When the charismatic and inspirational new Pope took the name of St. Francis of Assisi in 2013, animal advocates had reason for optimism. This friendly priest had just adopted the name of the patron saint of animals and the poor. Surely he would teach the flock about our obligation, as stewards of the earth and of the creatures that inhabit our world, to treat animals kindly. But three years later, the Pope who has been a wonderful advocate for the poor has done little for animals.
Though animal cruelty remains rampant throughout the world, the place where Pope Francis could do the most to end the barbarity is in the historic and beautiful country of Spain. Every year villages in Spain hold more than 10,000 festivals, most of them religious festivals, and surprisingly for an allegedly civilized country, all the festivals involve some form of animal cruelty.
Easter is celebrated in many places in Spain by stuffing pigeons into jars and stoning them to death. Other “blood festivals” in Spain include the Pere Palo Festival in Villanueva de la Vera, in which a donkey is tortured by drunken men who beat and stab the poor beast, fire guns next to its ears, and force alcohol down its throat. The heaviest men ride the donkey until it collapses. A spokesman for the region’s tourism department says “We will not bow to pressure from animal welfare activists. This is our tradition and that will continue.”
At the Festival at San Bartoleme de Pinares, horses, donkeys, and mules are forced to jump through fire again and again, and to walk on burning coals. At a festival in San Juan, locals and tourists are given blowguns with which they fire darts into a bull until he is a bloody mess, at which point they castrate and kill him. The Lancing of the Bull is the festival at Toro de La Vega, where groups of men pierce a young bull repeatedly with spears. When the bull eventually falls, they cut off his testicles before killing him.
The mayor of the town of Cazallilia, whose citizens throw animals from the church bell tower in their own celebration, opposes the bull torture in Toro de la Vega.
“It’s very dangerous,” says Mayor Juan Balbin Garredo. “People could get hurt. Sometimes we forget about people and put too much emphasis on the animal.”
On St. Francis of Assisi day, ducks’ wings are clipped and they are thrown into the sea, where some swimmers rip them apart in a tug-or-war. Spain has its own patron saint of animals, St. Anthony. His day is celebrated with chicken-beheading competitions.
All these brutalities — including the popular competition of horsemen pulling off the heads of live geese — are visited on farm animals at blood festivals. Such beasts are not accorded much better treatment in our own factory farms. But perhaps the most shocking of Spain’s animal cruelties are those meted out to hunting dogs, known as galgos and podencos.
Many of these resemble greyhounds, though they are not closely related. They do share the temperaments of the gentle greyhounds, and strive to please their masters. The hunters breed them in frequently squalid conditions, up to two dozen per hunter, and feed them only sporadically with stale bread and restaurant waste. When hunting season arrives, the hunter selects the best, and abandons or tortures and kills the rest.
The dogs are pitted in contests in which two dogs chase a hare until one captures it. The losing dog is then a “dirty greyhound,” having “humiliated” its master, and is killed by being burned alive, injected with bleach, or hung from a tree where it “plays the piano.” Spanish hunters think it is entertaining to hang offending dogs so that only their hind legs barely touch the ground. As the dog tries to relieve the pressure of the rope, he dances as he dangles. The hunters call this dance “playing the piano.” It goes on for hours, sometimes days, until the dog is exhausted and suffocates. Sad evidence of this practice can be found at
[This link is currently leading to a “page not found” notice, and the link cannot be changed. However, if you type the link in the web address strip at the top of your screen, leaving off the first portion and beginning with www, you will arrive at the proper destination.]
At the end of hunting season, thousands of the dogs are murdered in this way. They are found in the countryside, hanging from trees, rotting. There are anti-cruelty laws in Spain, but they are rarely enforced, and when they are, they result in a small fine. There is no jail time for animal cruelty in Spain.
If the Pope is to honor St. Francis, he must do something for these animals, because he is probably the only person who can. He must tell the people of Spain that the animals, too, are God’s creatures, deserving of mercy. Catholic Spain has a culture of animal cruelty that is pathological and which must be addressed by Pope Francis. Otherwise, his choice of St. Francis of Assisi as his namesake and inspiration will eventually be seen as an empty gesture, more cynical than inspirational, and an opportunity to lift humanity will be lost.
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