Unleashing Christianity's compassion for animals. An engaging well-researched and easy-to-read review of all the issues related to how we interact with animals.
An engaging well-researched and easy-to-read review of all the issues related to how we interact with animals. It shows how easy it is to treat animals better and why we must do so for their benefit and for ours.
Laura Hobgood-Oster is professor of religion and environmental studies at Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas. She is the author of Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the History of the Christian Tradition (2008) and executive editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2005).
List of Illustrations
Preface: Writing a History of Animals in Christianity
Introduction: Even Dogs Deserve the Crumbs
Group discussion Guide
How to Help: Ideas for Individuals and Households
How to Help: Ideas for Communities and congregations
227 pp. Darton Longman and Todd Ltd. To purchase this book online, go to www.dltbooks.com
WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE: OUR ANIMAL COMPANIONS
For many of us, love for creation deepens through the
relationship we form with our pets, particularly our dogs.
By their very nature and need, dogs draw us out of our-
selves: they root us in nature, making us more conscious
of the mystery of God inherent in all things.
—The Monks of New Skete (1)
Jazz was scared to death. Who wouldn’t be? She and her two puppies had just weathered Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and now, several days later, they were in an animal control facility in Houston. The first time I saw her, Jazz was being wheeled on a cart in a crate with two little puppies underneath her, hunkered down, shaking. Of course, Jazz did not have a name at that point; her name came later, along with Gumbo and Chickory for the two six-week-old puppies. They came into my little rescue group, Georgetown Animal Outreach, with a number of other desperate dogs and cats from New Orleans: Mardi Gras, Rouge, Jax, Nola, Mississippi Queen, and so on (2).
Houston, Texas, about two hours east of where I live, was flooded with refugees from the hurricane, both human and animal. The pounds and shelters were overflowing with dogs and cats who were left homeless in New Orleans after the storm or had already landed in shelters before the storm hit. We, fortunately, were in a position to help; Georgetown, the small city north of Austin where I live and teach, had just built a new animal shelter. Most of the old one was still standing, and the city agreed that our small group of volunteers could use it to house Jazz, Chickory, Gumbo, and their companions. In two big vans, with lots of dog crates and cat carriers, our little crew headed to Houston to help with the influx of animals.
All the dogs I encounter while volunteering in dog rescue are special, but from the moment our eyes met, I knew that Jazz was going to be one of those who stole my heart completely. She was a petite dog, a black-and-white basenji terrier-looking girl. Still nursing her two puppies, Jazz was worn-out, with a rough coat and tired eyes. I suspect she was a homeless dog in New Orleans; at her first trip to the veterinarian, we found out she had heartworms, hookworms, and whipworms. She needed some time to heal.
Two months later, after her puppies had already been adopted and she had been vaccinated and spayed, we were still treating Jazz for her various ailments. But it was time to move her into a foster home and out of the old shelter that we were shutting down. I loaded her up into my car and headed for the foster home with one of my responsible and caring college students. Ten minutes after transferring Jazz to her foster’s car, my cell phone rang, connecting me to a frantic voice on the other end telling me that Jazz had bolted terrified from the car and was running loose and scared on campus. By the time I got there, a group of students had corralled her into the tennis courts, so at least she was safe from the busy streets. But they could not get her to come close to them. She was practiced in the skills of darting away from humans (Jazz had probably escaped the dog catchers in New Orleans for years). I walked through the gate and called her name. She bolted toward me and jumped into my arms, then buried her face under my neck with a sigh of relief as if to say, “Thank You, I thought I was alone again, but you came back.”(3)
Well, not just any home would do for Jazz. We are always as careful as possible placing dogs in permanent homes, but I was determined that Jazz would go to someone who would keep me posted on her for the rest of her life, someone I trusted completely. A childhood friend of mine, who is now a minister in Michigan, eventually adopted Jazz and gave her a loving home. Jazz goes to church with Linda or Chris (he is a minister as well, at another church) and sleeps on the sofa or curled up in bed by them. Jazz has a birthday party every year, and Linda always keeps me up-to-date on how Jazz is doing. I even get to see her occasionally. Jazz is a blessing in their lives, as much as she continues to be one in mine.
As we start our investigation into animals and Christianity, pondering animals as companions seems like a good place to start. These are our most personal and direct relationships, where we live with and care about real, living creatures on an individual basis. Contemplating their lives and their history in Christianity provides a firm foundation for thinking about all animals differently.
Consider this quotation from Tobit, a book in the Apocrypha: “The young man went out and the angel went with him; and the dog came out with him and went along with them” (6:1-2). In this quotation, the Scripture writer conveys that it is just assumed that the dog will be there, go along with the man and the angel, Tobias and Raphael. In much of the religious artwork depicting these characters from the book of Tobit, the dog is portrayed playing at their feet, helping them to catch fish, or watching the angel fly back to heaven (4).
Just as Tobias in the book of Tobit went out with his dog on an important journey, so too do we navigate our world with companion animals in our midst. Even if one does not live with a cat on their sofa or a dog begging under the table or a hamster spinning on a wheel, companion animals are central to the lives of increasing numbers of humans globally and, to a certain extent and in varying ways, have been for millennia.
This chapter cannot begin to address companion animals as a whole, which is actually a huge category. Think about it. We humans are in relationship with microscopic species, with beetles, spiders, bees and ants, and countless other living beings. There are many of these without whom we simply would not be here. While it would be worthwhile to write about these vital and life-sustaining connections (as a matter of fact, I think it is urgent to consider these smallest of beings in the context of Christianity), there is not enough space here to address these complicated interactions that sustain our lives in countless ways. Still, I hope that considering those most noticeable, the ones we sometimes call our pets, will shed light on all of our connections, including those with the tiniest of animals.
Why Animal Companions Matter
Amy and Karma inspire me whenever I see them. They focus on each other, work for each other, take care of each other, and go just about everywhere together. When I met Amy she was a first-year student at the college where I teach, and Karma had not yet entered her life. Amy was born with cerebral palsy and needed to use a wheelchair to maneuver the campus. An eager, bright student, Amy chose to be a religion major, which made me quite glad.
As is the case for many dogs, Karma, a beautiful yellow Labrador retriever, had a tough start followed by a really rough patch. She obviously had not been in the best of homes, so Karma ended up in a municipal animal shelter and was heartworm positive (sound familiar?), which is often, as mentioned above, a death sentence for dogs who end up in shelters. But Texas Hearing and Service Dogs (THSD), an organization that pulls dogs from shelters if they have the right “drive” to be a service dog, tested Karma, took her from the shelter, and, in dog rescue lingo, “saved” her (language that is a bit presumptuous on our part, but those of us who do dog rescue use that term all the time). THSD treated her heartworms; gave her a caring, loving foster home; and got her back into good health, all the while working with her to craft the skills she would need to be a helping dog. Karma was on the road to a whole new life.
Fortunately, as fate would have it, a volunteer with THSD knew both Amy and Karma and quickly decided they would be a perfect match. And they were. Both gave each other new freedom, new opportunities, new possibilities, and a whole new way of being. Karma works hard picking things up off the floor for Amy, opening doors if needed, and doing any number of other tasks that are difficult for Amy with her disability. But there is also an intangible something they do for each other. I’m not sure that words can capture their connection. But Karma looks at Amy with a kind of adoration that speaks more loudly than any words ever could. Amy and Karma’s human-dog partnership is amazing and inspiring to witness (5).
As you have now more than realized, I have a deep fondness for dogs; and in that vein, for almost ten years I have team taught a course to introduce first-year undergraduate students to critical thinking and writing skills called “Going to the Dogs”. An outstanding colleague in kinesiology, Dr. Jimmy Smith, and I spend nine weeks introducing new college students to various ideas about the history of dogs; their physiology, culture, and impact on humans; and, finally, the state of dogs in the twenty-first century. While these students have often been around dogs for most of their lives, few have ever really thought deliberately or specifically about them before. Most are amazed to learn how long we humans have made dogs a part of our lives. According to even the most conservative estimates, humans and dogs have lived together for at least fifteen to twenty thousand years. Some researchers believe this relationship has existed even longer—for fifty or even one hundred thousand years (6). Whatever the length of time, however, after reading and studying and observing, I am certain: humans would not be who we are without dogs and dogs would not be who they are without humans. Together we are truly companion species.
But what does this human-dog relationship have to do with the history of Christianity? Indeed, what do our relationships with companion animals in general have to do with this religious tradition? As we will see later, an investigation into the history and theology of Christianity reveals overwhelming praise for companion species and companion animals. But first a definition is in order. What are “companion animals” anyway? How did dogs become dogs? How did cats become cats? After one learns this amazing history, the stories of deep connections between humans and pets make more sense. Scenes of people refusing to leave their pets behind even in the midst of a tragic flood and hurricane become even more understandable.
A Brief History of Humans and Our Pets
In her intriguing work The Companion Species Manifesto, Donna Haraway, a biologist and philosopher of science and technology, offers a helpful insight that is focused on dogs but can be expanded to most companion animals: “There cannot be just one companion species; there have to be at least two to make one. It is in the syntax; it is in the flesh. Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships – co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners pre-exist the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all” (7). In other words, humans are in ongoing relationships with other species, and those relationships shape both us and them. In the case of certain animal species, the ones that I will be addressing here, humans are being formed by this constant companionship. Which animals comprise these positions of “companion” might change throughout history or from one geographic area to another. So, for example, camels are companion species in some dry, desert climates, while Siberian huskies are companion species in arctic climates. But humans have lived with domesticated animals as companion species for thousands of years, though just a very few of these animals ended up as pets. The process of actually merging other animals into human life to create what we call domesticated animals is a long and slow one (8). What does domestication entail?
Through an obviously complex process, as certain animals who live in a close relationship with humans adapt to this new ecological niche, they undergo changes in diet, behavior, physical composition, and reproductive processes that differentiate them from their counterparts in the wild (9). While it has sometimes been assumed that this process resulted from human intention, in other words, that a human saw a wild boar and decided to create a pig, recent theories suggest that the various processes at different times and places over the last twenty millennia were much more organic. The transformation from the wolf (canis lupus) to the dog (canis familiaris) is the most striking tale.
According to physiologist and geographer Jared Diamond, there are six requisite criteria for animal species to become domesticated: flexible diet, fast maturity rate, ability to breed in captivity, nonaggressive disposition, tolerance of threat (so they do not run away from humans), and “follow the leader dominance hierarchies” (so humans can be the “pack leader”) (10). With this general rubric in mind, one can picture the process of moving from “wild” to “domesticated” for any number of species. Dogs were likely the
first domesticated animal, living, as I mentioned earlier, with humans since at least 15,000 years ago. Dogs actually probably assisted in the domestication process of the later animals, by helping to gather the wild predecessors of the sheep and goats, for example.
Pets, and certainly dogs, are a small category compared to the myriad domesticated animals who have impacted human life over the millennia and into the twenty-first century. And the line between working companion animal and pet has been somewhat blurry. But in general pets are not required to work or function in a way that is economically beneficial, though they might still be emotionally beneficial and might still perform certain helpful tasks such as alerting humans to an imminent danger. Just as other domesticated animals vary from place to place and from time to time, so do the animals who become “pets.”
While it is likely that humans have informally kept certain selected animals as pets in some manner for thousands of years, most of the earliest evidence of petkeeping is connected to the wealthy and to nobility. This makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, it is very hard to find any evidence of economically disadvantaged classes having pets, because we have very few records about the everyday lives of the masses of people in history. Second, in order to have pets, humans need to have sufficient resources to feed an excess animal—one who is not working or providing food. But we do know that the wealthy did have pets, even in the far distant past. For example, the Pekingese dog was originally bred in China over two thousand years ago, and ownership was restricted to royalty. Stories of their origin are steeped in Chinese Buddhist legend. Historically, it seems that these dogs were servants at the imperial court and would even carry the robes of the royalty in the palace(11). The Maltese, a small dog from the Mediterranean though possibly with Asian roots, is another breed with connections to ancient petkeeping. Images of this dog appear on Egyptian and Greek art that is well over two thousand years old. Eventually the Maltese dog traveled to the courts of England and became a favorite of British royalty, including Queen Elizabeth I.
Dogs are the most high-profile pets in many cultures around the world. Their long and complicated connection to humans is probably the reason why this companion animal occupies the courts of the wealthy, appears in the legends of holy people, and fills the hearts of countless ordinary humans. As humans started to establish permanent (or at least semi-permanent) settlements, we created trash piles. Wolves had probably hunted alongside us for generations by that point. Some of those wolves, the ones least likely to be alpha and least likely to flee from humans, began to eat from these trash piles. Over the course of a relatively short period of time, they morphed slightly, then they morphed a little more. Hormonal changes eventually led to characteristics that distinguish the domesticated animals we know today: floppy ears, piebald (white with spots of some color) coats, shortened muzzles, curly tails, and condensed reproductive cycles. Dogs became dogs just as humans became modern humans, and we did so together. Over the course of the next fourteen millennia, humans became directly involved in selecting dogs for particular abilities along with the accompanying physical traits. Thousands of years after the wolf ate from the human trash heap and started on the path to becoming a dog, human intervention led to amazing diversity; dogs are now the most varied species in the world in terms of size.
As we shaped them, they shaped our culture, and the two species emerged together from being hunters and gatherers to being farmers and shepherds. Dogs helped to transport us into arctic climates and hunted us through snowy winters. They gathered sheep from rocky landscapes and killed rats in our expanding, crowded cities. Eventually they became pets for increasing numbers of people, across all socioeconomic classes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and America, as other technologies replaced much of the work of dogs, they became status symbols and filled the households of the growing middle class(12). By 2006 there were over seventy-two million pet dogs in the United States alone.
While cats are a more problematic species when considering the traits of domestication (probably not a surprise for many humans who live with felines), they likely followed the same general path as dogs in adapting to human society, eating from our waste piles and being welcomed as agents of pest control. At the earliest points of interaction with humans, cats were likely “commensal domesticates”, animals who lived close to humans but were not necessarily domesticated. We see them too throughout ancient history. Remains of cats were buried with humans on Cyprus, an island to which they are not indigenous, at least nine thousand years ago (13). Perhaps they came on boats as stowaways. Or perhaps people deliberately imported them.
In ancient Egypt numerous images of the cat-headed goddess Bastes provide evidence of her widespread veneration, thus it is likely that cats were already wandering the streets of Egypt as useful human companions. Cats, it seems, were extremely popular and important members of Egyptian society and were even given elaborate burials at the time of their deaths. As Annemarie Schimmel, a professor of Islam, wisely remarked, “who else would have been able to kill, or at least to scare away, the mice that threatened the greatest wealth of ancient Egypt, the grain stored in the granaries? ” (14) Why is Egypt so important in the history of cats? Domesticated cats throughout the world, including eventually all the continents, descended from the domesticated cats of North Africa (15).
The kind of devotion to cats seen in Egypt spread throughout the Mediterranean world. By the time Islam spread out of Arabia in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E., stories of cats and the prophet Muhammad were gaining popularity. According to folk stories, “the Prophet Muhammad cut off his coat sleeve because he had to get up for prayer and was loath to disturb his cat Muizza,” and when a cat “gave birth to her kittens on the prophet’s coat … he took care of the offspring” (16). Unlike dogs, who are usually considered to be unclean in Muslim cultures, cats are welcome and considered clean.
In the European Middle Ages the story was quite different for cats, however. Pope Gregory IX (1145-1241) associated cats with a sect in southern France that the church deemed evil (17). In the papal bull Vox in Rama, Gregory X describes what he calls one of their heretical, even evil, rituals:
At this time a black cat (gattus niger), the size of a small dog, with an upright tail descends backwards down a status which is usually at the meeting. The postulant first kisses the cat’s rear … Then, each member takes his place and after singing some songs, they face the cat in turn. The master says, “Save us” to the cat, and the one next to him states this. Then those present respond three times and say, “We know the master,” and four times they say, “and we ought to obey you.” (18)
This is the first documented evidence of the cat being demonized, and sadly black cats in particular. Pope Gregory IX’s pronouncement began a series of mass slaughters of cats throughout Europe, sometimes designated the Great Cat Massacre. And by the fifteenth century the population of cats in Europe was severely depleted.
Eventually black cats and black dogs were also connected with people, most often women, condemned of witchcraft (19). In the early fourteenth century in Ireland, for example, Alice Kyteler was charged with having a “familiar” who would “appear to her nightly in various forms including a cat and a shaggy black dog ” (20). Condemned to be burned alive, Alice luckily escaped. Stories such as this one abound. Together, numerous women and their pets were executed. Even religious artworks from the European Middle Ages depicted cats as the lurking evil (21).
However, when the Black (bubonic) Plague began to hit Europe with a vengeance in the middle of the fourteenth century (1348-1350), the value of cats might have been rediscovered. Historians of medicine suggest that the elimination of cats was one cause that helped to strengthen the epidemic as the plague spread rapidly. Later, the reintroduction of cats might have assisted in ending this recurring disease (22). People in rural areas had kept cats to protect their grain stores from rodents, so these rural cats repopulated much of Europe. Eventually, though cats were both maligned and beloved, they did survive in Europe, moved to the Americas, and became pets. In the early twenty-first century there are over eighty-two million cats in human homes in the United States and many more living in feral colonies (21). They still serve the purpose of controlling rodent populations throughout the world.
In addition to cats and dogs, a variety of birds have also been kept as pets for centuries. Pigeons and some falcons were kept both as pets and as workers, particularly as carriers of communication in times of war. Some historians suggest that Alexander the Great introduced parrots as pets to the ancient Mediterranean world after observing birds being kept as pets in India; other historians cite evidence of birds in Egyptian hieroglyphics as even earlier signs that point to birds kept in captivity as companions. One definite piece of evidence comes from the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE – 18 CE), who wrote of the death of his mistress’ pet parrot (24). Parrots in captivity can live for decades, some for more than forty years. Might the bird (maybe a dove or a pigeon) whom Noah released from the ark to find land be a precursor to these birds?
These short histories of the dog, the cat, and the bird convey a sense of the long, complex relationship humans have with companion animals who are “pets.” It is a complicated category, and some animals move in and out of it, poised between the wild and the domesticated, the worker and the pet. Take horses as an example. They still work pulling carriages or entertain as racing thoroughbreds, but they are also beloved pets, therapy animals, and lifelong companions. Reptiles, numerous fish, pigs, ferrets, guinea pigs, and rabbits also find themselves as pets, and the list goes on and on. With just a few prime examples in the forefront—cats, dogs, birds—but with all of these pets in mind, let us turn to the biblical texts and to other sources in the tradition to determine what we can learn about pets from the history of Christianity.
Where Are Pets in the History of Christianity?
And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered
with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell
from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and
lick his sores.
After reading this excerpt from Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus, one has to ask: Are pets mentioned in the Bible? Well, the answer depends on how one defines “pet.” Absolutely, a number of animals that we categorize as pets are mentioned in various biblical texts. For example, recall the dog who was a companion to Tobias and the angel Raphael in the apocryphal book of Tobit. In other passages, such as several mentioned later from Genesis, camels come to wells with people for water. Donkeys see angels and speak. And, as you may recall, in addition to the dogs who attended to Lazarus in the passage from Luke, dogs also attend to Job. And in Genesis, two (or even seven) animals of every kind, presumably pets included, board the ark with Noah. Yet, as we discussed above, pets are a relatively recent phenomenon for most people. It would be a misreading of history to assume that people in the Mediterranean world two thousand years ago understood these animals the same way. Or, then again, would it? Was there a sense of animals as “pets” in the ancient Mediterranean world and in the cultures that produced the Jewish and Christian Scriptures? I admit, evidence is scarce. However, in some of the stories, as a general attitude of care for the animals is made clearly apparent, it does appear that the idea of companion animals as pets was present.
As a prime example, consider the story found in 2 Samuel 12 in which the prophet Nathan is addressing King David:
“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (12:1-6)
In telling this story, Nathan was drawing a parallel between the lamb and Bathsheba, a woman whom King David had taken from her husband. This raises a complicated issue in and of itself, since it suggests that Bathsheba, the woman, is like a pet. But it makes this much clear: connecting to a beloved animal as a member of the household was not a foreign concept in this time. David understood this kind of connection, since he became angry, even to the point of saying the man should die because he killed the pet lamb. And Nathan obviously found it natural to describe a situation where a lamb was living inside the house, drinking from the human’s cup and being cared for “like a daughter.” All of which attests to the idea of petkeeping being well-known in the biblical world.
In addition to the mention of dogs and the poor man’s lamb in the biblical texts, stories of companion animals abound in the hagiographies of saints. As mentioned in the preface, these potent, beloved figures in the history of Christianity have influenced the lives of countless Christians who sought to model their own behavior on that of these martyrs, anchorites, virgins, and hermits. And, according to their well-known legends, many of these holy men and women lived with companion animals. Some of these companion animals are different creatures than those commonly categorized as pets in contemporary cultures, but it is obvious from the stories that their relationships were similarly direct, caring, and personal.
Many of the earliest stories of saints and animals come from the Celtic Christian areas of Europe—Western France, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Saint Kentigern, the patron saint of Glasgow, was raised by the holy hermit, Servan, in northern Scotland. Servan loved animals, and one of his dear companions was a robin who “would eat from [his] hand and was wont to perch on his shoulder.” Servan told Kentigern and the other boys in his care about the traditional legend of the robin: that this bird bears the stain of sacred blood on its chest because it tried to stop the blood flow from the wound on Jesus’ side while he hung on the cross. One day Servan’s robin friend was injured (though the legends do not agree on how it happened) and, sadly, the bird died. Kentigern found the robin with his “little head hanging limp, the bright eyes closed, the pretty red breast all dusty and bedraggled.” He held the bird in his hand and, making the sign of the cross over the bird, prayed that God might restore life to this small creature. Soon “the small wings quivered and the eyes opened” (25). This tiny companion animal, a beloved pet for the holy hermit, was worthy of the healing power of God.
Numerous other Celtic Christian saints counted animals among their most beloved companions. Saint Kieran, one of the group of early Irish monastic saints known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, chose to live a solitary life in order to focus on prayer. As was the case with many saints who lived in the wilderness, animals gathered around them, and as the legends tell, “his principal attendant was a boar” (26) Even the most famous Irish saint, Saint Patrick, had beloved companions. As his hagiographies tell, “every dog reminded him of those dear faithful companions who, during the six years of his slavery, had helped him to guard his master’s flocks” (27). Stories of Saint Brigit, one of the patron saints of Ireland, are filled with accounts of animals. Several of these are recounted later in the book and, as you shall see, her love of animals was central to these well-known tales told throughout Celtic Christian communities (28). Important stories of companion animals are also found in the hagiographies of southern European saints. In his paintings and iconography, Saint Roch, who lived from 1295 to 1327 in France and Italy, looks like a humble man with his iconic walking stick in hand. He is often easy to identify as Roch, since in his imagery he is usually accompanied by his faithful companion—a dog with a loaf of bread in his mouth. As his legend goes, Roch was born into a wealthy family in southern France late in the thirteenth century. But he had always been a particularly devout person, and he decided to give away everything he owned to become a wandering pilgrim. On his way to Rome, Roch came upon village after village struck by the plague. He worked tirelessly tending to the sick until he finally fell ill with the plague himself. In order not to infect others, the saint headed into the forest and isolation. Miraculously he survived because a dog brought him bread each day and licked his sores to heal them. In the most popular legends of Saint Roch, the two stay together for the remainder of their lives as fellow travelers and, eventually, prisoners together in a jail in northern Italy. They died there, imprisoned with each other. Statues of the saint with his dog companion adorn numerous sanctuaries throughout Europe. Roch is remembered not only as a healer but as a patron saint for dogs. Each year in Bolivia, for example, Saint Roch’s feast day (August 16) is counted as the birthday or day of blessing for all dog companions.
Saint Martin de Porres hails from a slightly later period and another continent. He was born in 1579 in Peru to a Spanish father and a freed slave mother from Panama. As a mulatto growing up in the extremely hierarchical culture of sixteenth-century Lima, the “illegitimate” Martin did not have an easy life. By the time he was sixteen, he became a lay worker at the Convento del Santo Rosario, a Dominican (29). From this point in his life, we begin to hear stories of Martin’s compassion for animals. According to Fray Fernando Aragones, a contemporary of Martin’s who recorded the saint’s deeds, he would distribute food to the poor each day, but before doing so would “give a blessing saying, ‘May God increase it through his infinite mercy.'” And, according to Aragones, it seems that that is what happened, “God increased the food through St. Martin’s hand, for all ate … and all were contented, even the dogs and the cats” (30). Saint Martin also established an animal shelter at his sister’s home. There he kept the once stray and sometimes abused dogs and cats that he encountered in Lima (31).
One of the most popular stories about Saint Martin, however, was recounted by another Dominican brother who one day observed him in the kitchen of the monastery:
At the feet of St. Martin were a dog and a cat eating peacefully from the same bowl of soup. The friar was about to call the rest of the monks in to witness this marvelous sight when a mouse stuck his head out from a little hole in the wall. St. Martin without hesitation addressed the mouse as if he were an old friend. “Don’t be afraid, little one. If You’re hungry come and eat with the others.” The little mouse hesitated but then scampered to the bowl of soup. The friar could not speak. At the feet of the servant St. Martin, a dog, a cat, and a mouse were eating from the same bowl of soup (32).
For obvious reasons, Saint Martin eventually, and quite fittingly, became known as the “Saint Francis of the Americas.” In his iconography he is pictured standing in an open doorway, a broom in his hand, cats, dogs, and mice gathered peacefully at his feet.
There are numerous other stories of saints and their companion animals. Saint Jerome had a close relationship with a lion; I will tell more about that story in chapter 4. Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, a seventh-century abbess from Belgium, is usually pictured with mice at her feet and is the patron saint of cats. Saint Hilda, an important figure in the history of Christianity in England, befriended snakes and is one of the few figures in Christian history who actually liked these often demonized animals. Saint Agatha is sometimes known as Santo Gato or Saint Cat (33). And there are many, many more. Thus, both in a few biblical texts and in these hagiographies, the Christian tradition holds strong images and stories of animals as beloved companions. However, in the official doctrines of the church, as evidenced by the papal bull condemning cats, animal companions, sadly, have not usually fared as well.
There is, however, at least one other major figure in Christian history who found inspiration in his dog: Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation and founder of one of the largest Protestant denominations today. Luther’s “puppy” Tolpel is mentioned several times in Table Talk, the collection of conversations recorded by various guests who dined with Luther. One evening when Tolpel was begging at the table, Luther said with admiration, “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish or hope” (34). At another point when Luther was playing with his Tolpel, he commented that the “dog is a very faithful animal and is held in his esteem if he isn’t too ordinary” (35)” In early sixteenth-century Germany it seems there were pets, and dogs were begging for the crumbs under
In the last several decades, the importance of companion animals to humans has only grown. It is my hope that stories of some of these saints and their animal friends, as well as these biblical texts, might also assume greater prominence in the tradition’s teachings today.
Companion Animals and God
Faith is never so complete that it is not accompanied by
self-defensiveness. But this is its requirement: that all
beings, not only our friends but also our enemies, not
only man but also animals and the inanimate, be met with
reverence, for all are friends in the friendship of the one to
whom we are reconciled in faith.
—H. Richard Niebuhr (36)
In addition to the stories and biblical texts, we should also consider Christianity’s theological foundations. I want to consider a more expansive theological sense of relationship and companionship than has usually been the norm in Christian theology. Based on the stories told above, we can conclude that other animals have been included in circles of care and friendship throughout the history of Christianity. Theology needs to make room for these animals as well. Several theologians and philosophers help lay the foundation for this expanded notion of companionship.
The twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who influenced numerous Christian theologians, wrote a now-classic text titled I and Thou. In this piece Buber presented this idea about the nature of God: “In the beginning is relationship.” To Buber, companionship is inherent in God (37). I know this might sound like an odd or an obvious statement, but evidence in the history, practices, texts, and theological traditions of Christianity reveals this: God likes company. In the quotation that opens this section, H. Richard Niebuhr, one of the most prominent twentieth-century Christian theologians and ethicists, argues that God is in a relationship of friendship with all animals as well as humans and inanimate objects. According to Niebuhr, with God “all are friends.”
A wonderful example of this expanded notion of companionship is evident in the lifestyle developed by the Monks and Nuns of New Skete. They make up a vibrant monastic community in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. One of the unique things about this group is that for over thirty years they have lived and worked intentionally with dogs, very much emphasizing the sacred aspect of relationships with dogs and seeing it as central to their spiritual life. They introduce one of their books, I & Dog (a very deliberate reflection on Martin Buber’s book quoted above), with this statement:
(Martin] Buber’s central intuition is that how we are in relationship with everything in our lives affects our experience of the sacred, and that we realize this effect in the very act of relationship, if only we are open. We humans can and do form mutually inspiring and beneficial relationships with our dog companions, and this experience colors every aspect of our life … The tradition in which we stand believes that we already exist in a profound communion with all that is … Our dog friends, like life itself, are trying to get our attention. Maybe our canine connection is the missing link, a crucial invitation to respond to this great call to a richer, more abundant banquet of life that is already prepared and waiting (38).
In other words, the Monks and Nuns of New Skete believe that companion animals invite us to extend outside of ourselves, to come into relationship with the world, with all of God’s creation.
Think of the whole story of Genesis in broad strokes. God creates and then continues to nurture the earth and all of the animals who live on it, all, it seems, with the idea of companionship in mind. With each step, God declares “it is good.” In Genesis 2, God seeks to find an appropriate partner for the “human” (usually translated as Adam). As you may recall, that quest proves to be a long process and involves lots of animals. One could argue that the end of the process suggests that only another human is an appropriate partner; and that is so—at least, it seems, for purposes of reproduction. But in the meantime, Adam gives names to and gets to know numerous other animals who lived within the garden. The quest for God and then God’s quest for the human and for the other animals is to be in relationship.
Why is it that the orthodox telling of the creation stories concludes with the idea that humans are the only fit companions for each other? And, by theological extension, the only fit companions for God? Why is it that the traditional tellings also suggest that God is above and beyond any friendships or relationships? That the entire creation is beholden to God’s whim and will? Those assumptions need, I think, to be pressed and questioned—particularly with contemporary understandings of evolution and the origins of the universe in mind. If God is the grounding for and Creator of life, and life, as we know from theories of evolution, is consistently changing, always recreating and evolving, would it not make sense that God is able to be in, and desires to be in, relationships that are fluid, alive, and mutual?
First, throughout the Scriptures God continues to muddle through a variety of, arguably sometimes failed, relationships. In the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) the focus is the difficult and ever-evolving relationship between God and the people of Israel. Individuals such as David, Ruth, Abraham, and Jonah provide rich examples of the difficulties of living together as companion species. But God does not limit God’s relationships to human beings alone. The Psalms, Job, and Genesis are just a few of the books in the Hebrew Bible that place God in firm companionship with animals other than humans. Several chapters in the book of Job are particularly powerful exclamations of God’s connection with the animals. God asks Job, “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars … Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?” (39:26-27). Of course, the answer is no, rather it is God who gives wisdom to the hawk and commands the eagle. Even more explicit is the companionship God finds with massive animals, including Behemoth and Leviathan (whom some biblical scholars suggest might be symbolic of the hippopotamus and the whale) (39). These animals are inappropriate companions for humans, but God finds them glorious:
Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you;
It eats grass like an ox. Its strength is in its loins …
It is the first of the great acts of God …
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook …
Will it speak soft words to you?
Will you play with it as with a bird,
Or will you put it on a leash for your girls?
It is almost as if God tells Job that Behemoth and Leviathan are akin to pets, even suggesting that God might put a leash on Leviathan much like a pet dog. They are God’s alone, in a divine-creature relationship. In this companionship, God finds delight and intimacy, speaking softly and playing gently (as with a bird).
Second, now we know that humans have not been around for very long in comparison to the age of the universe, would it not stand to reason that God has been in relationship with the rest of creation since before we entered the scene? Again, biblical texts are full of hints that elaborate on this understanding of the divine. The Psalms tell us that God gives “drink to every wild animal” (104:11) and fills the sea with “creeping things innumerable” (104:25). In other words, much of the being of God is outside of relationship with human beings. God includes many other companion animals (and species). Some biblical writers and Christian theologians seem to have grasped this concept and provide us with a fascinating starting point.
Finally, as described by some intriguing Christian theologies of creation, God is actively looking for companions. God relishes in the beauty of the companion species created by and for Godself. In other words, God creates with companions in mind. As Carter Heyward, an Episcopal priest and professor of theology, states so eloquently, “In the beginning and in the end, God is a relation . . . the constant, immediate yearning and effort to make mutuality incarnate throughout the COSMOS” (40). Heyward describes God as a verb, as the ground of mutual relationships. Terence Fretheim, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, frames this idea of God in a slightly different way. The world of the Hebrew Bible, he suggests, is a “spiderweb of a world” with all of creation and God in these webs of connection (41).
In addition to creation theologies, Trinitarian theology, a central concept of traditional Christianity, is inherently a companion theology. The Trinity is a relational God; it is God in companionship in various manifestations. God is Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer (or in more traditional language, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). And all of these complex activities are in relationship to each other. Pioneer theologian Sallie McFague, one of my mentors, provides a provocative explanation of the Trinity, which she suggests has “been a source of misunderstanding and mystification for most of Christian history”:
As we are not solitary individuals, neither is God: in the ecological, economic worldview and in Christian faith, beings are individuals-in-community. We are because of relationships. The trinity, then, is not a conundrum or theoretical obscurantism; rather it is the most basic affirmation we can make about God. The trinity is about relationship … the trinity is about God’s love for the world and the world’s response (42).
So, within Christianity, God is understood as a God of companionship in complex and simple ways. This companionship is not limited to just human beings. Think about it—to do so would be to limit God. And it would also limit us. If the only companions deemed worthy of sacred or valuable recognition are other humans, we are not only left with a misunderstanding of who we are (since we do not and cannot live in a one-species vacuum) but impoverished from the real possibilities available to us in divinely given life.
Companion Animals in the Twenty-First Century: A Look at the Dog
Cool Hand Luke is not going to die. I won’t stand for it.
I know, of course, that he will, at least a part of me does.
After all, he’s eleven, he’s a dog … And I still love him so
deeply and completely that I imagine his death to be as if
all the oxygen in the air disappeared, and I was left to try
to survive without it.
—Patricia McConnell (43)
Marc Bekoff, a biologist who spent years teaching at the University of Colorado, is, in my opinion, one of the most significant scientists of our time. Bekoff is an ethologist, an animal behaviorist. As his prestige and respect in the sciences grew, Bekoff began to focus on issues that are sometimes taboo among natural scientists. His vast research considers the possibility that other-than-human animals actually have compassion and empathy. Furthermore, he concludes that they develop a sense of justice, which he calls “wild justice.” The consequence? Bekoff argues that we humans must reconsider our self-designated position of superiority. Working extensively with the renowned anthropologist Jane Goodall, Bekoff calls for compassion to and trust of the rest of the animal kingdom. In a powerful presentation he gave at the university where I teach, “Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues: Happy Hounds, Pissy Baboons, and Ecstatic Elephants,” he made a strong case for animals having emotional lives—all based on scientific evidence. After carefully watching animals and recording their behaviors, the work of an ethologist, conclusions can be drawn and counted as part of the scientific method of inquiry.
Bekoff’s work has made a huge difference in the consideration of the quality of life of companion animals. In a recent article, “Dog Trust,” Bekoff defines what it means to “trust,” a concept he relates to intention. He suggests that dogs have an “innate, ancestral, and deep faith in us,” that they hold an “unwavering belief that we will take our responsibilities to them as seriously as we assume responsibility for other humans (44). He follows this claim with a series of anecdotes about dogs, both dogs in situations where their trust in humans was well placed and dogs in situations where their trust was betrayed. As he writes, it is a “malicious double-cross to betray their deep feelings of trust in our having their best interests in mind” when we intentionally harm them, whether that be in a scientific experiment or by abandoning them at an animal control facility.
Dogs are, in Bekoff’s opinion, “wonderful beings” who make us “more human.” According to Bekoff, it would benefit humans as well as dogs if we openly “thank them for who they are, for the unfiltered love, and embrace their lessons in passion, compassion, devotion, respect, spirituality, and love ” (45). This bridge to religion, to spirituality, is central to Bekoff’s ideas about our relationship to other animals and, specifically here, to companion animals for whom we bear a different kind of responsibility.
In the United States millions of dogs live healthy and happy lives. At the same time, millions live in between, on chains in yards or banished to a backyard alone. And millions more die in animal control facilities each year because there are no homes for them. Statistics are difficult to verify since there is no central authority to gather data from the approximately 3,500 shelters in the country. The best estimates project that six to eight million dogs and cats enter facilities each year in the U.S.; approximately half of these are euthanized (46). Amazingly, many people are unaware of how serious the pet overpopulation problem is in the United States. And it is difficult to imagine a Christian theology that would find such a situation acceptable. When a living, breathing, sentient being is born, God is on the side of life. Right? And yet the vast majority of the millions of faithful Christians in our country have no idea, allow it to continue, and all too often contribute to this horror themselves.
The stories of animal abuse are often too heartwrenching to share, but they are too numerous to ignore. The story of Freeway captures both the cruelty of some humans and the empathy of dogs. A call came into animal control late Freeway, a three-legged dog rescued from the highway one night from a person who was on the interstate that cuts through the city of Georgetown. They had just witnessed someone throwing two dogs out of a truck. Both dogs were hit immediately by oncoming traffic on the congested highway. One dog, a black and white Australian shepherd mix, was moving around still, circling her companion and crying; but he had been hit too hard and was already dead. When animal control arrived they convinced her to come with them. Her rear leg was horribly injured. We took her into foster care and, after several failed attempts at surgery, we had to amputate her crushed leg. The pain must have been unbearable, but Freeway survived and is thriving on three legs. Granted, this story had a relatively happy ending for Freeway, though her companion died on the highway that night. How could someone throw two dogs out of a truck onto a busy interstate without even thinking twice about the consequences? Other stories of cruelty are even more direct and unimaginable to most of us. But we tend to ignore them or brush them aside because, after all, these are “only animals.”
In my life I have been blessed with the presence and companionship of several wonderful dogs; I am grateful to my parents for introducing me to the beauty of living with companion animals. Fluffy Beauregard and Princess Magnolia (along with a cat, a bird, and several hamsters) grew up with me. When I was twenty-two and on my own in graduate school, I adopted my own pup. He was a scraggly little sick puppy hiding in the back of a cage at a packed, less-than-ideal animal control facility in Nashville, Tennessee. I had just learned that the old dog with whom I grew up, the magnificent Fluffus Beauregard, had died at the age of seventeen after a good life. A newly minted adult, I knew it was my turn to adopt my first dog. And there he was, a little white and black puffball that could fit in one of my hands. Though the staff person said he was six weeks old, Beaugart was probably only about four weeks old when I adopted him, way too young to be abandoned at an animal control facility all by himself and away from his mother.
Beaugart grew up to be a lovely border collie mix. He and I moved across the country together through two stretches of graduate school, a major personal life shift and new professional directions, and many difficult changes. He was my constant companion, the one who I knew would always be there, and I never, ever questioned his love. I hope he never questioned mine. I am now in my mid-forties, and Beaugart died after being with me for fifteen of those tumultuous years of early adulthood. When he died, my body literally ached. I went to the veterinarian whom I trusted very much and asked him to peacefully put my suffering friend to rest. I held Beaugart in my lap in the backseat of the car (he was scared to go inside), and Dr. Koy leaned across, comforting both of us to make sure that everyone was at peace with the next step in life. Beaugart rested, I said goodbye. It tore me in half.
Beaugart and I were companions in a relationship that I have no doubt was sacred. If anyone denies this, I will stand up and cite the most hopeful aspects of the history of the church and my understanding of God as a foundation to claim this calmly and surely: that God was made concrete in the relationship between Beaugart and me. With his death, I cried, I hurt, I grieved. But I would not have given up those years of companionship and joy for anything.
Though Beaugart passed away eight years ago, I still cry while I write this paragraph about him. Beaugart was my dear, dear friend. I will forever be thankful for and will forever miss his presence. Carter Heyward penned a lovely piece when her dog companion died, and it speaks to my sense of the life I shared with Beaugart as well. Whenever I read her reflection, I can still feel Beaugart’s body, stretched across my lap, going to sleep for the final time. I believe it is this connection, this gift of enduring presence and love, that is sacred. In these relationships we find God.
It was so hard and sad, holding you as you lay dying, my body pressed against
yours, my hands kneading your warm, thick fur …
You tucked your head beneath my stomach, your face into my left palm.
I rubbed your nose.
We breathed together in that awful moment, wanting so badly, both of us,
to “go with”—the way we’d always done it:
the essence of your dogness, my humanness, our friendship
Could you tell how much I wanted it to be a gentle passage
for you, my beloved
—Carter Heyward, Journal,
qtd. in Saving Jesus, after the death of her dog, 1990 (47)
Though many, and maybe all, domesticated animals had some agency in becoming connected to humans, would any compassionate person not acknowledge a certain amount of responsibility for their well-being, now that they are solely in our care? In the case of dogs, they rely on humans for food, shelter, protection, and friendship. We rely on them for joy, protection, assistance, and—also—friendship. And yet millions of them, every year, die unloved in shelters across our country. Or, worse, suffer horrible abuses at the hands of the humans who should be their caregivers. Surely the Christian community, one called to compassion, to the reverence for creation, and to the celebration of life, should be called to do something about this as well. So how can individual Christians and communities of faith respond to the dire needs of companion animals now?
As you saw earlier, the number of dogs killed each year in the U.S. alone because there are simply not enough homes for them is staggering. Some of this overpopulation problem comes from the mass production of dogs as commodities by “puppy mills.” Puppy mills are large-scale, commercial dog breeding facilities that approach these living beings as objects to be sold for a profit. The state of Missouri alone has over 1,400 puppy mills, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Other states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arkansas, are not far behind (41).
Because laws in the U.S. offer little help in regulating these mass breeding operations, cruelty and neglect run rampant. Female dogs are bred repeatedly and kept in small kennels. Puppies are shipped nationwide to various retailers. Many of the puppies have health problems or are sold with paperwork that is falsified. Even though all of these claims might be disputed by the stores who sell the puppies, they have been well documented. In 2008 a bill dubbed the “Puppy Uniform Protection Statute (PUPS)” was introduced to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. At present, it is still in a committee and has not yet passed. Sometimes taking a public stance on an issue like this one can be controversial. But helping to end the cruel, profit-driven mass production of puppies undoubtedly falls under the umbrella of Christian compassion and reverence for life.
Rather than contributing to the exploitation of other animals just for the sake of financial gain, adopting pets from the overflowing shelters and rescue groups is a way to encourage life. There are amazing networks of people working with dogs and cats of all breeds, ages, and temperaments. Resources like Petfinder (http://www.petfinder.com/), through which over thirteen million pets have been adopted in fifteen years, are easy, accessible ways to find animals who need homes. Congregational facilities, usually with big parking lots, some shade, and great road frontage, are also good places to host adoption events for rescue groups and shelters. This is one direct way that the sacred relationships embodied in our companion animals can be affirmed.
In our houses of worship, furthermore, individuals can encourage a retrieval of some of the stories and studies of the texts that we discussed earlier in the chapter and seek other ways to bring non-human animals into sacred spaces. Through much of Christian history animals would have been wandering in and out of sanctuaries. Yet worship spaces eventually became fairly sterile and totally human centered. Most of the artwork with animals that used to adorn our worship spaces gradually disappeared. The scents and images were replaced by a focus just on the Word (a very human idea). Imagine how welcoming animals back in would change our awareness, and even more so, influence the spiritual and moral imaginations of our children.
As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, some churches are carving out special worship times and places for people to bring dogs to church. As dogs become increasingly important companions for people who live without other humans in their households, this fills a gap in liturgy and simultaneously responds to a valid pastoral need (49). Blessings of animals/pets that take place annually have already been growing by leaps and bounds, but certainly more congregations could add this to their calendar. Also, when a pet dies, recognizing the significance of that death with a memorial ritual would affirm the validity of grief at the loss of a valued companion.
These rituals have always been important for children. In a culture that hides actual human death (with the exception of television news and dramas), the death of a pet is often a child’s first encounter with such drastic loss. Several months ago, my brother and sister-in-law’s dog Hooker died after a wonderful life with them. Hooker was around nine years old and during their life together my two nephews entered the family. The whole family, mom, dad, and two sons, buried Hooker on their property. When I went to visit, my nephew Waylon, who was three at the time, took me to see the place where Hooker was buried. As we walked away from the gravesite, Waylon said, “I miss Hooker Aunt Laurie, it’s sad.” I replied with something I hardly recall now but let him know I was sad as well. Then Waylon said to me, “But it’s OK because he’s an angel in heaven who is still taking care of me.” The loss is real, and we need to recognize it accordingly in our ritual, in our care, and in our friendships. I will come back to this theme in the final chapter of the book and also provide resources in the appendices for those interested in trying some of these new forms of worship.
What a friend we have … in companion animals, in our pets. Many human lives would be very lonely without them. Granted, in some ways they are a luxury, another mouth to feed and another medical bill to cover when there are so many humans who are suffering. This is true. But that also underestimates the possibilities for revealing God in these relationships. According to so many stories from the Bible and from the history of the church, God created a multitude of animals and takes pleasure in their company. Our lives are enriched immeasurably by the companionship of dogs, cats, birds, and other animals who live side by side with us day in and day out. Christianity has a word to say about this and calls us to provide for them with tenderness and responsibility. Surely Saint Martin of Porres, Saint Roch, Saint Gertrude, and Martin Luther would agree.