Did you have a pet as a child that was important to you? What do you remember? What about your household now, is there an animal member?
Much in life is more mysterious than we take time to acknowledge. For example, this whole business of people and pets. Drawing from research by Johannes Odendaal, Rebecca Johnson and others, "America's Veterinarian" Marty Becker has written a fascinating article reviewing the benefits of animals to humans (see Missouri University Sinclair School of Nursing Journal for pdf).
Dr. Becker cites the following research findings about benefits domestic animals offer humans: stress reduction, lowered blood pressure, health benefits to elderly (e.g. reduction in doctor visits and medical complaints); enhancing the relaxation response; increasing exercise; reducing risk of allergies (surprise!); animal assisted therapies (AAT); hippotherapy for physical, developmental and emotional disorders; decreasing depression and loneliness; improving children's reading scores, empathy, and, possibly, IQ (!).
During human bonding, i.e. mothers and infants, certain hormones have been found to be present which produce pleasant feelings, calmness and sense of well being. These hormones include oxytocin. One of the most interesting findings is from Dr. Odendaal, at the Life Sciences Research Institute in South Africa, who found that petting and other positive interactions with pets not only produces those calming hormones in humans, but in the animals as well. In other words, the animals feel better too, in this reciprocal release of chemicals, even from just being in the room with humans.
Isn't this wonderful? And amazing? While whatever way it is that animals perceive love/attachment/connection remains a mystery, we know more now that we used to. Just as it used to be controversial that animals have complex emotions, this new knowledge has broad implications and brings considerable responsibility.
My cat Jack was like no other cat I'd ever had. Although to be fair to his predecessors, I had never before understood how much cats long for attachment with their humans. Jack's bonding efforts were straightforward and intense. An adult stray with years on the street, many wounds and an extremely bad rep in the neighborhood, Jack, when adopted, regressed immediately to kittenhood to begin a new attachment. He cried a lot and I couldn't always figure out his longings, but he stopped crying when I put him over my shoulder. So for several months I carried him, this 20 pound cat, everywhere I went in the house. Ever resourceful, Jack would not be left in another room, so as I slept, he slept with his chin resting in my outstretched hand. Very endearing. His actions of frequently checking my breathing in the night by sticking his nose to mine was less endearing.
After the strong unexpected, unlooked for infatuation, Jack worked hard to be the best cat he could be and to show his gratitude for being adopted. He never complained of late meals or boring food. He never made elimination errors or broke anything. He never scratched anything but the leather sofa, only when I was on the phone, which to his satisfaction trained me to have very short phone calls.
Though I tried to give him toys, Jack was embarrassed to be caught playing and would stop immediately if I walked in on him. His life had clearly been tough, but if made me sad that someone had denied him play.
Jack died long before I was ready for him to go and I will always miss him. But until recently, when I found the research, the mutuality of our bond was a mystery. How could a species so different from me feel so much for me? And I was a little embarrassed about how much I cared for him, how many stories I told about him, nearly as many as about my nieces and nephews. Jack taught me how to love a pet because he insisted on a relationship with me no matter what.
On his last day, Jack rallied and spent the day sitting in the threshold of the front door he never used, quietly looking into the light. It was only a few weeks after we nearly lost my mother. When I told her about Jack on the threshold, she smiled and cried a little, and I could see her holding this image close in her heart.
Some of us are embarrassed at how deeply we care for our animals, and so we tend to grieve their passing in secret, fearing being thought foolish in the face of human losses, even our own. But the truth is many of these animals love us back, in their animal way, it is not our imagination or anthropomorphizing. We recognize they are animals, not human. But their devotion is unconditional, persistent.
I remember the first time I saw this quote from Meister Eckhart, a 14th century mystic and minister,
"Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature."
As I finished reading this, my cat at the time, the remarkable Jenny Lou, walked in and looked up at me. I never saw her the same way afterwards. And in the end, Jenny Lou taught me how to grieve. But that is another story.
Years ago, when serving on the in-home communion team, we went to visit a wonderful elderly church member. She requested that we serve communion to her little dog as well. We found this request charming and eccentric and a tad awkward. But I understand it better now, of what it means to want invite a beloved companion to the Table of God and say "you belong, God loves you."