Animals are an important part of my life, and I’ve been waiting for an appropriate occasion to write about this topic. Since today (October 4) is the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, this is probably about as good an opportunity as I will get. Saint Francis is the patron saint of animals (among many other patronages), and most artwork and iconography we see of Saint Francis involves the presence of animals.
I have something of a (very) soft spot for animals, and whenever I find them abandoned or unwanted, I tend to want to take them in, and frequently do. (I also, as you will see, have something of a hoarder mentality when it comes to animals that are readily available.) Here’s an accounting of the animals that I’m currently responsible for:
- First and foremost, there’s Miles, my (approximately) 10 year old lab/pit bull mutt. After the death of my last dog, there was an emptiness in the house that could only be replaced by another dog. I found Miles online when he was six years old, and living with a family that could no longer keep him. He had repeatedly become the target of their other dog’s aggression, and his injuries were getting to the point that they were beyond superficial. (This family had found Miles wandering the streets when he was about one year old.)
- And then there is Bette. Bette, a ten month old Japanese Chin, is the newest addition the family. We adopted Bette from my sister when she was two months old. She was the result of a litter of puppies that my sister’s Japanese Chins brought into the world. (They’re not very good at abstinence.) She’s still very much a puppy, and this has been my first experience living with a puppy since I was 10 years old. She’s been a good sister to Miles, encouraging him to be active in his old age – even if that just means him constantly trying to get away from her.
- Up next in my menagerie are James, Jack, Paul, and Flannery. These are my four tabby cats. To be clear, I never planned on having four cats. In fact, I never intended to have any cats. But one day, as I was talking with my (other) sister on the telephone while pacing my screened-in porch, I heard a little “mew.” The little mew, it turned out, were two tiny, adorable (aren’t they all?) kittens. I ushered them in onto my porch with me and continued my telephone conversation. About three minutes later I heard another, different mew. Opening the screen door again, I found a third kitten. Flash forward ten minutes: a fourth mew. You can guess what happened. I went to the store to purchase kitten food and a cheap litter box so that they would be comfortable overnight. Then they moved into my bathroom. Then I named them. And now it is six years later, and I’m the weirdo with four cats. Of all my animals, they have been here the longest, and so remain at the top of the pecking order.
- Speaking of pecking order, this might be the place to mention that I have nine chickens. (Nine, that is, until Monday, when I will have twenty-five.) Growing up as a city boy, I never thought I’d spend a good part of my adulthood sitting outside, drinking beer, and watching my chickens. But here I am. I love my ladies, and although I occasionally call one by the wrong name, I feel a tenderness toward all of them. There’s Debbie and Susan, my Rhode Island Reds; Lynda, my pearl white leghorn; Thelma and Louise, my Red Stars; three Black Stars known collectively as “The Sisters”; and finally, my mean-spirited and aggressive Red Star who I simply call Nancy Grace. They’re all wonderfully prolific egg layers, and although I once thought I’d be able to bring myself to eat the hens toward the end of their egg-laying days, it turns out I was mistaken. It’s really hard to eat something you’ve named. At present, my ladies are getting on in years and their egg-laying has slowed to a crawl. So…sometime Monday I’ll be headed to the post office to pick up my 15 new day-old chicks.
- Assumpta is my parakeet. (Her name was inspired by the character on the brilliant series Ballykissangel.) I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to get her. But there she is, day after day, reminding me when it’s time to feed her, and occasionally whistling at me. Assumpta used to have a brother, named “The Other One” (Listen, it’s not easy naming all these animals), but The Other One succumbed to what I can only presume was a horrible demise one weekend when we were away camping. Suffice it to say, we returned to find an inverted bird cage with one bird missing. He was never found, but considering the four cats and two dogs you’ve just read about, you can probably guess what happened to him.
- Upstairs, in my bedroom, I have a 60 gallon aquarium which holds my bala shark (also named Lynda); my clown loach, Josh; my emerald cory catfish, Charlie; and my increasingly large black-fin pacu, David, whose appetite grows along with him, as I recently discovered when he ate Flotsam, my dinosaur bichir.
- Downstairs, in the living room, is the 54 gallon aquarium housing the ever-so-cleverly named Pink, Green, Blue, and Yellow: my brightly colored and probably genetically engineered tetras.
- Last but not least, outside in the back yard, I have a small koi pond that is home to Peter, my koi, and his friend Bait, a small minnow that was intended to be used for fishing, but ended up in my pond instead. Watching over the koi pond, protecting it from the occasional blue heron, is my statue of Saint Francis, which brings us back to the point of this article.
What does our Catholic faith teach us about our relationship to animals?
Try Googling “catholic teaching on animals” and you’ll find that the top results are all related to animals and heaven, and usually with cutesy titles like “Will I See My Little Doggy in Heaven?” and “Pets in Heaven” courtesy of the ever-present EWTN. This is all well and good, and if you’ve recently experienced the death of a pet, this might be all the information you’re looking for. But these articles don’t address the fundamental question of how we, as Catholics, ought to treat animals here on earth.
Interestingly, the Catechism answers this question in its chapter that focuses on the seventh commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Sections 2415 through 2418 are entitled “Respect for the integrity of creation.” Let’s take these four passages one at a time.
The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation. (2415)
How are we to interpret this passage? On the one hand, we are told that animals are a part of creation that may (and ought to) be used as a resource for the betterment of people. Then we are reminded that this “dominion” is “not absolute” and that we are called to have a “religious respect for the integrity of creation.” To my way of thinking, this passage can be paraphrased by Voltaire‘s (and later, Superman‘s) quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Now, Voltaire was no friend of the Church, but I think that the quote is apt. Voltaire was speaking out against the abuse of authority in his time, and this is precisely what this passage is also warning against. (See also Luke 12:48, where Jesus admonishes: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”)
So here we are told that yes, we were given dominion over creation, but this does not mean we may do with creation anything we wish. We are responsible. We have a responsibility to ensure that animals (and other “resources”) are around for all generations. This is the basic premise on which the remainder of the passages rely.
Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals. (2416)
Now we’re getting more specific. Not only are we responsible for ensuring that animals remain a part of creation (for future generations), but we are also are to treat them with kindness. Not just ought we to treat them with kindness, we “owe them kindness.” As God’s creatures, ultimately all animals belong to God. We are mere caretakers of God’s creation. Kindness here also entails treating animals with “gentleness” as was the practice of the great Saint Francis and Saint Philip Neri.
The list of saints to whom animals were important and who provide us with examples of how to treat animals is not limited to these two men. Consider the list here and you will see how often animals are a part of the stories we know about our saints.
God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives. (2417)
Here we see what can be considered legitimate use of animals as resources, and how it ought to be with the idea of responsibility and kindness outlined in the previous two passages. We can, according to this passage, eat animals. We can make clothes out of them. We can domesticate them to assist us with work and accompany us in enjoying leisure. We may, within reason, use animals for advancing medical advancements that will save lives. Note here that the Catechism specifies that we may participate in animal testing (within reason) as long as it is directed toward caring for and saving lives. Excluded from this definition is the use of animal testing for any other purpose: this includes the type of testing all too common for cosmetics, detergents, and other products.
Note, too, that the Catechism says that we “may” use animals in these ways. It does not say that we must. One could make the argument that there is plentiful non-animal food and textiles. Wearing fur is not a necessity. Wearing or using the skins/coats of endangered animals violates the principles in the first passage that we must ensure that animals are cared for so as to be entrusted to future generations. We “may” hunt for food, but not for sport. Our diets may include meat products, but need not.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, also precluded factory farming as a legitimate use of animals as resources. In God and the World, Benedict says: Animals “are given into our care” and “we cannot just do whatever we want with them.” In fact, “a sort of industrial use of creatures” is a “degrading of living creatures to a commodity [and] seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons. (2418)
Here the Catechism wraps up its discussion of animals by circling back around to man as being responsible for the care of animals, adding some admonishments against buying your dog a sweater when the child next door is cold and without one (for example), and against bestiality, in effect saying, “You can love animals, but you can’t looooove animals.” Fair enough.
Saint Francis and the Care of Animals
Saint Francis preached to the birds, calling them his sisters. He negotiated a truce between a wolf and a community: “Brother wolf” promised not to terrorize the community if the community would promise to feed him. He saved rabbits and fish that would get caught in snares.
The stories of Saint Francis and his care for the animals are legendary, and sound as though they come right out of a book of fairy tales. And yet, the stories have survived as the message resounds anew with each generation. Take care of the earth. Take care of the earth’s creatures. Take care of one another.
In 1979, Blessed Pope John Paul II named Saint Francis the patron saint of ecology. In 1982, he said during World Environment Day that the life and example of Saint Francis is a challenge to us in every age, and that we, as Catholics and as responsible citizens of the world, ought “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.”
Today, on the feast of Saint Francis, let us reflect on our own relationship with animals. Are we doing all that we can to follow Saint Francis’s example? Are we predators, or are we caretakers and stewards? Do we shower our pets with extravagances and walk by our fellow men leaving their outstretched hands empty and cold? Do we participate in system that encourages and promotes factory farming? We all have room for improvement.
A Prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch, Christian Minister, 1861-1918
“O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou hast given the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee is song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for thee, and that they have the sweetness of life.”
Postscript: What Do You Do With All Those Eggs?!
First of all, let me make a confession: I don’t eat a lot of eggs. I go through phases, for sure, but I wouldn’t say that eggs are a regular part of my diet. All the same, the eggs I do eat come from my own backyard, where the hens that I care for lay them daily. I know what my hens have eaten. I know that they haven’t been given any hormones or medications. I know that they are, basically, happy hens, with plenty of space to live out their lives.
I also know that I have more eggs than I could possibly eat. So what do I do with all those eggs? Well, I like to think that my hens are constantly working for good. Laying eggs comes naturally to them, yes, but it also takes a toll on their bodies. I want to make sure that all of their hard work goes to good use. So here’s what we do: Each day I collect all the eggs. Once a week, I clean and pack them up in cartons (recycled, of course), and sell them for $3.00/dozen. This is a reasonable price for people to pay for eggs that come from well-cared-for hens. Typically, I have a waiting list of people wanting to buy eggs.
Then, all the money is put into a special, interest bearing, account. Each December, we donate 100% of that money to Heifer International, where the money then goes toward providing “starter flocks” of hens to poor people in impoverished countries. These hens then lay eggs, have babies, and provide a reliable source of protein and other nutrients for their caregivers. The recipients, in turn, promise to take some of their second-generation baby chicks and provide a starter flock for another family. And so on. In our house, we call it “laying it forward.” (So far this year, we have raised enough money to pay for 18 starter flocks for 18 families. All because of the hard work of our hens, the good will of our customers, and the opportunities provided by Heifer International.)
In other words, we care and provide for them, and in return, they care and provide for us. Just like God intended.
[If you’re interested in learning more about starting your own backyard flock, or donating to Heifer International, I’m happy to answer any questions or point you in the right direction. Feel free to email me. My email address is listed on the Contributors page.]