It Is Time For Us To Listen To The Animals

The following is an excerpt from Sr. Joan Chittister's book, "Two Dogs and a Parrot: What Our Animal Friends Can Teach Us About Life."

All my life I wanted a dog. After all, I was an only child. To a child without neighborhood friends, without sisters who could become eternal confidantes, without brothers as co-conspirators in life, a dog was the only obvious substitute for companionship. Or at least it was obvious to me. It was not at all obvious to my mother. Our house, my mother insisted, was not the kind of place where dogs belonged--a walk-up in a northern city given to lake-effect snowstorms. And furthermore, the landlord agreed with her.

But my mother could deal with the idea of my having a bird. On Good Friday, Billy, a blue parakeet, became the Easter gift of my life. Nothing has ever quite matched it since.

I couldn't take a bird for a walk, of course, as I had seen so many children my age do with their dogs. And we couldn't play ball together. But, on the other hand, I learned that having a bird meant having a companion where the interaction was more intense than it was with a dog. Dogs, at least to some extent, had a life of their own. Billy's whole life, on the other hand--every drop of water, every bite of food, every ounce of attention, every bit of play--depended on me. It was an amazingly warm and personal thought. It grew me up in ways I could never have expected.

"Joan," my mother said, "you taught that bird to eat out of your hand. Now you get home here and feed it." So, I quit the swimming lessons that were not half as important to me as Billy was, and did. Billy became my playmate, my ally, my first guide into the depth and meaning of the animal-human bond.

Billy came and filled my empty hours, learned to talk to me a little, flew to my finger when I called her off the curtain rods, woke me in the morning--and then, several years later, simply disappeared one day. And broke my heart.

No one knew how it had happened or where she'd gone. I only knew that, at the age of thirteen, I had lost something irreplaceable.

All over the world, everywhere, humans and animals form great bonds that give them both another kind of gift of life. Which is one of the reasons I'm writing this book. Nevertheless, I hesitate to begin it. A book of this nature brings with it a kind of intimacy and spiritual insight that seems to demand a special kind of privacy. After all, if you begin to talk about your pets as if such talk merits some kind of genuine attention, spiritual as well as psychological, what will people think?

So, this book has been in process for a long, long time. Years. In fact, I had to go through several levels of spiritual growth myself before I realized that it was, indeed, a book worth writing.

At first, I thought of it as nothing but the opportunity to tell a series of anecdotes about the animals I'd lived with in various stages of my life. After all, I had regaled groups for years with stories that smacked of depths far beyond either the usual tales of animal behavior or human appreciation of animal companions. Writing the stories down would simply provide the opportunity for a lot of people who like animals, who have lived with pets, to compare their own experiences to mine. Maybe to have a few laughs. Maybe to cry a tear or two.

Many of the stories, I knew, were funny. But some of them, I also knew, were quite surprising for the level of spiritual insight they brought to my own understanding of the human-animal relationship.

Then, one day, in a public lecture I gave, I found myself beginning to explore the differences between the two creation stories in Genesis that have shaped the consciousness of the Judeo-Christian world for thousands of years. At that point, I suddenly realized that there is something quite spiritually profound in the question of what it means to be entrusted with nature, to live with a pet.

In the first creation story, Adam and Eve, first couple and prototypes of the human race that would come after them, are given dominion over what we call The Garden of Eden.

Who doesn't know the story? Who hasn't heard its conditions and its promises? Who doesn't take for granted the power conferred on humans there? Who doesn't recognize that, as part of the human condition, the story awards humankind dominance and precedence over all other living creatures?

The second creation story, however, far less commonly preached--in fact, commonly overlooked--challenges the reader in very different ways than the first. In this story, God the Creator brings the animals to Adam to be named--which, commentators commonly explained, is the proof that Adam had been given "power over them."

But, I could see, there are very serious problems with this interpretation.

Scholars tell us that this second creation story, which gives us the naming of the animals, is actually older than the so-called first creation story. It was, in other words, written earlier than the domination story. Only at a later period in biblical history was this creation story about the naming of the animals repositioned. The effect of that kind of editing on the understanding of the nature of creation and its implications for humans has been momentous.

Clearly, the relationship between humans and animals had once held a very prominent place, a very primary place, in the human catalogue of spiritual lessons. The human-animal relationship had once held pride of place in the spiritual agendas of human development. The repositioning of the naming story not only made it secondary to the domination story. It also made the dominance theme seem more basic, more fundamental, to human purpose.

God bringing the animals to Adam to be named was hardly proof of "power." On the contrary. Naming is an act of relationship, not dominance. We name our children; we name our friends; we name those with whom we develop an emotional bond. But we do not name them in order to get power over them. We name what is near and dear to us. We name the animals we take into our families, the animals we commit ourselves to care for, the ones we take responsibility for, the ones with whom we develop a personal relationship.

Naming gives our relationships character and recognition and respect. Without doubt, then, the biblical story of naming the animals has both personal and spiritual implications for the way we deal with all the creatures of the earth.

The first creation story is the domination story. It defines the process of creation from one level to another. It gives human beings the right to use the rest of the planet for our own use.

The second creation story is the relationship story. By asserting a particular bond between humans and animals, it inserts us into the animal world and animals into ours--with everything that implies about interdependence.

With all of that in mind, I began to think differently about human-animal relationships. I began to realize what happens to human life and values when humans begin to separate themselves from the rest of life. Or worse yet, when humans begin to construct a hierarchy of life, with themselves at the untouchable top of it.

I began to comprehend more completely that life is about more than us. I began to understand that there is something necessarily spiritual about the human-animal alliance. There is something to explore there about the very nature of bondedness. There is something to be learned from relationships that demand more than words to make them real--and yet are clearly and certainly real, nevertheless.

More than that, there is also another level of reality that accounts for the writing of this book. The truth is that my own life demands it. I have never planted a flower. I have never staked a tomato plant. I have never watched anything grow or harvested it or had to wait for it to ripen in order to live.

Like most of the rest of the human race at this moment in history, I have been raised almost entirely in cities. And I have begun to see the effects of that on the human soul.

In the neighborhood where I live, we have children who have never dug up a potato, who have no idea where radishes and other vegetables come from, who are amazed to learn that peaches grow on trees. These are children who learn about food in cans and animals from picture books. And yet, pets are everywhere. So how to explain that?

The modern tendency to accept pets into our lives and our homes is, I think, a subconscious human attempt to cling to nature in a world made of glass and steel that has divided us from it.

At least my own life is proof of that, and I recognize that as both a human and a spiritual lack. I also recognize that I am not the only one for whom this is true.

More than personal deprivation, social isolation, and emotional disconnectedness confront us as a species now. Crowded into high-rise apartment buildings, we are a century away from the smell of grass and the care for animal habitats. The effects of such physical and psychological distance from the natural world around us are sobering. It is the ability to destroy life without grief, to live life devoid of layers of consciousness, to develop technological relationships bare of affect.

And it shows. Our rain forests are being reduced to money. Our animals are being driven from their habitats to die on barren wastes while we wonder why they're disappearing. Our lakes and oceans are denuded from overfishing.

Unless we begin to align ourselves with nature, nature will be endangered and our own lives with it. Our own souls with it, in fact. We are here as part of creation, not as consumers of it. We are here to care for this planet, not to exploit it. We are here to find our proper place in it, to grow with it spiritually as well as physically.

But in order to do any of those things, we may need to rethink our theology as well as our role on the planet.

Seduced by a theology of superiority and domination, sure that the world and everything in it had been made for human consumption and human control, the narrative of human relationships with animals has a very mixed and sad history. Only the findings of science concerning the intelligence, feelings, and place of animals in the human enterprise, and the realization that we are all made of the same stuff, have begun once again to reverse the story of human-animal relationships and return it to an earlier cosmology.

We know now that if human beings disappeared tomorrow, the existence of birds, insects, water creatures, and land animals wouldn't be affected at all. If animals disappeared tomorrow, on the other hand, human beings could not possibly live without them--as long as bees are needed even to pollinate so many plants. As the top of the food chain, we would be the first to go. The interdependence of the species that has become so clear in our age has also shed new light on the concept of creation itself. The Creator of all, the scriptures tells us, saw all of creation as "good." It is our role to protect it, to guard it, to develop it, to sustain it--not to destroy it for our own purposes.

It is indeed time for us to begin to listen to the animals.

There are those who remind us now that the liberation of animals may well be the great liberation movement of this century.

But if that is the case, we must begin to think with the animals. We must begin to realize that they do not belong to us--they belong to God. They have lives of their own. And their lives affect ours. Whatever happens to the animals will eventually happen to the human animal.

This is a book about the role of animal companions in the development of our own spiritual lives. It is written for those who have pets and already understand that. It is also written for those who do not have pets and wonder why so many people do. It is a book about reestablishing the human-animal relationships Creation meant us to have. So, I am starting at the personal end of the subject--because my animal friends drew me out of myself and made me aware of another whole level of what it means to be alive. They gave me a much broader vision than it would have been if I had shaped it for myself out of nothing but work and time and things. In them, I have seen another face of God.