When I was young, one of the most important members of our family was Nipper. He was a medium-sized dog with amazingly intelligent eyes, a golden coat, and a combination of the best traits of numerous breeds. He was a faithful playmate, protector, and coconspirator during my daily adventures. Many people remember a beloved four-legged friend who shared their youth, although none (I am sad to have to break this to you) can have been quite so glorious as Nipper.
Our house was across the street from a large park that served as a picnic spot in our small Midwestern town. In the center of the park was a large playground, and among Nipper’s many talents was a mastery of the sliding chute. On Sundays, when the park was filled, Nipper would prance over to the playground to begin his show — ceaselessly climbing the high ladder and sliding down the chute. Naturally, a crowd would soon form, cheering him on, although such an exhibitionist as he needed little encouragement. My brother and I would stand in the back of the crowd too embarrassed to admit that this was our dog, but too proud of Nipper to leave. You know the feeling.
Pets are our teachers, acting as mirrors for our behavior. All faiths have a variation of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A sincere practice of this simple statement should include not only people, but all life. In the Gospel of St. Matthew we find this famous passage:
“For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Our love for God should be given equally whether He is masquerading as a beggar, a dog, a cat, an ocean, or a rainforest. Perhaps God gives us pets as first lessons in love and compassion, before we move on to the more complex task of loving other people, or even ourselves.
We recently attended a fundraising dinner put on by the Guibord Center, an interfaith work in Los Angeles dedicated to building bridges and fostering respect among various spiritual expressions. The highlight of the evening was a short film about how various traditions treat animals. (I’ve included below a link to the trailer; the film itself is available there as well.)
Life should be a glorious experience of giving and receiving love, which animals do so naturally. We would have longer and happier lives were we to heed the advice of a bumper sticker I once saw: “I wish I were the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”