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Sacrificers: It's religion, not abuse

ON NOV. 24 in Katmandu, Nepal, more than 200,000 animals were sacrificed as part of an ancient Hindu ritual celebrated just once every five years.

ON NOV. 24 in Katmandu, Nepal, more than 200,000 animals were sacrificed as part of an ancient Hindu ritual celebrated just once every five years.

Half a world away and two weeks prior, on Friday the 13th, in Northeast Philadelphia, five beheaded animals - a cat, three chickens and the skeletal remains of a dog - were found near an Olney bike path in what Pennsylvania SPCA officials said was the 11th case of animal sacrifice documented in the city this year.

PSCPA officials said that they often see more animal sacrifices in the city between November and December because it correlates with "high holidays" celebrated by various groups.

But serious practitioners of religions in the city that call for animal sacrifices, such as voodoo, Palo and Yoruba (known outside of the tradition as Santeria), say that they are not responsible for sacrificial remains found in public parks and cemeteries.

"We don't leave animals out," voodoo priest and Temple University art professor John Dowell said. "These people who leave stuff in the parks, I don't know what they're doing."

According to experts, like local anthropologist and folklorist Dr. Eoghan Ballard, and Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of anti-cruelty services for the American SPCA, sacrificial remains found in parks, especially those adorned with talismans like candles or pennies, are most often the work of religious novices, teens or satanic dabblers.

"The moment you start finding things which are elaborate I rule out many Afro-diasporic religions," Ballard said. "If they display it out in some way, that's usually somebody looking for attention or following a recipe book."

Ballard said that in Afro-diasporic religions a sacrificed animal becomes part of the liturgical meal, not a disturbing public display.

"It's sort of like the church dinner," he said. "If it's a legitimate tradition it follows a practice that's akin to methods used in kosher and halal."

Dowell, who is a priest, or hungan, at Le Peristyle, a voodoo church in Philadelphia's Fern Rock section, agreed.

"Most people sit down and eat chicken and beef," he said. "The animal is already dead and then you thank God. We pray over the animal first. It's kept, it's cleaned and then it's killed. It's done in a very respectful and humane way."

Animal sacrifice is a misunderstood practice in major metropolitan cities, where it's become more prevalent with increased immigrant populations and an increased interest in Afro-diasporic religions among the Anglo-American population, Ballard said.

"The main problem, more than anything, is that people assume a crime has taken place when in a different cultural context no one would assume that," he said. "We can't assume something sinister is going on when people practice alternate religions. There's more and more of them here so we need to deal with it."

He said that serious practitioners of Afro-diasporic religions are usually discreet about what they do with the remains of the sacrifice once the animal is consumed. The remains are usually thrown in a trash can, not displayed in a public park, he said.

"If a trash can tips over and a bunch of chicken bones spills out no one assumes they've sacrificed an animal - they assume they've been to KFC," he said.

Dowell, who has himself conducted sacrifices, said that Le Peristyle works with area farms to obtain their animals, and suggested that sacrificing an animal, which is typically done by slitting the throat, is a more humane practice then buying meat from a store.

"It's done in a very, very respectful way,." he said. "The goat is numbed first and then it's killed. The animal is not traumatized at all. When you buy meat a lot of those animals have been traumatized."

About 96 percent of the sacrifices done at Le Peristyle are in celebration of festive occasions, and after the sacrifice the animal is eaten, Dowell said.

The other 4 percent, he said, are done if someone is very sick.

"Unfortunately, we do have to sacrifice the animal to heal someone," he said. "In that case, something has to die for something to live."

The practice itself is not illegal, though Nicole Wilson, PSPCA humane society police officer, said that a "person's freedom of religion does not mean they have a free pass on animal cruelty issues."

She said that different laws apply to livestock and domestic animals. As long as livestock, such as goats and chickens, are stunned - usually by a blow to the head - before they are killed, then no law is broken.

"If they are consistent in the method of killing, that is, they are meeting the standard for food consumption purposes, then they don't even have to eat the animals," she said. Dogs and cats, however, are afforded specific protections under animal-cruelty legislation.The ASPCA's Lockwood said that even legitimate cases of sacrifice raise some concerns for animal-welfare advocates, including how the animal is treated, held and transported before the sacrifice and the effect that observing a sacrifice might have on children.

"What happens when children are exposed to a high-ranking authority or person of reverence participating in an act of cruelty?" he asked.

The religious novices, teens and satanic dabblers who leave behind horrific scenes - such as last year, when a beheaded rooster was found hanging from a tree in Greenmount Cemetery, with a bloody plate and knife nearby - are rarely caught.

If the sacrifices are traced back - which rarely happens - those who committed them are more likely to be charged with illegal disposal of carcasses, littering or zoning violations as opposed to animal cruelty, which is a harder charge to prove, Wilson said.

Ballard and Dowell want to dispel the myth that all animal sacrifices are disturbing and that organized, alternative religions are behind the bizarre animal-sacrifice displays found throughout the city.

"When somebody who is insane does something and they're Baptist, we don't associate their insanity with being Baptist," Ballard said. "But if they claim some other religion we immediately associate it with that.

"That really is a cultural double standard."