Living in central Texas these days means heat, drought, and wildfires. The last month was particularly devastating as fires ravaged areas around Austin where we have lived years. As a person deeply involved in dog rescue, considering the plight of pets in homes threatened by wildfires is agonizing. Sometimes the fires come so quickly there is no opportunity to get back home; roads are blocked before you can make it back to save your pets from what could end up being an inferno. Images of cats with singed ears and whiskers, of dogs with burned paws and tails, and of wildlife running or flying or crawling as quickly as they could to escape the coming flames are embedded in my mind and they covered the media reports. The wildfires reminded me yet again that animals share with us the joys and the tragedies of life and death. As the book of Genesis states clearly, animals are filled with the breath of life and God proclaims that they are indeed good! Throughout the Bible, God declares joy in relationship with animals; I think particularly of passages in Job where God praises the strength of the horse and tends to animals in labor. Yet, too often these powerful relationships with other animals are dismissed or marginalized. Still, I am hopeful that we humans are reconsidering other animals now and including them more directly in our circles of compassion and love. Why? Whats going on? First, in times of disaster animals are taken into account. Following the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, a plan must be in place for companion animals to evacuate during a natural disaster in the U.S. Now shelters open with a place for pets to find safety until they can return home. Second, serious studies indicate how significant it is to human well-being to have animals in our midst. From dogs who work with children in amazingly successful literacy programs to horses who partner in physical therapy for individuals with challenges to cats who offer companionship to Alzheimers patients, the myriad ways companion animals enrich the lives of humans are countless. In October, congregations have an opportunity to bless animals. The Feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of ecology, is October 4. This day has been adopted by many Christian communities as the time to ask for Gods blessing on animals from pets to farm animals to wildlife. It can be a celebration of the many ways they enrich our lives. But I suggest such a blessing should also be a confession of sin and a request for forgiveness. Humans have so often ignored (at best) and horribly abused (at worst) the other creatures in our midst. Blessing, confession, and forgiveness must lead to transformation of relationships–to embracing the others in our midst. This is as true for animals as it is for other humans. So in communal and individual ways, reach out and bless those life-giving and life-affirming animals who bring such joy to our lives. You will receive countless blessings in return.
Laura Hobgood-Oster is Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies and holds the Paden Chair in Religion at Southwestern University. Featured in the documentary Eating Mercifully, produced by the Humane Society of the United States, and frequently interviewed by national print and broadcast media, she is the author of The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals and Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition and executive editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. She lives in Georgetown, Texas.