One of the tragedies of our times is the war on animals, the war we have been waging for two or three centuries, seizing their territory and subjecting them to ever more inhumane conditions.
Human activity was one of the causes of this year’s bushfires in the Eastern States which took away from koalas much of their habitat. Iconic species such as the Bengali tiger and the white rhinoceros are on the brink of extinction. Presumably the thylacine (the Tasmanian tiger) and the dodo would still be thriving in Tasmania and Mauritius if human beings had not ravaged their living space.
Only a few wild animals thrive under the relentless expansion of human activity. Mobs of kangaroos near my town relish in the green pasture and endless water supplies human beings have created.
We clobber our domestic animals too. In the past decades, more and more cattle have been squeezed into feed-lots, unable to exercise and terrified by their imprisonment. Battery hens are confined to less than a square metre and never see the sky or scratch in the fresh air.
We use horses and dogs for sport. Not only do they strain to entertain us, but our society allows some of their keepers to inflict on them excruciating pain when they are away from public view.
Our treatment of animals shames us human beings. We are given no licence by Scripture to dominate the environment and crush our fellow-creatures. There is no Biblical excuse for setting ourselves up as gods destroying whatever we will.
We consider ourselves superior to other creatures, but the evidence shows that we do not make a good shepherd. We are cruel and despotic in our treatment of the environment.
In today’s Gospel, John teaches us two things about animals and salvation. The first is that Jesus is the good shepherd. No creature, including us human beings, can put ourselves above other creatures. Jesus is our shepherd, caring for us, and he is the shepherd of all creation, restoring all things, not only the human world.
Secondly, we are called to be part of the community of creatures, living together with animals and ecosystems as our brothers and sisters. This is the great vision of Saint Francis of Assisi: to live in harmony with all life as part of the community of creation.
The Good Shepherd proclaims to us that God will draw into a community all his creation and that we will live in harmony with death adders and scorpions, both of them wild animals Jesus ’was with in the wilderness’ (Mark 1:13a), as we will with cats, horses, and especially dogs, the animals who have co-evolved with us and who are our familiars.
There are many signs of new life. Most farmers I know are concerned about any animal cruelty and do all in their power to care for their animals. WWF and other organisations keep on reminding us of the plight of the non-human world and establish programs to restore habitat and rescue species. More and more middle-class people express real care for pets. Our Jack Russell Lottie is our little sister, a member of our family. There are new ways of feeding the hungry that do not exploit animals, so I have hope that lifting the poor out of poverty will be done ethically.
[‘We have like sheep gone astray.’ (Isaiah 53:6). Quoted in I Peter 2:25, and in the Introduction to Evening Prayer in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer]