"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human

dog-heaven-2If you knew my family’s history with pets, you might wonder if I’m the best person to write an article about the role and value of pets in our lives. We don’t have a dog, my husband is highly allergic to cats, and our only pet at the moment is a Chinese fighting fish by the name of Rosalina (a very cute and smart one, I might add). But it’s not like we haven’t tried. Over the years, we’ve had a slew of hamsters and gerbils, a huge tank full of tropical fish, as well as sea monkeys and an ant farm.

Sometimes I feel sort of bad that my kids didn’t grow up with a dog, but our family circumstances didn’t allow for it; we lived overseas for a while and then were busy having babies. We did get a dog once, for ten days – an adorable Golden Retriever named Dixie – but I quickly discovered that I was unprepared for the demands of raising a puppy. To make matters worse, we had just sent our youngest child off to school, and the timing was all wrong.

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Mini-bear, the hamster we “adopted” when our son went off to university

For the record, though, we didn’t completely deprive our children of this joy. Many times over the years, we offered to pet-sit while friends or neighbours were away. We grew to love a fluffy Bichon by the name of Whisper, the sweet Sheltie/Beagle mix across the street named Shelby, and the “so ugly, he’s cute” Shih Tzu named Bailey. In addition to taking care of many dogs and cats, we’ve also looked after guinea pigs, snakes, lizards, frogs, and birds – animals we never would have chosen as pets for ourselves.

Although our pets have always been a bit unconventional, having to feed, water, cuddle, and clean up after them has been good and healthy for our family. In caring for another creature (brothers don’t count), our children have learned about kindness and compassion. They’ve learned to put the needs of others before their own – how to do something even when they didn’t “feel like it.” When our hamster died, we had a little funeral – it was my kid’s first experience with death. For some time afterwards, they asked a lot of good questions and we had some pretty deep conversations. What was heaven like? Did animals have souls? What happens when we die? Trying to understand death opened our children up to the mystery of life and also provided us with an opportunity to explain the Church’s teachings on human dignity and God’s plan for all of creation.

dog-and-GodInterestingly enough, respect for animals falls under the seventh commandment: “You shall not steal.” The Catechism explains that, “Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.”1 When we treat animals well, it demonstrates our “respect for the integrity of creation.”2 What’s more, because God created them, animals “by their mere existence… bless him and give him glory.”3 Just look at the book of Genesis to see how God not only gave animals to us for our use, but also entrusted them to our care.

That being said, we must also recognize that, in the order of creation, there is an inherent (though implicit) hierarchy. Because humans are created in God’s image, we are the “summit” of His creative work.4 Which is precisely why it’s problematic when pets begin to take the place of people, or when they take too much of our time, energy, or resources that more properly belong elsewhere. We’ve all heard of people who spend large sums of money on pets – for food, supplies, medical procedures and even “daycare.” Yet the problems of homelessness and poverty continue to exist in even the wealthiest of nations, where resources are plentiful and no one should go hungry. In Western countries, there’s another idea that’s become prevalent: to delay or completely opt out of having children in favour of pets. Pope Francis spoke of this problem recently in a homily addressed to young couples:

“This culture of well-being from 10 years ago convinced us: ‘It’s better not to have children. It’s better. You can go explore the world, go on holiday; you can have a villa in the countryside; you can be carefree… It might be better, more comfortable, to have a dog, two cats,’ and the love goes to the two cats and the dog.” But these marriages end with “the bitterness of loneliness,” he said, explaining that such marriages are “not fruitful” and do “not do what Jesus does with his Church: He makes his Church fruitful.”5

fill-my-heartNow it’s understandable that people love their pets, and we can see why a dog is considered “man’s best friend.” If we take care of our pets, they will love us ‘unconditionally’. But there’s something more at work here – a mindset that needs to be addressed. Fundamentally, we all need to love and to be loved. Pets, or any animal, can provide companionship and can even satisfy a need within us to care for another living creature. But they can never take the place of real human affection and love. Mother Teresa once described a scene that illustrates this only too well:

“I cannot remember now in what city I was, but I do remember that I did not see any children on the street. I missed the children very badly. While I was walking down the street, suddenly I saw a baby carriage. A young woman was pushing the carriage, and I crossed the street just to see the child. To my terrible surprise, there was no child in the carriage. There was a little dog! Apparently the hunger in the heart of that woman had to be satisfied. So, not having a child, she looked for a substitute. She found a dog. I love dogs myself very much, but still cannot bear seeing a dog given the place of a child.”6

The story may strike us as funny, yet it underlines an important truth. Animals have so much to teach us about ourselves, about God and the beauty and wonder of creation. But they are not the same as people and we mustn’t try to make them out as such. No matter how much I dote on my dog, it won’t raise his dignity above what he is – a dog. Animals have a place in our lives, but it’s not meant to be the same one that’s occupied by humans.

dogs21If as a pet owner, you decide not to get that $5000 blood transfusion for Rover, it doesn’t mean you are a bad person or that you somehow love him less. It means that you understand your own dignity and worth. When you read on the Internet about a woman leaving all her life savings to her cat, don’t ridicule her – pity her. But also stop and wonder why this was so – how we as a society could have failed so miserably to reach out to another human being. Pets can teach us a lot about trust, loyalty, forgiveness, and even love. But it’s only the beginning. Ultimately, the love and affection we have for a pet should point us in the direction of a much greater love – one that is both human and divine. As strange as it may sound, animals seem to make us more human. Perhaps this is why God gave them to us in the first place.

– Kelley Holy

1 CCC, 2415.

2 Ibid., 2416.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 343. See also Luke 12:6-7 and Matthew 12:12.

5 Pope Francis, “Pope Francis Encourages Married Couples,” National Catholic Register [online newspaper]; available from

http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/pope-francis-encourages-married-couples/; Internet; accessed 30 September 2014.

6 Mother Teresa, No Greater Love (Novato, California: New World Library, 1997), 123-124.

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