x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Celebrate your holidays but remember the animals

Isn't it time to think about how we practise our own traditions in a more humane way?

Americans gather together today with family and friends for one of their most important holidays: Thanksgiving. Throughout American history, it has been in times of great trouble when the holiday has meant the most. Even during the Civil War and Great Depression the country was able to pause and give thanks. But I can think of someone in the United States who never enjoys the fourth Thursday in November: the turkey.

But it's not just Americans on "Turkey Day" where a special occasion is based on feasting on a particular bird or animal. I knew it might ruffle some feathers, but this Eid al Adha I took inspiration from my cousin, a towering man with an intimidating physique, who has joined the forces of animal activists and vegetarians.

I copied on my Facebook page something he had posted: "Goats and sheep are beautiful animals. This Adha Eid, don't sacrifice these sweet animals, give the poor what's already on the shelves of the supermarket. There is enough food around, if not too much."

That is when I was bombarded with posts on the wall of my Facebook page and messages sent to my inbox. "How dare you question this?" one 'friend' said. Another wrote: "Why are you even thinking about this? Animal slaughter is an issue that makes everyone uncomfortable and better not to bring it up."

Others suggested solutions that others might appreciate next year when they make their preparations for Thanksgiving or Eid: "If every person had to do the slaughtering themselves of whatever animal they want to eat, then this could help reduce this cruel mass production of livestock where animals and poultry are bred just to be killed, and rarely killed in a humane way."

This friend told me how her husband does just that: he slaughters the livestock from their farm on top of the roof of their house for special occasions like her child's birthday. "This way, I am sure the meat we eat didn't suffer in captivity and in its death," my friend said from Saudi Arabia.

Animal-related rituals are important in many different faiths and some are controversial. For instance, in Judaism, there is the rite of Kapparot, where on the eve of Yom Kippur, against the better judgement of many Rabbis, a live chicken is swung over someone's head three times, symbolically transferring sins from the person to the chicken, which is then slaughtered and donated to the poor.

At least in these cases, the animals are consumed as food. But what of the tradition of bull fighting in Spain, Portugal and parts of Latin America? These traditions appear to go back to the pre-Roman era where bulls were worshiped and sacrificed. Like lions and tigers, bulls were used for sport and spectacles in the tradition of gladiators.

The Aztecs and other people native to the Americas also made sacrifices to appease spirits, to ask them for favours, or to follow certain traditions. But isn't it time to think about how we practise our own traditions in a more humane way?

I saw the most brutal side of animal sacrifice when I lived in Canada and worked as a volunteer at an animal shelter. During the week before Halloween, the director of one of the shelters would remind us not to allow anyone to adopt a black cat. While rare, apparently some people "sacrifice black cats" on Halloween. The director tried to explain this horrible ritual to me but I understood it well enough. I quickly remembered how a neighbour in Saudi Arabia tried to kill my friend's black cat.

Of course, that is far more extreme than eating certain meats as part of a traditional meal. And no, I am not trying to impose or advocate a vegetarian lifestyle for everyone. But as we celebrate our different holidays, we might pause, if just for a moment, to remember and appreciate where our meal came from.