Over the years, our family has had an over-anxious beagle, two cats, one of whom is here today, a guinea pig, assorted goldfish, and a leopard gecko that my daughter smuggled through airport security to accompany her to college.
Ben the beagle was so crazy that he was expelled (along with his human companions) from obedience school. The cats, Mia and Spooky, always held to the dictum that cats don’t have owners, they have staff. Caramel the guinea pig was gracious when my daughter held her; she was not so gracious to me, usually either nipping my finger or exercising a bodily function on my clothes. The gecko, Moses – he was named Moses because his terrarium really did look like the desert through which the Israelites wandered – had the misfortune of dying of some lizard ailment in the wee hours of the morning, when Allie called me, hysterical. It was not one of my favorite phone calls from her, it being 2 am.
Pets. I think of that list of pets Doug and I have cared for – and every parent knows that no matter what our children promise when we acquire pets, it is we who attend to them – and I wonder why we do this. Pets are expensive, they mess up our homes, they require our attendance upon their needs for feeding and walking, they get sick, and when they die, it is emotionally wrenching.
Why do we have pets? I suspect God has given us the blessing of our animal companions because they teach us something about God’s providence, his great love and care for us.
Most dog owners will tell you about how their dog will come to greet them with ecstatic joy when they come home from work, and it’s not just about finally being taken out for a walk. They wriggle and leap and want pets and deliver face licks. They love their owners and they are so glad to see them again.
Most cat owners will tell you about their cat coming to sit on their lap when they are quietly reading or watching TV – cats usually come when they choose, not when you call them – and snuggling next to them when they are in bed with the flu. The rest of the family might stay away, but the cat knows where it is needed.
Even birds and lizards and guinea pigs and rabbits and ferrets have their way of connecting in an expressive way with their humans. Fish I’m not so sure of, although when we had a bunch of fish in our little pond in Arlington and Doug would go out to feed them each day, they’d come swimming to the edge of the pond at the sound of his footstep. It might have been a pure Pavlovian response, but I’d like to think that in their little tiny fishy brains they were thinking “Here he comes! It’s God, delivering us our daily manna!” Or maybe not…
But there is a common ground here. We learn from our pets, don’t we? We learn patience, especially when housebreaking a puppy. We learn fidelity, because our pets seem to be thinking much more about us all the time than we do about them. But most of all, we learn love, that unconditional love that is an insight into the love of God.
Our animal companions, canine, feline, reptilian, avian, whatever, connect to us in a purer way, a way that isn’t confused by words and expectations. They simply love us, in their own way, and do not judge us. Well, cats may sometimes judge us, but they love us in spite of our limitations.
Our pets don’t overthink the relationship.
They don’t interpret our bad moods as being about them, even when it is about them.
They don’t decide one day that we are tiresome, and go somewhere else to find another human to love.
No. They simply love us, to the best of their ability, and express that love in their own unique way.
The animal behaviorist Dr Irene Pepperberg spent years working with an African Grey Parrot, Alex. She studied his cognitive abilities. Alex learned a remarkable number of words, and communicated appropriately with those words. Alex could distinguish shapes and colors and when directed to find a red square or a purple circle, he could do so correctly. If you want to be amazed, check out some of the videos of Alex on YouTube.
But what was special about Alex, and what reminds us of the blessing of animals in our lives, was not what Alex did in picking objects and learning words.
Alex died at the age of 31 a few years ago. That’s young for an African Grey. It was a heartbreak for all who worked with him, including Dr Pepperberg.
She remembered what Alex said the night before he died, as she left the research facility at the completion of the work day. She said, as she always did, “Good night, Alex.” And he replied, “You be good. I love you.”
“I love you.”
Was this simply a reflex, an imitation of what animals can be trained to do? Did Alex mimic the words he heard others say upon parting in the lab?
I am not a scientist, but I have no doubt that Alex, what some would call a mere bird, did love Dr Pepperberg, who had herself loved him as she worked with him.
The science writer Verlyn Klinkenborg observed,” A truly dispassionate observer might argue that most Grey parrots could probably learn what Alex had learned, but only a microscopic minority of humans could have learned what Alex had to teach.”
Alex taught what all of our pets teach us – God’s love, translated into barks and meows, cheeps and wriggles, twitching noses and switching tails. We humans think we are higher than the animals, but in fact we are their students when it comes to the purest of loves, the love of our Creator. They give us insight into that love in their relationship with us that we could find no other way.
So we give thanks for our pets, and for all of God’s creation, and we remember the wise words of St Francis, who knew a thing or two about animals: “If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
To be fully human, and to truly imitate our beloved Creator, learn about God’s love. Learn it from the animals who love you. Then you will be blessed by them, and by God.