What do penguins have to do with Christmas? The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing. Yet in an effort to attract shoppers by any means, one shopping centre in Doncaster is planning a "real-life penguin parade" at the end of the month as part of a season of "festive fun". We're hoping the managers of Lakeside Village will be sensible and reject this ill-conceived plan, much as the Intu Broadmarsh shopping centre in Nottingham did last Christmas after a public outcry and world-famous toy shop Hamleys did before that.
From penguin parades and reindeer photo ops at Christmas light switch-ons to horse-drawn carriages and "living Nativity scenes" in churchyards complete with sheep and donkeys, a number of different animal species are exploited in seasonal displays.
Children may love Rudolph, but reindeer don't belong this far south. These large, strong animals tend to be skittish and unpredictable - and they don't enjoy being harnessed and petted. Imagine how frightening and stressful it must be for wild animals to be standing next to a shoe store or a cookie kiosk and surrounded by noisy crowds.
Various health and welfare issues are raised by uprooting reindeer from their natural habitat and transporting them around the country in captive situations, many degrees south of their normal range. According to research at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, a poor diet, exposure to diseases from other animals and the stress of being taken from their natural environment have contributed to an increase in deaths in young reindeer who have been imported in increasingly large numbers from Scandinavia in order to make festival suppliers a quick quid at Christmas.
Horse-drawn carriages turn up everywhere during the holiday season, too. Since operators know their window of profitability is measured in weeks, horses can be worked night and day. Focused on making money, operators often ignore the horses' basic needs - including food, water and rest. Horses can become exhausted and ill. Since the harnesses and tackle stay on all day long, many may develop sores and abrasions not visible to the paying public.
All it takes is a car horn or a ringing bell for a horse to go from staid steed to spooked sprinter. Horses are extremely sensitive to loud noises and unexpected sounds. When frightened, they've sometimes run amok, seriously injuring both themselves and bystanders.
After getting bombarded by people who were appalled to learn that the city of Oxford was planning to reintroduce carriage rides a few years ago, the City Council did an about-face. Other cities should follow suit.
Living Nativity scenes are at odds with Christian doctrine and also historically inaccurate. In his biography of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI points out that contrary to myth, there were no oxen, camels, donkeys or other animals of any kind in the manger with Jesus. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has recently called on churches to be in the forefront of fostering respect and kindness towards humans and animals alike. Animals should not be forced to act as living props, no matter what the setting.
Children are naturally attracted to petting zoos, but parents should be quite wary of them. Throughout the UK (and elsewhere), petting zoo operators have had to shut their doors because of E coli. Infection can spread when visitors pet or feed animals or simply touch anything in the vicinity of an animal exhibit. The risks are very real. After petting sheep at a Lancashire petting zoo, 11 people, including four children who had to be hospitalised, became ill earlier this year.
The companies that rent out animals as if they were pieces of furniture care little about ethics or animals' well-being. Amazing Animals, for example, has been exposed for placing animals in harm's way by leasing them to television shows and fairs and for transferring four lion cubs to a Japanese circus, where their fate is surely a grim one.
Last year, mobile zoo company Tropical Inc was convicted of 34 offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and more than 70 animals were seized when the presiding judge called the conditions that the animals were living in "unspeakable".
People who care about animals can give them a gift this holiday season by refusing to take a carriage ride, to have their children's picture taken with captive animals or to engage in any other activities that exploit animals for entertainment purposes. Santa has a place in our Christmas pageantry. Penguins and other animals do not.