ROME (AP) -- Animal rights groups on Monday appealed to Pope Francis to end the practice of releasing doves from a Vatican window overlooking St. Peter's Square, a day after a pair of the peace symbols were attacked by a seagull and crow while a crowd including thousands of children watched below.
The National Animal Protection Agency published an open letter Monday reminding Francis that domesticated doves are easy prey for predators like gulls.
Gulls nest atop the colonnade of St. Peter's Square, near the Tiber River, and scavenge for garbage in Rome. The animal protection agency, known as ENPA, said freeing doves in Rome is like "condemning them to certain death."
"Animals born in captivity, not being wild animals, aren't able to recognize predators as such and are thus incapable of fleeing from possible dangerous situations," ENPA said, adding it was launching a signature petition to garner the pope's attention.
An umbrella group of animal rights advocates, the Italian Federation of Animal and Environment Rights Associations, carried a text of the letter on its website.
The two doves tossed into the air by two children flanking the pope at an open window of the Apostolic Palace Sunday didn't go far, landing at first on ledges of the building. In separate dives, first a seagull and then a large black grow swept down and grabbed a dove by the tail. Feathers fluttered over the square but the doves shook off their attackers. It wasn't clear what then happened to the birds.
The Vatican earlier Monday didn't reply to an AP query about whether it might abandon the practice.
Pope John Paul II began the dove releases as a symbol of peace. Since then, children from an Italian Catholic group have been invited to join popes at the window overlooking the square for the dove release, which takes place the last Sunday in January. Sunday wasn't the first time a dove was attacked by a seagull after a release.
Pro-animal advocate and ex-tourism minister Michela Brambilla told The AP she was confident that Francis, with his "extraordinary love" for all creatures, would reconsider. At his election last year, Francis became the first pontiff to choose the name of St. Francis of Assisi, famed for his love for birds and other creatures of the wild.
"It is clear that traditions of many years reach a moment where they have to be reconsidered," Brambilla said in a telephone interview.
In May, Francis was given a bird cage with two doves inside as he rode through the square in his open-topped popemobile during a public audience. Without hesitation, Francis opened the cage door, thrust a hand inside and extracted the doves. One sat for a while on his hand before it flew off, joining its cage mate.
ENPA's open letter to Francis noted that the pontiff is writing an encyclical, a formal church document, on ecology. "We know that the pontiff said he was sensitive to protecting the environment and the creatures that share it with us," the animal protection organization said.
The last time John Paul II tried to release a dove, on a chilly Jan. 30, 2005, he had to linger at the open window as the bird flew back inside.
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