Spirituality

The real reason we love our pets so much

Our attachment to animals gives us clues about God's plan for us

 

I wept over a lizard some few days back, briefly, a drippy tear or two. It was the death of a fat tail leopard gecko named Severus that moved me so. Severus had given my youngest daughter happiness for several years. She has allergies to fur dander so the unfurry creatures have constituted her collection of shelf pets through the years, once we figured out that guinea pigs and gerbils and the like ought to be called the Rodents of Death.

One goes through shelf pets swiftly it seems, to be disposed of like broken toys in time, though not without a little sadness. We took in two guinea pigs once. We agreed to take them in for a friend. One was old when it arrived and died shortly after. No grief there, but we buried it ceremoniously anyway, in the back yard under a tree.

The other was clever, though very shy, hiding in a plastic igloo. We would drop a treat opposite from the opening and the little animal would jostle the igloo entrance around to the food, snatch it, and jostle it back so we would not see him. He preferred a private dining setting. When we figured out the allergy, we dropped him to a no-kill pet shelter, with his igloo.

So it was reptiles thereafter. I cannot think of how many green anoles have found lodging in our home. That is a lousy reptile for a child: Skittish, reclusive, fast, and in our experience, untamable and never affectionate, also short lived. But they are small, which is why they – with five-gallon tank, minimum – fit nicely on most shelves.

The last one died in 2009. I remember this because I was in New York. I had hoped the thing would go morte before I had to leave home, but it stubbornly hung on. The girl, then twelve, texted medical bulletins, morning and evening, I think I recall. The anole died green three days later, green being a color of happiness for anoles, turning from deep brown prior to dying. It was a good death, she pointed out.

But this latest lizard, I really liked it. Severus was perfectly fine one day, eating and basking, and dead the next. She lived not even half her expected lifespan.

As lizards go, she had an endearing personality. She’d eat from your hand, lick your fingers (and ear lobes if she got close enough), and she would wink at you (though perhaps that was only an instinctual cleansing of the eyeball I misinterpreted).

Funny, these attachments we make with animals, wild and domestic, how deeply they enter our hearts; funny, but perhaps endemic to humans. There is something of mythic Eden in the connections we seek. Maybe a longing return to the primal bonding Adam enjoyed.

God, remember, in the second Genesis account (Gen. 2:19), made the animals to help Adam in his loneliness, forming them from the ground as he had formed Adam. Then God brought the animals to Adam “to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.” Adam’s task of naming equally carries some responsibility for their welfare, some spontaneous love of the creatures sharing the earth.

Animals will not properly be ours in the resurrection, come the consummation of time. But perhaps – C.S. Lewis I think suggested this – we may recreate our fondest memories, summoning animals again to our affections. “If heaven is the world healed,” says Paul J. Griffiths in Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, “all plant and animal kinds, with all their individual members, should be present there, transfigured as inhabitants of the peaceable kingdom.”

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Russell E. Saltzman

Russell E. Saltzman is a web columnist at First Things magazine and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Before entering the Roman Catholic Church he was a Lutheran pastor. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead.  He can be reached on Twitter as @RESaltzman and by email at russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com