Animals

animal blur chipmunk close up

{Essay excerpted from Season of Wonder, Frederick Press, 2016}

Of late, several of my close companions are animals. Two cats, a neighbor horse, a neighbor dog. I am close to them in ways I am close to few others, though I have a bevy of family and friends who keep me floating on rivers of love. Few—or none—of my friends do I kiss and nuzzle and stroke and tell, “I love you so much; you are so precious to me…” (on and on gag infinitum) with regularity. At least in western culture, effusive affection isn’t the language of relationships, apart from those with young children and between couples en amorado.

 

But then there are animals. Foremost in my own life, a cat named Sybil Luddington with dense gray fur and white markings. I met Sybil when my grown daughter Madison brought her home traumatized, obscenely overweight, and—a vet confirmed after three days of her not eating—quite ill. The diagnosis: stress-induced liver failure. The owner of this timid little cat had died four weeks and three days prior; and when Madison looked through a cage into her enormous eyes, she was taken. Though the vet recommended euthanizing the cat because of liver disease, Madison lugged her home with food syringes, recovery food, and an IV drip to administer twice daily for a week. Valiantly and for two excruciating months, Madison force-fed the fully clawed cat (with me as back-up)—an enterprise most akin to hugging barbed wire. And then one winter day, after I’d resorted to spontaneous kitty reiki and Sybil had finally surrendered to our love, she started eating.

 

Though my daughter moved away, Sybil remains. When she’s not outside, she sleeps on my tall bed. Several times a day, I lean over the side, wrap my arms around her, and burrow my face into her neck, kissing her and rubbing her cheeks as she purrs. Sybil has a squat face and golden eyes, and perhaps as a lingering result of the liver illness, fatty “udders” that swing when she runs. She returns my love by sleeping at my feet, rubbing against my ankles when she passes, stretching out to let me rub her belly, and with her ever sweet voice.

 

Aside from Sybil, I have Lupe, a cat abandoned at a monastery I visit (Our Lady of Guadalupe), who chose me the afternoon I met him. He likes to groom me with his sandpaper tongue and take unleashed walks with me like a dog. Then there is a lonely horse I visit every few weeks, feeding him slices of organic apples as he lips my hand and rubs his gigantic head against my torso, and until last week, my neighbor’s vizsla*, who for several years passed time on my porch, shaking with love as I massaged his ears and looked into his melancholy eyes. I could go on about all of them. The point is: animals love.

 

As I grow older, I’m increasingly convinced of the ways animals know and love God, how the Spirit flows through them like a stream, how Spirit is so much of what they are. I believe animals have a openness to God that is rare for human beings—prone as we are to erecting barriers. God is a part of us as surely as God is a part of the animals, and is inviting us to full incarnation, perhaps the whole point of this life: allowing God to transform us into images of divinity. But animals are less handicapped by the barriers that prevent us from allowing it. My most intransigent blocks are self-doubt, over-analyzing, ego and insecurity, greed, laziness, worry. I can’t imagine these hamper wild animals to the same degree. (Domestic animals living close to humans do sometimes adopt our neurosis. I’ve known dogs to display jealously, aggression, and anxiety rivaling reality TV.)

 

St. Francis had a rare affinity with animals and reportedly talked with wild creatures. This is, in part, why he’s my favorite male saint. Yet people assume Francis could talk with the animals because he was gifted and saintly. I wonder, on the other hand, if Francis was saintly as a result of his love for and relationship with animals. When we truly see animals, they teach us about the pure flow of Spirit through all beings. They teach us how to love without constantly holding back. Maybe it was animals who taught Francis the simplicity and love needed to kiss lepers, join the poor, and bless the earth.

 

~~~

Last week I came upon a young chipmunk while on a walk. He lay in the middle of a gravel road in the sun, in an area scattered with trees. I couldn’t see or hear other chipmunks, but I knew the area hosted cats. Sitting on the gravel a few minutes, I shaded him. As I sidled close, he didn’t move, but he shook and blinked his eyes—slowly, as if sun-fatigued. I moved closer. I reached out and stroked his back. Since he didn’t mind, I moved in again and stroked him repeatedly, as he stopped shaking and shifted positions. Intending to carry him out of the sun, I extended my overturned hat so he could clamber onto it, and at a nearby tree, let him run onto the bark. When I held out my hand, he nosed my fingers, and I continued to touch his tiny body while praying what to do. His left eye was sick or injured. It seemed likely he was abandoned.

 

When I held out my hand to scoop him up, he scampered right onto it. I nestled him in the upturned end of my shirt and walked the mile home with him cradled in my sweaty palm. By the time I got there, he was a tight ball of sleep. After googling chipmunk rescue, I learned he was of-age for independence in the wild: thick fur and active, as evidenced by his scurrying frantically around the pet carrier I’d placed him in. And I knew the less time he spent with me, the better.

 

He was beautiful. In my house of cats, he would be anything but safe and peaceful, and I assumed he would do best in the lush woods behind my house and neighborhood.

 

I walked him a half block from my house—out of Lupe’s hunting range—and scouted the woods for the best chipmunk habitation I could find. I offered him a red huckleberry, which he held in his hands, working tiny teeth to break the surface before devouring it, then another and another. I found a stump beside the huckleberry bush that was thickly coated with fresh moss and placed the chipmunk and more huckleberries on top. It was the perfect chipmunk condo, as far as I could tell. While staying close, I watched him explore the stump. Slowly I backed up and took a seat on the ground about three feet away. He ran several inches down the stump and looked at me, then jumped off, climbed over sticks and fallen leaves to reach me, before scrambling onto my sandal and up my leg.

 

And at this point, I was in serious trouble.

 

I talked to him a few minutes as he scurried all over my hands and arms, and I petted him. Then I put him back on the stump and backed away—again, about three feet. This time, he didn’t explore the stump. He simply jumped off, made his way across the debris, and ran up my leg.

 

I was really praying by this point, asking God to take care of the little guy, who was so tiny and vulnerable, who could barely gnaw through a huckleberry skin. I was plagued with doubts whether I’d done the right thing picking him up in the first place. As I held him in my hands, he seemed to suck on my skin like he still needed a mother. Again, I picked up the creature, who weighed less than a silver dollar, and returned him to the stump. Then I walked far enough away that he couldn’t see me.

 

I was in tears. He ran down the stump and around the area where I had been sitting. As I watched him skittering about, I walked away, feeling the forceps of sadness seizing my heart.

 

Living with Lupe in the woods, I see dead rodents all the time—mice, shrews, voles. Occasionally, Lupe even catches chipmunks, leaving nothing intact but the tail. Chipmunks apparently taste better than voles. I usually pick up the dead voles and mice by the tail, say, “You poor little guy,” and toss them into the trees without a trace of real sadness.

 

But I cried repeatedly that night as I pictured the tiny chipmunk in the woods. Why was I so broken up over this one chipmunk when I deal with dead rodents all the time? The difference, of course, is connection. That chipmunk and I formed a connection in a short time. We shared a bit of love. It makes me wonder how humans’ relationships with animals would be different if we shared loving connections with more animals—domestic and wild—far more frequently. Very different, I expect. These connections don’t have to be direct or affectionate—and with wild animals it’s usually not advisable. But our modern lives rarely offer opportunities for even indirect connections with animals beyond our pets. More and more, I am challenged by this. I wonder if I started visiting the cows and chickens down our country road, forming a connection with them, I’d become a vegetarian. Looking in their eyes and touching their soft heads, I probably would. Vegetarianism isn’t for everybody, and I appreciate the non-judgmental vegetarians among us. I appreciate that many local farmers have strong connections with their animals, and yet they farm. But I know myself. Maybe that is why I don’t visit the cows and chickens.

 

And like I said, I am challenged by this.

 

*Last week my vizsla friend Chili, my neighbors’ dog, died after weeks of declining health. I was able to hold him, cry over him, and tell him goodbye. His gaze seemed more vacant than usual for the medication and pain, like his soul was checking out early, heading for the light. I believe animal spirits live on, as do humans’. My house backs onto a hillside of woods that stretch for miles to the ocean, and among the vine maples, hemlocks, and ferns where Chili used to roam, I will stay alert for the brush of his sweet spirit, in case he chooses to visit.

 

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2 thoughts on “Animals

  1. Tricia, thank you for this beautiful and moving celebration of the human/non-human animal connection. Too often, those of us who’ve had deep friendships with another animal get dismissed as sentimentalists…with the one doing the condemning not realizing that our emotional selves prove our kinship with other mammals rather than our distinctiveness or superiority. (The limbic system, seat of our feelings and the memories associated with them, is a common legacy for all mammals, hence the way non-human animals can reciprocate the loving bonds we form with them.)

    A year ago, my family and I adopted an abandoned feral kitten who was probably eight weeks old. He was the most loving being I’d ever encountered, and his trust was utter and unconditional, as he demonstrated by rolling over with joy to have his belly fur combed, his forelegs upheld to expose his whole chest. One of our adult cats, Gimli, became his adoptive father. Heartbreakingly, he died ten days after coming into our lives. Animal foster-care providers I’ve met have told me that feral kittens often fail to thrive, and the medical reasons aren’t always clear. Although we often think about the adult cat he’d be right now, we also feel blessed to have known this spiritual little being in a tiny kitten body, as well as to have given him a week and a half of love (and the opportunity for him to share his love with all of us) rather than an end of life filled with fear, loneliness, and hunger.

    I’ll be thinking thoughts of light for the chipmunk you’d rescued. I hope he’s thriving in his new home. As a teenager, my first (volunteer) job was working in an animal rehab center with injured or abandoned wildlife, and my adult colleagues often debated the ethics of intervening in natural processes, including enabling an animal to survive when he/she might not have if “nature had been allowed to take its course.” I’m not a wildlife expert, but I agree with you that I’d rather err on the side of compassion. After all, is life really all about the “fittest” surviving, or is it about the kindness with which we treat ourselves and our fellow beings?

    1. Oh, I’m so glad this little kitten found its way to your family! What a joy that you got to experience his love, and he yours. Thank you for sharing this.

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