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Lessons of Love

Realizing our greatest companions

One of the observations I used to see in critiques of stories about animals was that the author anthropomorphized the animals, in other words, attributed human characteristics to them. There is less and less of this criticism now, and I believe it’s because we are finding out—both scientifically and on a personal level—that there are a lot of similarities between humans and animals, similarities that seem to grow more poignant all the time. As well, we are finding that animals have an almost telepathic ability to know us better than we know ourselves.

Of course, it’s disturbing to see the misguided ideas some folks have that wild animals exist in our national parks or in the wilderness in order to provide entertainment for curious humans, or that they are approachable for petting and selfies.  Setting this cultural disconnect aside, and looking only at our genuine, observable connection with familiar animals, there is a broadening awareness that animals are more intelligent than we’ve previously believed, and that they experience emotions.

Many of us grew up with a horse, dog, cat, Guinea pig, turtle, iguana, or a snake. What having pets taught me was a greater sense of solidarity with animals and ultimately with humans. As a child, I began to see that I existed on the same continuum as animals did. We were not so different after all. This brought out my curiosity about the entire animal kingdom (and ultimately other cultures), whether it was the crocodiles of Africa or the great horned owls in the old tree outside my bedroom. Animals are increasingly important members of our households; we humans spend millions of dollars caring for and indulging them, and we are mesmerized by their antics on social media.

Many indigenous peoples have a fundamental belief that wild animals are our brothers and sisters and deserve the same respect as humans. Buddhists have always believed that animals can suffer both physically and mentally. These ideas are far more common than they were fifty years ago, and seem to be leading all of us in a good direction. We see that in many ways, the responsibility for our pets’ happiness rests with us, with our willingness to spend time with them, and to live in the moment with them the same way we do with a child or a grandchild. Every youngster who acquires a pet goes through a stiff learning curve and finds that the quality of the connection with that animal is directly proportional to the attention and respect we give to that creature.

When I think of pets, particularly the many dogs I have had, the word that comes to mind is "guide.” Over my lifetime, my dogs revealed many truths to me, and often those truths were about my own need to do better, to serve my dog—and others—with more diligence and love. Is there a truer friend than a dog? A better listener or confidante? The idea of service and love is braided into their DNA, and the simple act of sitting near a dog helps my world make greater sense, like there is hope and joy yet to be discovered. Each of my dogs, whether Newfoundland or Irish setter or boxer or poodle, has guided me on sunny autumn walks, bounding along through fallen leaves, but also through harsh losses and disappointments. And while we discover the real meaning of loss when our pet leaves us, we also discover the real meaning of love.