Sunday, September 18, 2011
Do Animals Have Souls? (A Veterinarian's Perspective)
This was an article I had written for a pet column a couple years ago and recently posted on our website (www.nilesanimalhospital.com) I had received many comments about it so I decided to place it on the blog.
Several years ago, shortly after we had moved into our new home, my wife had invited the parish priest over for dinner and also to bless our house. The priest was Father Murphy who is a wonderful man with a loving, compassionate and congenial nature. He and I would banter back and forth over the years because my wife is Catholic and I am Greek Orthodox. We would talk about our different faiths and one of my stock wisecracks was that I did not sacrifice lambs to Zeus in the backyard anymore so my wife was not subjected to any more of those ancient Greek traditions.
During our dinner, I came up with a question that has always haunted me for years. I had always struggled with the notion that animals do not have souls. Being a pet owner and animal lover my whole life there was no better therapy for me than interacting with a beloved animal companion. They sensed your moods and a warm, sloppy lick on your face when you were down was the best cure for whatever troubled your heart. You would look into their eyes and you could feel a special presence. If souls do exist you felt that animals definitely had them. When I was attending graduate school in Alabama I would engage in some fairly heated discussions as to the existence of animal souls with some pretty intense Southern Christians. They claimed, according to the Bible, animals were placed here solely for the benefit of Man, did not have souls and I argued against that notion. They usually dismissed me as a heretic Yankee, but I was unwavering in my contention.
Having a man of the cloth in our home, whom I deeply respected, I had to ask him this question that has always troubled me. I told him of my internal struggle with a nagging question and said I had to present it to him. He looked at me quizzically imagining what kind of strange question I could come up with in my fertile mind. I then asked Father Murphy what was the Catholic Church’s stance as to whether or not animals had souls. He gave me a bemused smile and said that only Man has a soul, animals have “anima,” the spark of life. I smiled back, stating that having pets my entire life and being a veterinarian, devoting my life to their medical care, my belief was quite a bit different. I told Father Murphy through my living with and caring for animals all my life, that when I gaze into those beautiful, loving eyes I see more than just a spark of life, I truly believe they have souls and they deserve to be in Heaven. I further went on to tell him that he probably thought that because I am a “pagan Greek” I was disagreeing with the Catholic Church’s stance, but in my heart this is what I believed deeply.
Father Murphy could have dismissed my remarks or reacted testily like some of my Southern friends did, but his answer demonstrated why he was so beloved by the parish. Father Murphy flashed his trademark smile and with a bit of twinkle in his eye he gave me a wonderful, thoughtful and simple response, “Well, Peter, one of these days we will both find out which one of us was right.” That response further endeared Father Murphy to me. Yes, one of these days we will find out and if I do make it to Heaven I am hoping to see all my pets and the animals I have cared for over the years as a veterinarian.
Will Rogers really had it right when he said, “If there are no dogs in Heaven then, when I die, I want to go where they went.” Even the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson had commented, “You think dogs will not be in Heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”
For those of us who had the experiences of loving relationships with companion animals know there is so much more than just the spark of life. Animals make our lives whole and ask for little, yet give us so much. We pet people all feel that we will all meet our animal companions again in Heaven. And if Father Murphy is right, that it is anima, what a wonderful, loving and powerful spark of life it is indeed.