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Q & A
Q&A: Showing compassion for animals Amy Forbus, Sep 24, 2010
Laura Hobgood-Oster believes humans lose out if we ignore the animal kingdom in our spiritual lives. A Disciples of Christ pastor and professor of religion at United Methodist-related Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, she is also president of Friends of the Georgetown Animal Shelter and the shelter’s dog-rescue coordinator.
She spoke recently with special contributor Amy Forbus about her new book, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals (Baylor University Press).
Why do you think animals don’t seem to play much of a role in many Christians’ faith? Except for our pets, we are not around animals as much. They used to play more of a role in our everyday life—farm animals and whatever animals we would eat were very much a part of our life when they were alive, not just after they had become food.
And not to demonize the Enlightenment or the rise of humanism, but humans had for a long time defined ourselves as superior to animals. That gets heightened with the Enlightenment: the focus on humans as the center of everything.
I was surprised at how little I knew about saints and their companions. I thought St. Francis was the only one that “belonged” to animals, but you write about others. Protestant Christianity sort of forgot all the saints, so because we don’t have those stories, it’s another reason why animals started to disappear. For a thousand years, one of the ways you would determine that someone was a saint or a particularly holy person is because they had these special relationships with all creatures, including animals.
Of the ones I find particularly intriguing, one is St. Brigit, a Celtic saint. There are numerous stories of her feeding dogs who come to the house. I actually think one of those stories is really reflecting on the idea that Jesus is the stranger who knocks at the door, you’re not sure who this is, and so you feed the stranger. In doing that, you’ve accepted angels or God; you’re providing hospitality.
Another one is St. Anthony of Padua, a second-generation Franciscan. He preaches to fish; there’s a story of him offering the Eucharist to a mule. Then St. Anthony Abbot, the official patron saint of animals, is usually pictured with a pig. He lived in the wilderness with animals being his primary companions.
Of the pet overpopulation problem in the U.S., you write, “It is difficult to imagine a Christian theology that would find such a situation acceptable.” Yet, it’s all around us. Right. I think that both pet overpopulation and factory farming are two dominant aspects of U.S. culture that most of us keep blinders on about. You just can’t walk into a grocery store and pretend [factory farming] doesn’t exist, not with that spread of meat in front of you. There’s just no way that that amount of food is being produced without a big industrialized system being part of it. So you have to live in denial there.
I think the same is true with pet overpopulation. We have animal control facilities all over the country killing millions of dogs and cats every year because there are no homes for them. Only one out of every 10 dogs in the U.S. lives in the same home their whole life. Nine out of 10 are moved from home to home, or end up in an animal control facility and have to be euthanized because there is no home for them. So again, we really must have blinders on if we think they are all in stable homes.
Pets are a very interesting aspect of our culture. They’re starting to have a pretty big impact. I think that dogs and cats may actually be the pivot point that turns us around to thinking about animals differently.
Do you think our culture can develop a greater sense of sacred relationship with animals? I think we’re already starting to. It’s been 40 years since the first Earth Day was celebrated, and not too long after that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine had its first official blessing of the animals on the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Francis in early October. And in the most recent count I did, there are more than 500 blessings of animals in the U.S. It speaks to the increasingly significant role of pets in our lives now. If there is something so significant about the way I live with my dogs, and they have a life worth living, they can feel pain, they can understand whether their life is good or not . . . you have all this sense of emotion.
Most people who have pets wouldn’t deny that their dogs think and feel something. So it’s logical to continue to make that jump with other animals as well.
Do you think there are some people who will not be convinced that our care for animals is important to God? Yes. Because doing that almost necessarily means that we would have to admit that we’re not the only ones who are important. And I think there’s a hesitancy to do that sometimes because there’s a possibility of that being a slippery slope in terms of our own significance. I think it’s a real misread of Christian theology to assume we are the only ones who are important. Even the canonical biblical texts constantly remind us that we’re not. Once we start to think of ourselves as the center of everything, that’s where sin starts.
You have a chapter on blood sports. When I hear that term I think of dog fighting, but you include thoroughbred racing, which I hadn’t really thought about. Yeah, and it’s different. Horses love to run. The purpose of racing thoroughbred horses certainly isn’t for them to die or get injured, where dog fighting necessarily leads to someone getting injured, if not dead. The way that horses are bred for thoroughbred racing does lead to a lot of injuries. They’re way too young when they’re running. At three years old, they’re not even grown up yet. Their bones can’t take that kind of pounding. And the breed lines have been so narrow; most thoroughbred horses can be traced to just a few ancestors.
Those bloodlines and the process of racing have become so deadly that it is starting to fall in that category of, “Are we really engaging in this sport to the wellbeing of the animals who are part of it?” Certainly not. But we play on their love to run. It’s a different category than dog fighting, but it’s one we need to question.
You’re a vegan. . . . Vegetarian. I do eat eggs from a friend of mine who has chickens, so I’m very particular about animal products. I don’t eat any meat or fish at all, and haven’t for 20 years. But if I do eat animal products I know where they’ve come from, and I know they are from animals who are happily and humanely raised.
So what do you tell people who want to consider eating more mercifully even if they can’t go vegetarian? Even starting out with one less meat-based meal a week helps a lot. Working toward eating less meat is better for you, anyway—we just eat way too much meat in this country. So cutting back, not assuming that for a dinner to be complete there has to be meat on your plate. There are other very interesting ways to eat. Also [find] local farmers markets and local meat. A lot of farmers markets will have somebody there who’s selling local, usually more-humanely raised, free-range meat. It’s more expensive sometimes, so there are economic class issues here in terms of who can afford to buy the animal products that are humane.
It’s part of Christian practice, to have a day where you don’t eat meat. Maybe make that two days, then look locally for meat that you know has been humanely raised.
What about endangered species? We need to think about ways to take up less space, to live with a lighter footprint, because it’s our use of the resources that provide homes for other animals that’s really the problem: cutting down forests so we have more land to graze cattle and more materials to build things.
It’s very much embedded in Christian practice, a kind of asceticism, monks and nuns for generations living lightly and with less stuff. Changing the way we live and eat—very much a kind of religious practice—will help us consume less, which means we’ll take up less of the land where other animals live.
Ms. Forbus is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist.