Church festivals, which fill every weekend in the summer with fun, food and God, are being targeted by animal rights groups for "exploitation of innocent and helpless sentient beings," according to fliers that were passed out at Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Anderson Township.
The "exploitation" decried by the fliers is the form of barbarism known as betting on turtle races.
For some, the very idea of a turtle race seems ludicrous. You can see it, can't you? The turtles have just left the starting block. The crowd goes wild.
"Myrtle, Myrtle!" they chant.
The turtles race toward the finish line. Then, as the fastest turtle wins the race, the crowd is hushed — not in awe, but because they have all fallen asleep waiting to collect on the bets they placed hours earlier.
What's absurd to one person is tragic to another, and so turtle racing has not only attracted protests; it has even moved an archbishop — a "successor to the Apostles," in Catholic parlance — to act against it.
Turtle racing has no place at a church festival, according to Elizabeth Farians, founder of the animal rights organization Animals, People and the Earth (APE).
"We stuck to the churches, because they teach compassion," she says.
But turtle racing is anything but compassionate, according to Farians.
"They don't hear (the turtles) screaming, but they're terrified," she says. "They are made to do an unnatural act."
This year Immaculate Heart of Mary Church discontinued turtle races at its festival, following protests by APE. The loss of the gambling proceeds cost the parish about $1,500 in revenue, but this year's festival still grossed $10,000 more than last year, according to Sandy Zibulka, who handles donor records for the church.
Veterinarian Paul Levitas, who often works with reptiles, tends to agree that racing is not good for turtles, although he has had no direct experience with the sport.
"It's not good for the turtle, whatever they are doing (to it)," Levitas says.
But even more than the conditions of the track and locker room, what concerns Levitas is what happens to the turtles when their racing careers have ended.
"I find it hard to believe that they take care of these things (afterwards)," he says.
Farians alleges the turtles are released into a pond, but admits she does not know which pond. Releasing the turtles into the wild could cause ecological damage, upsetting the natural balance of a pond, according to Jan Dierich of the Cincinnati Zoo. Placing animals in the wild is not something just anyone should do, he says.
"It would have to be done with great care by people who know what they are doing," Dierich says.
APE's objection is not only that the turtles are "terrorized," as Farians puts it; the group objects that the animals are used at all. The church's use of animals in festival booths is indefensible, she says.
"It's not biblical, it's not religious, it's not humane," Farians says. "It's wrong."
Farians rejects traditional notions of human superiority.
"Its been falsely interpreted that humans have domain of the animals and the earth," she says.
Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk doesn't go quite that far, but he does seem sympathetic with the animal rights protesters — or at least with the turtles. In a letter last March to all of the priests in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Pilarczyk discussed the festival season.
"I observed that it was not appropriate to use live animals in gambling at our festivals and suggested that you (the priests) give the matter some thought before finalizing arrangements for your next festival," the letter said.
Pilarczyk wrote it is "counterproductive to elicit support for our churches and schools by inflicting terror and pain on animals" and quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Animals are God's creatures, thus men owe them kindness."
After an entirely unscientific survey of some of Cincinnati's Catholic Churches, it would appear Pilarczyk's suggestion has been followed. Almost all of the churches contacted said that they did not or would not use live animals in their festival booths, giving turtles everywhere an opportunity to slow down and breathe easy. ©