A couple of years ago I babysat a precious golden retriever puppy for three days so my son and his wife could surprise their sons with her on Christmas morning. During that time she developed some digestive issues and by Christmas day she was in obvious distress, needing to be let out of the house every fifteen minutes or so. Was it my fault? Had she eaten a poisonous plant in our yard or swallowed something she couldn’t pass? The thought that I might be responsible was agonizing and I wondered for the umpteenth time why we get so attached to animals and experience some of our greatest joys and deepest sorrows because of them.
Certainly mammals have body structures, nervous systems, organs, instinctual needs, and even DNA very similar to ours. So when they’re sick, wounded or in pain, we know how they feel. Moreover, although most animals can try to flee from danger, there are always forces—including humans and Nature herself—that are far more powerful. Knowing our own fears and vulnerability, we can relate to that aspect of animals too.
Then there’s the unconditional love some animals give us. It’s so comforting when your dog follows you around, your cat purrs contentedly in your lap, or your horse comes running at your approach. You feel known, appreciated, valued. A happy, thriving pet reminds you that you can be loving, nurturing and morally responsible. We crave these good feelings and love the animals who elicit them, so it’s only natural that we get emotional when they suffer or die.
Repression and projection have something to do with the magical relationship we have with animals too. All of us deny some of our unwanted qualities and project them onto people and animals. For example, I once knew a tough-minded woman who showed no emotion when talking about her own difficult circumstances, yet she cried easily at the thought of abused animals. To her it felt safe to sympathize with the pain and helplessness of a dog or cat, but she was unwilling to feel her own pain.
At the time I didn’t know if anyone else noticed this about her, but it was painfully obvious to me. From where did this insight come? Personal experience. When my parents divorced I cried my heart out. But when my father died three months later I didn’t shed a tear. I was so traumatized that I shut down emotionally so I wouldn’t hurt any more. Denying pain became so important to me that I even refused novocaine when I went to the dentist! For years I couldn’t cry for myself but I could use up a box of tissues watching an animal movie. I still can!
Animals mirror our unconscious, instinctual selves. This is why we love our pets so much. As they are vulnerable, so are we. As they suffer, so do we. We know how they feel, they seem to know how we feel. We think we understand them; they seem to understand who we really are. We know we have unlovable shadows, yet they love us anyway. We see their instinctual shadows, and we love them anyway. Because they trust and depend on us we do not take their devotion or suffering lightly. We deal with it as best we can, and we know we are better for having made the effort. In the process of learning compassion for them, we discover that we are as deserving of love as they are.
Over the years Miss Lottie, a sensuous Siamese cat; Peri, a perky little chihuahua/terrier mix; Shadow, an elegant, high-strung thoroughbred gelding; and Bear, a handsome and gentle golden retriever, have been my teachers, therapists and healers. Training and caring for them taught me patience and respect for the ways of others. Their simple joy in being alive taught me greater awareness and appreciation for my body and the life in it. Their love and devotion to me helped me feel and express more tenderness and love to everyone, including myself. And the copious tears I shed at their deaths softened my heart and taught me more compassion for others who suffer loss.
By the way, Isabella, or Izzy as Matt’s family called their new puppy, was fine the next day. Apparently her problem was caused by the rawhide puppy treats I gave her to keep her from chewing on my kitchen cabinets. I felt terrible about it, but she kept loving me anyway. And now that she’s come to live with me for the summer, I remember something I forgot after Bear died. Being with her makes me feel better about myself. It’s a mysterious thing, this healing power of animals, but it’s real. And I’m deeply grateful for it.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.