The Gift of Pets

Spiritual lessons God can teach us as we love and care for animals

I've always thought that one of the strongest proofs of God's existence is the love that can develop between humans and animals. It's something so seemingly superfluous and unnecessary. We don't need to love our animals to survive. They really don't need us either—many animals live in the wild just fine.

But there's something achingly sweet about seeing my long-haired black cat Tasa curl luxuriantly in the crook of my knee or feeling my cat Pudding at my shoulder as I read or watch TV. Then there's the mischievous Neptune, my red hunting dog, and what inevitably happens when I leave leftovers or treats in reach of his powerful nose.

Once I fruitlessly searched my huge bag for my gourmet muffin eventually deciding I must have left it in the car. I found out otherwise when I saw Neptune scampering away, his prize between his teeth. It's impossible to be angry with him. Instead, I laugh and think of my weight-loss goals: Better him than me!

What is it about our animals that enables us to love so unreservedly, so lavishly? What makes them so easy to forgive when we struggle to forgive family members or people in church? Why do 63 percent of us fill our homes with what primatologist Frans De Waal affectionately calls "furry carnivores?"

Learning to Love … From a Dog?

I took my musings to Leon Chartrand, visiting professor of theology, ecology, and ethics at Xavier University, who is also a wildlife biologist and former bear management officer for Yellowstone National Park; and to Christopher Savage, a monk at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, New York, known to many for his Animal Planet show Divine Canine.

As a wildlife officer, Chartrand was on the road at all hours, living out of his truck, driving many lonely miles responding to bear calls. His dog, Neala, a black lab, was his constant companion and still is today, even in the classroom.

"My students seem more relaxed and more open to discussion when she's there," Chartrand says, adding that Neala brings with her a loving, relaxing presence emblematic of the relationship between canine and human that stretches back millennia. Her trusting brown eyes and wet nose remind Chartrand's students of a beloved pet they left back home or perhaps of a time when life felt simpler. Neala also makes hospice visits with Chartrand where she brings comfort to those in the last stages of life.

Chartrand explains that dogs are acutely sensitive to our moods, responding to our emotions in a deep way; to our smiles, our anger, our depression. They even express jealousy when the object of their affection needs to be shared.

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May 25

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