We had a “Blessing of the Animals” service at our farm Sept. 25. Before we did the actual blessing, we asked attendees to share stories about their pets.
One person explained how important her two dogs were and explained how she is still mourning the death of a special dog that died several years ago. Another woman never had pets in her house because she commuted long distances and devoted her life to her career. But in recent years she gave shelter and food to a steady stream of stray cats, and she brought to the blessing a small urn of ashes of one that died during the harshest days of last winter.
She had rushed it to the veterinary emergency room. When the technicians asked for its name, she relied on the informal term of endearment she used when she scooped its frail body into her arms: She called it “Fluffy Tail.”
Another woman, fighting back tears, told how her dog had practically saved her life. When her father was dying a slow, hard death, she collapsed into a chair at home one night, wondering whether life had any meaning. Her dog sensed her distress and pressed his body against her, licked her hand and looked at her with an unmistakable message, “Of course it has.”
Someone dear to my wife, Connie, on hearing about all of our dogs, once said, “I can’t understand what people see in dogs. They are so needy.”
And, of course, this friend was almost right. Dogs are needy. Cats are notorious for being more aloof, but they too need their humans. But isn’t that exactly what fuels this amazing exchange we have with our pets? Out of their magnificent dependence on us they have evolved into these perfect creatures who read our hearts so well. They see our frowns, hear our sniffles, smell our fears and touch our pain – and it worries them.
It is said that, while people have smell receptacles in their noses about the size of a postage stamp, dogs have them the size of a man’s handkerchief. If this is the case, then our cats and dogs must have empathy organs of unimaginable proportions as well.
Five or six times a day on our farm, we hop on our all-terrain vehicle and take our six border collies on a mile-long ride so they can “do their business” and get some exercise. Sometimes, when I’m driving, I’m thinking of things and muttering to myself. Even with the ATV engine going, one or two dogs will invariably hear my muttering, run to me, put their paws on my leg and usually try to lick my face. It’s their way of saying, “Hey, we worry about you. If you have anything bothering you, you can always talk it over with us.”
Of course dogs and cats do it to make sure we feed them. One person at the blessing service was quite honest in saying her dog would much rather have a ham sandwich than a blessing. Yet that’s but a tiny part of the story. These animals are finely tuned to our needs. They know no envy or greed that would make them break a promise. They know only how to be forever faithful friends. And in this world where so much is fake and transient, this is indeed life-giving.
One other observation: People who get weepy-eyed over pets are often also the kind who are embarrassed about their own compassion toward people. They pick up signals all over that to have a “bleeding heart” is a great weakness. They think that when they are driven to tears by the meanness and injustices they see, they should shut themselves in some back room.
But this kind of keen, biting compassion is exactly what is needed as our world becomes more mechanical, digital and impersonal. We are becoming the lonely crowd and not the global village. We need people to prize and express their tender hearts. Barbra Streisand years ago proclaimed in song that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”
Surely people who thirst for justice and mercy – and who can’t help feeling what others feel – are the ones who will be able to remind us all what humanity is supposed to look like