Sarah Withrow-King, author and Associate Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal ethics, discusses her passion for animal advocacy and work with the new CreatureKind project.
Coconut was an off-white, curly-haired cocker spaniel-poodle mix. My mom, brother, and I picked her out of a box of littermates in the backyard of a nearby breeder when I was around five years old. We grew up together and she slept next to me nearly every night. I wasn’t the worst guardian, but I wasn’t always very kind, either. When Coco’s tiny bladder couldn’t hold it, I pushed her nose into her accidents. When I so magnanimously took her on walks around the neighborhood, I attached her ten-pound body to a choke chain and yanked on her when she stopped to sniff a curb for longer than I wanted. I was her master, after all. The Bible told me so.
Her swift sickness and unexpected death during high school crushed me. But I didn’t I could express my grief, pain, and questions about this little dog at church, where I did share my struggles with boys or my parents or school or friends. When I became overwhelmed with emotion during a worship service a few days after we buried Coconut in our yard, I hid in a bathroom stall until the feelings passed.
Around the same time, I met a baby chicken, part of a biology class pecking order experiment. I named him Simon and he was my constant companion for a few weeks. When I let a classmate hold him one day, he jumped out of her hands and injured his foot. I felt terribly guilty, and for the next few weeks my mom and I took turns stroking his delicate little toes, encouraging them to stretch out and heal, while he tried to keep them balled up tight against the pain. He slept on our pillows at night, nested in her hair or nuzzling my neck.
One day, the biology teacher, Mr. Herbert, announced an end to the experiment and told us all to bring our chickens back in. But when I asked him what was going to happen to the chicks, he gave one of those vague non-responses that tells a girl something wicked this way comes.
I wasn’t about to let that fly.
So my dad talked to some church friends who had a little land outside of town, and who were nursing an orphaned duck back to health. They agreed they could take Simon and I tearfully handed him over one Saturday morning.
Simon and Coconut were creatures who made a profound impression on me. They had individual personalities, needs, and desires. One was furred and one was feathered, but they were both made of flesh and blood and bone.
And so am I.
Eventually, I made some pretty shocking discoveries. Simon, as a male chick, was useless to the egg industry, so he probably would have been ground up alive or simply thrown into the trash to die. And though dogs are “man’s best friend,” we’ve found some pretty nasty ways to treat them, from puppy mills to dog fighting to daily neglect.
The more I learned about the way humans treat animals, the less settled I became with the idea that human dominion was being practiced as a careful Creator intended. I decided to stop eating animals because as Christians, we’re called to action, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
I acted on the Spirit’s lead, but then I needed to learn what my faith really meant for my relationship with animals.
Here’s what I learned, in a tiny mustardseed: God created the whole world. There are creatures of the world and there is God. Too often, when we humans think about ourselves and God and creation, we forget that we are part of God’s creation. We adopt an “us vs. them” mentality, as if there’s a limit to God’s care for creation and we need to ensure humans get the choicest bits. But we know that’s not true, because God’s eternal provision took on flesh and blood and bone and conquered death on our behalf.
So what happens when we stop looking at animals as “them” and instead see fellow, beloved creatures of God. What happens when we act as if we are CreatureKind?
David Clough has been asking this question for many years, and has helped to shape much of the church’s current best thinking on human and animal relationships and responsibilities. Together, we have launched a major new project, called CreatureKind, to engage the church on issues of animal welfare, with a particular focus on farmed animals. We focus on farmed animals because worldwide, more than 70 billion fellow land creatures and up to 7 trillion sea animals are killed for food each year. The use of animals for food massively dominates all other human uses of animals, and the continuing intensification of animal agriculture imposes increasingly harsh burdens on them. Many of us interact with farmed animals (through eating them) more than we interact with any other nonhuman animal.
Our vision is that the church take her rightful place as the leader in the movement for animal protection, not only for animals, but for the health of her people. We want to help Christians treat one another and the earth as fellow creatures of God. We want to help each other be creaturekind.
CreatureKind works in three major ways:
- Education through books and other resources for popular Christian audiences, online tools for learning and collaboration, support for Christians in the animal welfare movement, and speakers able to address congregations and faith communities on the theology and praxis of being CreatureKind.
- Partnership with churches at an institutional and congregational level with an offer to educate as well as a challenge to consider their policies in this area, using the CreatureKind Commitment.
- The development of Community in the spirit of Christian mission. David and I have met too many people who are surprised to learn that we both care about animals and are Christian. This phenomenon is largely a modern one, founded on the lie that Christian ethics has no more than a passing concern for animal flourishing and welfare.
There’s room for everyone at this table, and no matter who you are, you can make a positive difference for God’s creatures, both on a personal and congregational level.
First, eat more plants. Reduce or eliminate your consumption of animal products, the production of which cause enormous suffering and waste. Here’s one of my favorite recipe websites to get you started.
Second, work within your church to help make sure there’s always a veggie offering at fellowship meals. If you’re not sure how to get started, or want help making an approach, contact us.
Third, talk to fellow church members and leaders about ensuring that if animal products are purchased, it is from farms or fisheries where we are confident animals are able to flourish in a good life as creatures of God.
And fourth, continue to consider, and urge others to consider, how our Christian faith should be put into practice in relation to other ways we treat our fellow animal creatures.
If you want to be creaturekind and want to help your organization, denomination, or congregation take steps towards being creaturekind as well, please get in touch with us. You can find us online and on Facebook and Twitter.