Animals and Healing

Canon Judy Hunt, a former veterinary surgeon, asks how much weight we give to the well-being of the rest of the created order as we pursue human happiness and health.

This article was first published in the Spring 2004 issue of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date

Judy Hunt is based in Chester as the Diocesan Director of Ministry and a Residentiary Canon at the Cathedral. She trained as a Veterinary Surgeon in Bristol, qualifying in 1980, and then taught and researched at the Royal Veterinary College in London and at Liverpool University. She specialised in equine medicine and surgery; her PhD involved research on equine gut and was done under a Home Office Licence allowing the use of live animals. Judy trained for ordination in Cambridge, being ordained as deacon in Chester during 1991 and, following her curacy, spent 8 years as a rural parish priest. She is a member of the General Synod and is also a member of the Cheshire Rural Ministry group and has spoken on ‘the human use of animals’. and in a debate on hunting.

© Guild of St Raphael

"Health" for Humanity or "Cure" for Creation?

In my years as a veterinary surgeon, I saw many examples of the positive effect animals can have on the well-being of people. There was one ‘experimental study’ carried out during a harsh winter with elderly people in Scotland. One group were each given a budgie, the other group were not. The incidence of hypothermia in the group with budgies was significantly lower than the control group. People were prepared to put the heating on for the budgies, if not for themselves!

More familiar, perhaps, to readers of Chrism will be the use of dogs for the deaf and the blind or an awareness of those who cherish the company of cat or dog—sometimes because of a lack of a warmth of human relationship. Less immediately familiar, but in our awareness because of press reports if nothing else, is the whole area of animals being used in medical and other research. In each case, a real service is done towards the well-being of a human being . . . but is that sufficient justification? For Christians, how much weight do we give to the well-being of the rest of the created order as we pursue human happiness and health?


In this article, I am going to use the word ‘well-being’ more than ‘healing’. Readers are likely to be aware that healing, wholeness, well-being and salvation are closely linked in Biblical thought and I want to follow that breadth of understanding.

The Christian Tradition

With a few exceptions, Christian theologians have followed the ‘culture of the day’; from Aquinas onwards the Church generally assumed that we have no responsibility to animals for themselves but only as they are regarded as being another’s property. Even during the early part of the 20th century, the Church went along with the view that cruelty to animals was not wrong per se but might be wrong if it led on to cruelty to human beings and if it was demeaning or degrading to the person concerned. Until the ‘Green Movement’ began to have some impact, virtually all of our regular Christian teaching, preaching and liturgy was profoundly anthropocentric: health for humanity (in its widest sense) but not cure for creation. Thus it was possible (although I would say it was an exaggeration!) in 1984 for Professor Stephen Clarke to write:

‘It is necessary for me to say something about the Christian attitude to the non-human: there isn’t one.’

The last two or three decades have seen some redressing of the balance but, for the mainstream Christian Churches, this has been more in terms of environmental issues than of animal welfare ones.

And in the Scriptures

Yet, if we examine our Scriptures, it is clear that the Church could have insights to offer and that these insights are authentic to our core beliefs, they are not merely peripheral optional additions. To be concerned for the whole of the created order is not simply to be jumping on a trendy bandwagon; to question the ways in which we use animals for our own benefit is a legitimate Christian responsibility. Genesis 3 portrays the way in which human sin pollutes three basic relationships: that between humanity and God, that between human beings and that between humanity and the rest of the created order. Any consideration of ‘Animals and Healing’ must not lose sight of the need to restore this third relationship. Throughout the Old Testament, we are reminded that the ‘earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (Psalm 24); the dominion or responsibility given to humanity does not equate with domination nor with outright ownership. The ‘life-blood’ of each animal belongs to God. New Testament writings suggest that Christ, as the bringer of God’s kingdom, will restore ‘all things in heaven and on earth’. ‘All things’ indicates a wider concern than the well-being of one species.

Can we allow ourselves to consider ‘cure’ for creation alongside or ahead of ‘health’ for humanity?

It is not necessarily easy for us to hear these views. When I was in the process of making my mind up to apply for a place in Veterinary Science at university, quite a few people expressed the opinion that, as a Christian, surely I should be applying to read Medicine instead. At least such an opinion acknowledged that God might be interested in bodies as well as souls—but apparently only in those of a human variety!

Reasons for holding back

There can be many reasons contributing to an unwillingness to put the well-being of animals alongside well-being for ourselves:

There can be a wariness of emotionalism; animal rights activists can tend to play on emotions and it is possible to react to this by denying emotion any place in our response. The Christian God, however, is a God of passion and compassion: the debate about the human use of animals needs to engage our intellect and our emotions if we are not to deny part of our God-given being.

We may also not want to hear because we want to protect our comfort or our lifestyle. Subconsciously or not, we may want to put our well-being above the well-being of other parts of God’s creation. For example, if we want to continue to eat meat at a price which doesn’t soar, it is hard to complain with integrity about current methods of transport and slaughter.

A further reason for selective deafness may be a concern for the physical or mental health of ourselves or those whom we know. Maybe I will need a replacement heart valve next year—would I turn it down if it came from a pig? Does my desire for continued life in this world count more than the stress caused to this experimental animal? Do I even want to think about such a question? Perhaps it’s easier to stick with ‘health for humanity’ and leave ‘cure for creation’ out of the picture, but I believe that would be to misunderstand our place within the created order.

Humanity and the Created Order

Are we ‘the crown of creation’?

Are we a ‘part of creation’?

Is the rest of the created order there primarily for our use?

Are we the servants of the rest of the created order?

Are we called to relate to the rest of creation in the same way as we believe God relates to us?

The way in which we answer these questions will determine our attitude to the way in which we link ‘Animals and Healing’.

The crown of creation?

If we regard ourselves as the ‘crown of creation’ and assume that the rest of the created order is there for our use, we will have few concerns about the use of animals as tools for medical research, as guide dogs. Some will find no reason to oppose hunting or the use of animals in experiments testing the safety of (yet more) oven cleaners. People with this view may be fond of quoting Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew 10 that ‘we are worth more than many sparrows’.

Part of creation?

If we regard ourselves instead as ‘part of creation’, more questions will arise. We will struggle more with our use of animals. Those with this view are likely to point out that the words of Jesus in Matthew 10 about human worth are preceded by these: ‘no sparrow will fall to the ground unperceived by my Father’.

Time off for guide dogs?

Considering the example of guide dogs, we may be content with the concept of one part of creation (the dog) giving such enhancement of life to another part (the blind or partially sighted person); but we may wish to question if the enhancement is too much in one direction. Could there be a more balanced relationship? My observations of some guide dogs, when their harnesses are removed and they know that they are ‘free’, is an ‘over the top’ reaction suggesting that they feel under great constraint when ‘working’. This leads me to wonder if their ‘time off’ is sufficient.

Servants of the rest of the created order

If we regard ourselves as the ‘servants of the rest of the created order’, in other words that our crown or dominion is one of servant stewardship, our questions will go further. Such stewardship will not deny a responsibility to our fellow human beings but it will not be content to have this as the sole focus. We have become more fully aware of this in environmental issues—but in these issues there is often a strong element of human self-interest. The sustainability of earth’s resources matters to the human race as much as to the other animal species. What, then, about those areas where it is hard to see a positive spin-off for our own kind? Let me offer you a thought-provoking quote from the writings of the German theologian, Karl Barth:

‘Man must not murder an animal. He can only kill it knowing that it does not belong to him, but to God. In killing it, he surrenders it to God in order to receive it back from him as something he needs or desires . . . a good hunter, an honourable butcher, a conscientious vivisector will differ from the bad in the fact that even as they are engaged in killing animals, they hear the groaning and travail of the creature (Romans 8), and therefore in comparison with all others who have to do with animals, they are summoned to an intensified, sharpened and deepened diffidence, reserve and carefulness. In this matter they are acting at the extreme limits where respect for life and callous disregard constantly jostle and may easily pass one into another. On these frontiers, animal protection, care and friendship are quite indispensable.’

I have experience of working with those who hunt, of working in abattoirs and of sharing facilities with others who (as for myself at that time) held Home Office licences for vivisection. In all three environments, I would have to say that, with a few notable exceptions, the experiences were generally negative in terms of an active concern for the well-being of the animals concerned. In some cases, there was disregard for the laws which should have ensured better care; in others cases the laws, in my opinion, are insufficient.

The well-being of human beings— whether in the pay packet of an abattoir worker (influenced by the number of carcases through the system), in the gaining of a PhD for research, in the pleasure of the hunting chase, in the development of a different flooring material to increase farming productivity, in the development of pioneering surgical techniques for medicine—any and all of these benefits to humankind regularly take precedence over the effect on the animals involved. Depending on our stance and on the actual use of animals, we have different words for this effect—inconvenience, stress, pain, terror.

Whichever words come to mind—the question remains the same: is this responsible and servant stewardship?

Relating to the rest of creation as God relates to us

The final option I suggest for our place in the created order is that we should relate to the rest of the created order as God relates to us. Professor Andrew Linzey has written along these lines. One of the concepts he develops is that of the ‘Generosity Paradigm’. He writes:

‘Drawing upon the notion of divine generosity exemplified in the person of Jesus, I suggest that the weak and defenceless (i.e. animals—my addition) should be given not equal but greater consideration. The weak should have moral priority.’

Linzey and another writer, D.J. Hall, both take the view that the human race has a special place in creation (not always acknowledged by animal rights activists!) but that this place is to reflect the image of God in terms of self-giving love, of service, of the sacrifice of self-interest, and that these attitudes are relevant to our dealings with the whole of the created order. Thus, Hall writes:

‘Does the theology of the cross have application for our way of being with the non-human creation as well? Are there, for instance, occasions when as human beings who are undergoing the ‘conformitas Christi’, we are called to put other species and their survival before our own? Can we be content with a social system that expects sacrifice only on the part of the non-human species?’

I believe that these are important questions for Christians to ponder and that the answers we come to must then affect our conduct.

Where to from here?

I hope that this article has provided material for prayerful reflection and discussion. I don’t expect that all readers will arrive at similar conclusions! Maybe, however, there are some areas where more of a consensus within the Church in this country can begin to grow and to be expressed—locally and nationally.

I have my own view of what these areas of general agreement could be:

Conclusion—Basic beliefs

I make these suggestions because of two basic beliefs I hold:

In this issue of Chrism on Animals and Healing, I hope that I have set the challenge of asking: ‘How do we integrate these two beliefs?’

© Guild of St Raphael