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Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Souls of All Animals

The strong winds have forced me to be inside most of the time; I’ve been going out just long enough to feed water, clean up poop, and say hello to all the outdoor animals. The dogs, who shadow me, have also been going out, but in a very unenthusiastic manner. They both seem to be saying, “If you must, we will, but we really don’t want to. How about we just kick back until spring?”

It’s been a good time to get some reading done. Last week I was at a Barnes and Noble in Fairbanks—not by choice, I’d rather patronize the smaller bookstores. I scanned the animal shelves and found a copy of Jon Katz’s new book The Soul of a Dog. I didn’t think about whether or not I could afford this book, nor did I consider the fact that I had stacks of unread books at home. I picked it up, slapped down the credit card, and walked out the door with the book in my hand.

I waited until I got home before reading this book because it gave me something to look forward to. I’d enjoyed his other books, and early on, I had been struck by the fact that we share narrative parallels. We moved to more rural areas at about the same point in time. This and the acquisition of animals had a marked change on our previous, more writerly lifestyles. For us both, the ongoing interaction with our animals has prompted the question, do animals have souls?

Katz is right in his thinking that our having the capacity to care for animals is good for our own souls. I might now be able to better articulate this claim to those who simply don’t understand why I insist on keeping non-producing livestock around. It gives me great joy to spend time with Stubbi the Chicken, who no longer gives eggs, Tinni, who no longer can be ridden any great distance, Peaches who is dry, and Ranger and Rover who can no longer replicate themselves. What I will now say is to those who insinuate (for example) that Ranger would make for good eating, is that his enthusiasm for life enables me to see life from a more positive perspective. He never complains about anything, and he races to the base of the driveway when I decide to take them all for walks.

I’m going to flip this idea around and suggest that too, our animals care for us, but this is on their terms. This then, is good for their souls. I’m going to use seemingly very self-centered and opinionated Raudi as an example. If she could talk, she’d say that it’s my job to care for her. But conversely, after considerable questioning, she’d grudgingly acknowledge that it’s her job to care for me. She carts me around on the trails, and she lets me know when big game is in the area. And as of late, she’s taken it upon herself to watch out for us both. I determined that she had an altruistic spirit this past summer, shortly after a grizzly bear stepped out onto the trail. Raudi could easily have taken off, but she stayed with me until the bear retreated. There was no moral imperative here; Raudi just knew at this point in time that this was the right thing to do. Conversely, a few weeks later she acted in her own self interest. We were at the beginning stages of a competitive trail ride. A mile out, Raudi spooked when she saw some cows and tossed me over head. I looked up and saw four black and white cows looking down at me. I called it quits because I’d heard that there were more cows down the road. The thought of taking another header just didn’t appeal to me.

Katz did a really good job in taking on a huge philosophical question, one which really has no definitive answer. I realized what a big undertaking this was as I attempted to draft this short essay. He struck a chord with me when he wrote about Henrietta the hen. The implicit argument here, which emerged in the telling of a story, is that yes, even chickens have souls. I cried when I learned of her death, for I’d been taken by Katz’s account of her spunk and fearlessness. This was good stuff. But Katz really hit his literary stride in his altogether too short essay, “Lulu goes to Hell.” Katz spends the afternoon with Pastor Henry Whitfield, who has taken the fundamentalist preposition that because animals are here to serve us, they have no souls. Those of us who feel like we know Katz’s animals as well as our own, wince when in the next few pages Whitfield sticks to his claim that there is no afterlife for animals. The high point in the book comes shortly after Katz introduces Whitfield to Lulu, a donkey. Katz writes:

“I handed Henry a cookie and suggested he give it to Lulu. He held it in the palm of his hand as if it were radioactive, and Lulu slowly drifted over, carefully took the cookie, enjoyed it, and pressed her head against his shoulder. She was waiting for a scratch.

Henry patted the top of her fuzzy head a few times, while I pointed out the cross emblazoned on her back, the rich history of donkeys, the many references to them in both Jewish and Christian theology. He smiled a bit.

Then he leaned forward and looked her in eyes. ‘Lulu,’ Henry said softly, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?’

Lulu snorted, rubbed her nose against Henry’s hat.

He turned to me. ‘She is not going to heaven,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’

She seemed to take the news with the equanimity for which donkeys are justly famous, and edged closer to me. Perhaps I had a cookie, or better news.”

I set down the book after rereading this passage several times and thought how could one read this and think that animals don’t have souls? It took me several hours to write the above, so I now better understand the magnitude of Katz’s literary task. Katz also took on the often daunting task of blending personal narrative and research-related exposition. I was, in the end, sorry to see this book come to an end.