Kicking off the holiday shopping season with "Red Thursday," stores are doing whatever it takes to draw in customers. But while shoppers have a choice about standing in long lines and facing ugly crowds, animals used in holiday promotions face a bleak Christmas season.
Santa belongs at the mall. Reindeer do not. Yet some stores have been contracting to have reindeer, who, unlike Dasher and Dancer, are not entirely domesticated and easily become stressed out when hauled around and put on public display, brought in for photo ops and petting zoos. Reindeer don't enjoy being petted or harnessed or forced to pull sleighs. These large, strong animals tend to be skittish and unpredictable--and nothing ruins a shopping trip faster than a runaway, frightened animal with antlers.
Today's crowded mall parking lots are no place for horses, either, yet horse-drawn carriages abound. The season for operators to earn money is short, so horses are provided with few breaks to rest or catch their breath. They can end up overworked, exhausted, hungry and thirsty. Many also suffer from leg pain from pounding hard asphalt all day long. And when tack rubs against a horse's skin for hours on end, it can cause sores and abrasions that may be difficult to see when covered by harnesses.
Horses are extremely sensitive to loud noises and unexpected sounds--like the blaring of a horn by someone trying to commandeer a parking space. Horses and people have been seriously hurt--some fatally--when horses have spooked and run amok or when impatient drivers have run into them.
And isn't forcing animals to participate in crÃƒ ¨ches and holiday shows the antithesis of the spirit of the season? Over the years, camels, sheep and donkeys used as props in holiday displays have been beaten, mauled, attacked by dogs and killed by cruel people. Others, frightened and confused, have broken away from the displays, only to be hit and killed by cars. The city of Charleston, S.C., decided not to use animals in a tree-lighting ceremony this year after a giraffe--a giraffe!--freaked out and broke free last year.
As ethical human beings, we must recognize that animals should not be used as props, no matter how altruistic the intention. And live Nativity displays using animals aren't even realistic. In Pope Benedict's biography of Jesus Christ, he points out that contrary to popular belief, there were no oxen, camels, donkeys or other animals of any kind in the manger.
No one in authority ensures that these animals are being provided with food, water and proper care. Understaffed and overburdened animal control departments don't have the resources to monitor these displays and enforce compliance with anti-cruelty laws. The exhibitors who provide the animals consider this their high season, so profits typically trump animal welfare.
Caring readers can extend the hand of compassion to all this holiday season by refusing to patronize reindeer photo ops, carriage rides and "living" Nativity scenes.
Jennifer O'Connor is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.