ANIMAL LESSONS IN LOVE
A SPRITUAL RELATIONSHIP WITH ANIMALS
by Mary Lou Randour
Many wise people have used a great diversity of stories and words to describe spirituality. When we get down to the essence of spirituality, however, it is simply about love. As Martin Buber wrote, “If you wish to believe, love!” If you wish to believe, to develop spiritually, to expand your consciousness, you need to love: fully, completely, unabashedly, joyfully.
Animals are experts on love. In the last twenty years, thanks to researchers like Jane Goodall, Roger Fouts, and Jeffrey Masson, we have learned more about animals — both those who live free and those with whom we share our lives — and their ability to love. One young chimp that Jane Goodall studied loved his mother so much that after she died he wasted away, eventually dying of grief. Ally, another young chimp, would have died after his separation from his human mother, the only mother he had known, if it were not for the intervention of Roger Fouts and his assistant, Bill Chown. After Ally’s human mother decided she could no longer look after him, she left him with a small colony of chimpanzees under the care and study of Roger and Deborah Fouts and their graduate students. After the separation, Ally became despondent, pulling his hair out and losing the use of his right arm from hysterical paralysis. Fouts and Chown, fearing for Ally’s life, carried him close to their chests wherever they went. They did this every waking minute, day after day; Ally was never alone. After two months of such loving care, Ally emerged from his depression and came back to life.
Chimps, of course, are not the only animals capable of exceptional demonstrations of love. Masson describes an account of a group of elephants who lovingly and successfully rescued a young rhino caught in the mud, despite the attacks of nearby adult rhinos, who feared the elephants were trying to harm the youngster.
And every day, we directly experience the love of the animals with whom we share our lives — love without reservation, judgment, or expectation. The animals by our side don’t care what we look like, how successful we are, whether we are fat or thin, rich or poor. They simply love us. We benefit from their attention and enjoy their unconditional love, a love that never doubts our motives, neither wavering nor withdrawing.
Adult humans, on the other hand, complicate love. We tend to love ambivalently. Our love comes mixed with other emotions: lack of trust, fear of loss of control, hesitancy to expose our vulnerability, doubt, and a resistance to relinquishing our own self-interest. Animals can teach us about love, about becoming vulnerable, and about leaving doubt behind.
Love has many aspects; the capacity to trust is one of them. The lessons animals teach us about trust are not abstract or symbolic but concrete and dramatic. A neighbor and friend of mine, Judy Johnson, once told me about an experience she had at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, immediately after a hurricane. She and a small group of people stood on a bridge marveling at the frightening power of the swollen, surging Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers below. A young woman with her golden retriever stood on the bank of one of the rivers near the bridge. Unthinkingly, she picked up a stick and threw it into the water for her dog to fetch. The dog swam for the stick, but quickly became overwhelmed by the surging current. Everybody looked on in horror as the dog was swept away. The current thrust him against a large boulder, to which he clung desperately. At first, the onlookers breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the dog reach the rock. But his reprieve from danger was short-lived.
The currents continued to push against the dog. He would lose his grip, struggle, and barely find another part of the rock to grasp. The young woman frantically called for him to swim toward her. He would try, but it was physically impossible to swim against the current. The swift movement of the river would carry him back to where he had started, clinging to the rock for safety. Everybody could see the dog growing weaker.
Looking around, Judy noticed the currents of the rivers met at a point downstream. She yelled to the young woman to run across the bridge to the other side of the river, to stand at the convergence and call her dog. She ran to the point, which stood behind her dog, and called to him. The dog looked over his shoulder as he heard her call. Without hesitation, he let go of the rock, and as he did, the current swept him to safety, where he was reunited with his human companion.
Could any of us trust as that dog did? It is certainly one of my spiritual aspirations. The golden retriever’s trust for his companion came from the ability of dogs to love without hesitation or doubt. Love allowed the golden retriever to let go.
Many spiritual practices aim at helping practitioners to let go. To advance spiritually, we need to relinquish control, to move beyond our ego. We need to realize that there are no guarantees in life and no material permanence. Until we let go, our vision of the vast web of creation is obscured — by fear, desire, and any number of emotions separating us from the unity of existence.
Michael, a man who acknowledges that he has difficulty accepting loss, received inspiration from his dog, Daisy. Michael was aware that in his relationships he erected barriers between himself and other people, barriers meant to protect him from loss. He had learned the lesson that if one loves, eventually one will also suffer loss. No one can guarantee that a relationship will survive until death; and even if it does, we still die. Michael sensed he was holding back, and his partner sensed it, too. He was unsatisfied with the limitations he put on his love, yet he couldn’t overcome his fear of loss. That is until Daisy, with her devoted, unwavering, boundless love for Michael, taught him how to love. Daisy’s love pierced the barriers Michael had erected. He was able to learn to love without defending himself. Knowing that dogs live, depending on their size and other factors, from ten to fifteen years, Michael was constantly aware that one day Daisy would die. The fear aroused by this knowledge, however, withered in the face of Daisy’s love. In time, Michael brought the open-hearted love that Daisy had taught him to his other relationships —with his wife, mother, and close friends.
Not only can animals teach us about trust, they also can teach us to transcend our self-interest. Bud, a cat, an exemplar of such selflessness, had an event-filled life. As a young kitten, Bud was rescued by Judy Johnson and her daughter, Samantha. Bud needed rescuing. He was flea-ridden, weak, and sick. As he grew stronger and began to thrive, Judy noticed that of all her cats Bud appeared to be the most attached to his home. He loved being at home — and no wonder. Home was where he had found life through the tender care of his human friends.
When Bud was about a year old, his home suffered a devastating fire. Samantha, who was in the house when the fire started, looked for the cats as she made her escape. Most of them appeared to have fled.
After the fire, Judy and Samantha started searching for their cats, scraping through the rubble the fire had left. Under the deck, atop a smoldering pile of wood, they found Bud perched, blackened, smelling like gasoline, but unhurt. Unlike Judy’s other cats, Bud had refused to leave his home, against all reason.
Judy rebuilt her house, and life began to return to normal. The trauma of the fire receded. Bud went on with his life in the home he loved. A few years after the fire, Maggie, one of Judy’s neighbors and friends, came to tell Judy that her long-ailing husband, Carl, had died the day before. As they were talking and grieving together, Bud crawled up into Maggie’s lap, where he remained. When Maggie got up to return home, Bud followed her, never to return to Judy’s again. From that night on he made his home with Maggie, with the mutual consent of both Maggie and Judy.
Bud, of course, couldn’t replace Maggie’s husband, Carl. But Bud brought a new life into the house that lifted Maggie’s spirits and filled her days with love.
How do we explain Bud’s actions? I don’t pretend to understand his motivation. I do know that he gave up a home he loved and filled Maggie’s home with affection and companionship that was welcome and healing. There really is no adequate way to explain love. This is not a failure, but rather a statement about its nature. We intuit and experience love, rather than know it rationally. It is the stuff of poetry, not prose; of mystery, not certainty. Love, like all that is sacred and holy, cannot be categorized, dissected, or ever completely penetrated by rational, conscious methods. Trying to grasp love with words is futile and can lead us away from it. Animals simply live love. With their help, we can, too.