An Interview with Christine Gutleben of The Humane Society of the United States
In Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, he tasks the entire world with a greater care and concern for creation. In recent years, one major area in which this call has been heeded on a practical level is the recent alliance between pro-lifers and pro-animal welfare activists. As someone who is convinced that Christians have a moral obligation to care for animals and oppose cruelty, I’m a proponent of the work of the Humane Society of the United States, which has a great history of promoting animal welfare, particularly among Christians. Christine Gutleben is the Senior Director of Faith Outreach for the Humane Society, and she recently spoke with me about both the history and the future of this noble cause.
Christopher White (CW): The Humane Society has a deeply entrenched historical relationship with Christian leaders. Can you give us some background on this?
Christine Gutleben (CG): The Humane Society of the United States has acknowledged the important role of faith in animal advocacy since it was founded 60 years ago. The first Chairman of the Board, Robert Chenoweth, said during his first annual presentation to the members of HSUS, “Our faith is that there is a God who created all things and put us here on earth to live together. Our creed is that love and compassion is due from the strong to the weak.” Since then, two previous Presidents of The HSUS were clergy and their leadership spanned 35 years, more than half of the organization’s existence. One of them, John Hoyt, was a Presbyterian minister and he described his work with The HSUS as a ministry that benefited both people and animals.
CW: Why, in your opinion, should people of faith—particularly Christians—care about animals?
CG: My primary goal at The HSUS is to encourage people to think about our dealings with animals in moral terms. Animal welfare is less about animals than it is about ourselves and our values. And Christian values are grounded in caring for the “least of these.” The Bible is clear that we are to extend God’s mercy to the vulnerable and this includes the animal kingdom.
CW: In the new volume Every Living Thing, which you edited, you document the teachings of various Christian traditions on animals. Is there a general consensus that has emerged on the issue of animal welfare in the United States?
CG: The consensus among every major religious tradition is that animals matter to God. He cares how we treat them and they have a value beyond their usefulness to us. They also agree that Dominion cannot be understood outside the context of stewardship.
As Pope Francis states in his Encyclical, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” The call to be merciful towards animals is unmistakable in the Christian traditions.
CW: At a time where there’s both partisan and ecumenical gridlock on so many issues, I’m thinking particularly of the fallout from the culture wars, do you see this as a bridge building area of work?
CG: Absolutely! No one likes animal cruelty. No one likes factory farming or puppy mills or animal fighting. These are solvable problems. The vast majority of Americans are willing to support reforms and marketplace alternatives. The only resistance comes from industries and business owners who benefit financially from animal abuse.
CW: What are some of the more innovative ways in which Christian communities are promoting animal welfare?
CG: Christian communities are hosting Fill the Bowl collections to provide food and resources for animal shelters and Food Banks. They are screening Eating Mercifully, a film about Christian perspectives on factory farming; creating safe havens for wildlife on church grounds; holding discussions on the legacy of Christian leaders who were founders of the modern animal welfare movement; providing free and low-cost pet care to under-served areas. And, Christian leaders are publically endorsing animal welfare policies.
CW: Pope Francis has spoken boldly on the need to care for all of creation, animals included. Are Catholics heeding his instruction?
CG: Certainly I’ve noticed new energy among Catholic lay leaders who care about animal welfare issues. Groups focused on the Encyclical and animals are growing on social media. And there are more articles on animal welfare from a Catholic perspective. We are optimistic that Catholic clergy members will be more engaged with animal welfare issues in the future. Specifically, we hope to see more involvement at the local level in animal welfare programs and public policy. And we hope to see a growing interest among Catholic Conferences and diocesan offices that address environmental issues.
CW: Are there any specific areas in which you’d like to see change?
CG: We are hoping for Catholic engagement and leadership on the issue of wildlife extinction. During Pope Francis’ recent landmark trip to Africa last November, he said that ivory trafficking fuels instability and terrorism and urged action on this issue:
“Illegal trade in diamonds and precious stones, rare metals or those of great strategic value, wood, biological material and animal products, such as ivory trafficking and the related killing of elephants, fuels political instability, organized crime and terrorism…. We cannot be silent about forms of illegal trafficking which arise in situations of poverty.”
Poachers are killing more than 30,000 elephants a year throughout Africa as demand for ivory continues to be unabated. Elephants are being killed faster than they are being born. At this rate, African elephant could be extinct from the wild over the next few decades. The circumstance for rhinos is even more dire. Wildlife crime is a big business run by dangerous international criminal networks. Some of these organizations are associated with terrorism.
There are several legislative efforts occurring throughout the United States that provide us the opportunity to respond to the Pope’s call to save these creatures while we still have a chance. Save Endangered Animals Oregon, a ballot initiative in the state, aims to prohibit the sale of products and parts from of imperiled wildlife. And several other states are considering bills to curb the sales of products and parts.
Bills to protect wildlife from poaching have recently passed in HI, NJ, NY, CA and WA. And, President Obama has announced a joint pledge with China’s President Xi to close the domestic ivory markets in both countries.
CW: What is your hope for the future of the alliance between Christians and animal welfare activists?
CG: Actually, many animal welfare activists are Christian. And those who aren’t understand the importance of working with Christians as allies in the fight against animal cruelty. I hope we continue to see more honest dialogue on animal welfare in the faith arena. It is the responsibility of Christians to frame the conversation about animal welfare in moral terms so that people understand the significance of their responsibility towards animals.