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Turtle races out at Cincinnati festivals

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Protests by animal rights activists have led to intervention by an archbishop to stop numerous Cincinnati Catholic churches from using turtles and rats in games of chance at spring and summer fundraising festivals.

Most of the parishes in the archdiocese decided to stop conducting turtle racing and “rat spinning” after Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk sent a second memo to parish priests this spring. The archbishop also issued a memo in January 2000 opposing the use of animals at church festivals.

“Last year, I observed that it was not appropriate to use live animals in gambling at our festivals and suggested that you give the matter some thought before finalizing arrangements for your next festival,” Pilarczyk wrote in a “Clergy Communications” memo dated March 2001. “At a time when we ask our parishioners to resist the power of the culture of death and encourage them to mirror the compassion of Jesus, it is counterproductive to elicit support for our churches and schools by inflicting terror and pain on animals.”

The memo quoted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals ... and it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”

Pilarczyk’s memo was lauded by animal rights activists, several of whom had picketed church festivals in recent years. However, some parish officials say they are not convinced the animal acts are cruel, and others balk at conceding to the wishes of animal rights activists who are pro-choice on the abortion issue.

One pastor who complied with the archbishop’s request said canceling the parish’s annual turtle derby resulted in a loss of about $4,500 in revenue.

Fr. James Shappelle, pastor for 17 years of St. Bernard Catholic Church in Winton Place, said his parish in the past conducted the derby, in which contestants place 50 cent bets on a favorite turtle, during Memorial Day weekend.

“At the beginning of the race the turtles all start off,” Shappelle said. “They’re given a little nudge, and the one who crosses the line first, that’s the winner.”

After 26 years of turtle derbies, the event this year was replaced by a mini-festival, said Shappelle. The mini-festival, he said, “wasn’t as much fun, and not as many people came because they missed the turtles.” Last year’s derby brought in $5,000, Shappelle said. This year, without the turtles, the take was $501, he said.

Shappelle said the church used to order about 25 turtles from a Wisconsin lab and release them in a local pond after the derby. “Instead of the turtle population being hindered, the turtle population grew, so putting them in that environment did not hurt them any,” he said.

Elizabeth Farians is the founder of Animals, People and the Earth, a small animal rights group in Cincinnati that has tried to stop animal acts at festivals. Farians, who holds a doctorate in theology from St. Mary’s-Notre Dame, was the person who got Pilarczyk’s ear. The archbishop declined a request for an interview. A diocesan spokesman said Pilarczyk’s statement “speaks for itself.”

Farians led pickets during some parish festivals. She called Pilarczyk’s response to her request “very remarkable,” but she also wished his edict had been stronger, perhaps calling for the abolition of the animal games.

“Contrary to what many people seem to think, it is not correct to hold that God gave humans total control of the animals for human use or that humans are the center of creation,” Farians said. “In the Genesis story, we are told that God created the animals and saw that they were good. The animals belong to God; they are not ours to use in anyway we wish. Humankind was given dominion. In the scriptural contest, dominion means a stewardship of loving care.”

Bruce Friedrich, head of the vegetarian campaign for the Norfolk, Va.-based animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also lauded Pilarczyk’s stance.

“I’m convinced that future generations will look back on the way Christians treated animals in the year 2001 with the same horror presently reserved for Christian complicity in past atrocities like slavery and the witch burnings, both of which were supported with Biblical justification,” said Friedrich, a Catholic who developed PETA’s “Jesus Was a Vegetarian” campaign. “I think it’s totally a form of exploitation. The animals can’t consent to being treated this way.”

While Farians joined the picket line, another activist, Jayn Meinhardt, tried a mail campaign to persuade parishes to stop animal games. Chairwoman of the Cincinnatti-based Animal Rights Community, Meinhardt is especially critical of “rat-spinning,” after witnessing the game at a festival at St. Bernadette Church in Amelia, Ohio. The parish has since discontinued animal acts.

The operator covers a white rat with a lid after placing it in the center of a colorful spinning wheel, Meinhardt said. After the wheel stops spinning, the dizzy rat is uncovered and scurries into a hole. Players bet on which hole the rat will enter.

In a May 2000 interview with The Cincinnati Post, Meinhardt said the game “is cruel and sends the wrong message to children.”

With address labels supplied by the Cincinnati archdiocese, Meinhardt sent information packets to all 235 parishes in the archdiocese, calling for abolishing rat-spinning. The packet included a copy of Pilarczyk’s first statement on the subject, released in January 2000:

“I have been approached by some persons who find the use of animals (e.g., turtles, gold fish and rats) in gambling at festivals to be offensive. I do not intend to make a major issue of this, but I want to share with you the opinion that these people are correct, I do not believe it is appropriate to misuse animals in that way. Please give the matter some thought before you finalize the arrangements for your next festival.”

Last year, the Cincinnati Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals monitored several animal acts at church festivals, prepared to shut down the acts and confiscate the equipment if the animals were being abused. While not approving of the animal acts, none were found to meet the criteria for cruelty said the society’s operations manager, Andy Mahlman. The society also appealed to the archdiocese to drop the animal acts from church festivals.

While exact numbers are not known, most parishes have now discontinued the animal acts, Farians said. However, the debate over use of animals at church festivals has also spurred a debate over the abortion issue. Both Farians and Meinhardt admit they have been asked about their views on abortion after making their animal rights pitch to Catholics.

Fr. Jan Schmidt, pastor of Cincinnati’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, sent a letter to Meinhardt inquiring about her views on abortion.

“I ask the question because I feel that while the animal rights groups fight vigorously for their constituency, most often their members are very disingenuous regarding the question of the sacredness of human life,” Schmidt wrote to Meinhardt in a letter dated April, 17, 2000. “I want to know if 100 percent of your membership is pro-life when it comes to human life. Is human life, from the moment of conception, sacred to you? ... Once your organization and its individual members come to see the more important issue of the sacredness of human life as paramount, then there will be credibility in your position on animals. I look forward to that day!”

Meinhardt, who is pro-choice, said she was shocked by Schmidt’s letter.

The idea that “ ‘until everybody who cares about animals is against abortion, I’m still going to torture animals’ was mindboggling,” Meinhardt said. “He does not require that everybody who attends his services be on his side on abortion. If he would put a sign out and say nobody can come in these doors if they’re not opposed to abortion, I’d understand his thought-process. The issues are totally separate, whether my personal feelings are for or against abortion.”

Sandy Dunphy, Immaculate Conception’s stewardship and development director, also tangled with Farians on the abortion issue.

“I said, ‘How can your agency be Animals, People and Earth and you don’t take a stand on abortion?’ “ Dunphy said she told Farians. “ ‘You care more about what I’m doing with a turtle than you do a fetus that is living.’ I said, ‘Well, our pastor has a real problem with that.’ “

After considering Pilarczyk’s statements, Immaculate Heart of Mary decided to discontinue the turtle races at its festival slated for July 20-22. Schmidt, who said he was in favor of stopping the turtle races, made his decision July 17 after calling the archdiocese to get clarification of Pilarczyk’s policy.

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001