As the children — a boy and a girl — released the doves, the birds flew back inside in the papal apartment, evoking a laugh from the 84-year-old pontiff, who grabbed one and sent it on its way again. It then returned a second time.
But releasing white doves into St. Peter’s Square on the last Sunday in January — to promote peace — hasn’t always been peaceful.
The tradition ended last year after a seagull and a big black crow dive-bombed the doves. The perpetrators grabbed a dove by the tail. Feathers ruffled. Children gasped. And the doves flew away, though their fate was never known. The incident prompted animal rights activists to call on Pope Francis to put an end the practice.
The National Animal Rights Protection Agency published an open letter saying releasing domesticated doves in Rome is akin to “condemning them to certain death,” since seagulls frequently congregate across the colonnade at St. Peter’s Square, the Associated Press reported.
“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,” the organization said.
The doves were replaced by balloons on Sunday. Alongside Pope Francis, children released pink, purple, white and green balloons, including a hot-air balloon filled with messages promoting peace. “Here’s the balloons that mean ‘peace,'” Pope Francis said. He is the first pope to take the name belonging to Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, according to news reports.
The Vatican did not mention last year’s dove debacle.
The 2014 incident wasn’t the first foul for these doves. Freed doves returned to Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. The doves did the same thing the next year. And in 2013, a seagull swooped down and snatched one of the birds.
Indeed, balloons may be a good alternative, but present their own problems. For years, marine life activists have warned that balloons can look like lunch to some underwater critters.
“Great job Pope, send more of our precious helium to heaven for eternity,” one Twitter user wrote on Sunday. “Also don’t worry about picking up burst balloons.”