or other animals of any kind in the manger.
If churches are striving for a meaningful depiction of what it was like in that humble Bethlehem stable, then they must leave animals out of it. By hosting events that put animals in harm's way, churches are at odds with Christian doctrine, which sanctions respect, reverence and compassion for all beings.
Over the years, camels, sheep and donkeys used as props in holiday displays have been beaten, mauled, attacked by dogs and killed by cruel people. Others, frightened and confused, have broken away from the displays, only to be hit and killed by cars.
A West Virginia man was arrested after he was found having sex with a sheep being used in a church nativity scene. Another sheep suffered internal bleeding at a New York garden center's display after getting battered by other animals in the pen.
In a dreadful twist, one Florida church deliberately borrows pregnant animals for use in its display in the hope that the animals will give birth during the event - and several have. A spokesperson for a roadside zoo in Wisconsin that supplies animals to as many as 30 churches every Christmas admitted that sheep will "often" give birth in the displays. In one case, the zoo gave the OK for an hours-old lamb to be used in a production, saying, "It's best to start right away, so they're born into it. Otherwise, they get nervous."
A camel used in nativity scenes suffered cuts and bruises after jumping from the back of a trailer traveling at full speed down a highway in Illinois. The driver didn't notice that the camel was gone until he stopped for gas. Another camel being used in a Christmas pageant at a Florida church stumbled and fell into the audience. Camels used in the Radio City Music Hall's annual Christmas production live in the theater for the show's month-long run and see the light of day only when their trainers take them outside for photo ops.
Isn't forcing animals to participate in crches and holiday shows the antithesis of the spirit of the season? As decent human beings, we must recognize that animals don't want to be used as props, no matter what the venue.
The Reverend Dr. Andrew Linzey, a Church of England theologian, put it this way, "So much of our exploitation of animals stems from a kind of spiritual blindness: If we sensed and really felt the beauty and magnificence of the world, we would not exploit it as we do today."
In the spirit of the holiday season, let's all try to remember that animals want to live in peace, too.
Jennifer O'Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation. PETA stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.