Our animal contradictions

“Walter” (detail)

How Unitarian Universalism can help us sort out our place in the animal world.

Image: Walter (detail), oil on board.

© 2006 Sally Muir (Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library)


When I first heard the words “animal” and “ministry” together, I had to pause. Really? What was this? Ministers who help animals with their spirituality? Animals who comfort people, like therapy dogs? Or perhaps a spiritualized form of animal-rights activism?

As I learned more, I realized both my animals and my church community have spiritually fed me throughout my life. At one of the first classes I took at my local church, the minister asked us to list ten words that described us. I wrote “animal lover” at the top of my list.

I had just moved to a small rural town, to start a hobby farm on a few acres. Since then, scores of animals have been in my life—dogs, cats, sheep, goats, chickens, hamsters, and lots of wild creatures. I go to extreme lengths to care for some of these animals. Some I eat. Some I kill. Like most people in our culture, I live with contradictions in how I relate to the animal world.

My daughters roll their eyes when they hear me talking in my garden: “Mom and her snakes.” Seeing snakes—an often-endangered animal in the middle of the food chain, both predator and prey—makes me feel more hopeful about the environment. I appreciate their eating the slugs and beetles. I pet them if they’ll let me.

One morning I woke to find a colorful milk snake in my second-floor bedroom, and that did tighten my breathing. Two nets made simple work of taking it outside, just as I do with birds, bats, and chipmunks who find their way inside my farmhouse. Another summer day I noticed a long black snake living under the playhouse. I brought it mice I’d killed in my traps. I called my daughters to the window and we watched, fascinated, as the snake dislocated its tiny jaw to devour them.

Living in the world without killing other sentient beings, or being responsible for their deaths, is nearly impossible, so we have to draw lines. I happily share my homestead with snakes, but I’ve made peace with killing mice and rats—mammals like me—who rip open feed sacks in the barn, poop under the kitchen sink, and keep coming back and multiply­ing. I save spiders, crane flies, and antlions, but I may kill dozens of mosquitoes, ticks, flies, yellow jackets, beetles, ants, and moths in a day. I have loaded my car with lambs and chickens I have raised, and borne witness to the slaughter. When a desperate wood­chuck was slashing its long incisors and claws into my frail elderly dog, I pinned it with a pitch­fork then smashed its head with a sledgehammer—the most violent act I have committed.

I do think of myself as an animal lover, but it’s complicated.

We live in a culture that has a contradictory view of the animal world rooted in a religious idea: that humans are more important than other animals. We humans have had no trouble obeying the Genesis verse to “be fruitful and multiply . . . and have dominion . . . over every living thing.” At the same time, humans have a need to connect with the natural world—what biologist E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia.” It feeds our spirits.

As the human population has abandoned or built up the countryside to live in cities and suburbs, we have less and less contact with the animals that produce our food and clothing, and we have destroyed wild-animal habitats. At the same time, Americans’ consumption of meat has risen dramatically (now averaging 240 pounds a year), and our relationships with our pets have become closer than ever, even neurotically close.

Religion can give us a way to face our imbalance and our disconnection from the animal world. Unitarian Universalism may be especially well suited to break down the religious firewalls between divine, human, and animal. We can find guidance in both our First Principle (“the inherent worth and dignity of every person”) and our Seventh (“respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”). We can treat each other with respect as we struggle with ethical and spiritual questions about our relationship to animals, even when we come up with different answers.

Psychologist Dan Gilbert jokes that everyone in his profession dreams of writing a sentence that starts, “The human being is the only animal that . . .” Not just psychologists, but also religious thinkers have filled the blank with: “is moral,” “makes art,” “makes tools,” “has an imagination,” “knows it is going to die.” One by one, scientists are disproving these pronouncements.

Yet I cannot help but offer my own: the human being is the only animal that agonizes over what it eats. Eating is the most intimate and violent interaction most people ever have with other living beings.

My grandparents slaughtered steers, hogs, and chickens on their farms. Growing up in a suburb, I ate meat at every meal, and saw no contradiction with my passion for pets until I tried to make the pieces of my own homestead fit together. I spent an afternoon at the local slaughterhouse watching how animals were killed and converted into meat. I was prepared to be turned off meat entirely, but that’s not what happened. The killing was so quick, the workers had killed three hogs before I could figure out how they did it: they wrapped a chain around the hog's rear leg, raised it with a hydraulic lift, then stuck a knife in the throat.

I can’t say I’ve resolved the tension in myself between loving and eating animals. I have, however, found three practices that help me to be more mindful as an eater of meat.

The first discipline is returning to the earliest religious practice I can remember: taking a moment to bless my food, to feel reverence and gratitude for what it means to take another life in order to sustain mine. I imagine that animal, just as I could picture my own sheep or chickens, along with the growers and workers who made it possible for me to eat.

Second, I eat far less meat than I did growing up, and I avoid factory-farmed meat. It feels right to eat meat from the goat farm whose nannies board at our place; to enjoy the eggs of my chickens, who run to me for treats; and to barter fruit for venison with my hunter friend at church. I find my health is better when I eat some animal protein. After years of reporting on health, my hunch is that in time we’ll see a diet that includes cleanly raised animal protein nutritionally vindicated.

A far more pressing ethical issue than whether humans should ever eat meat is our responsibility for factory farming on the scale required to feed the human and pet population today. The horrors of huge lagoons of animal waste, routine use of antibiotics, and animals so tightly confined they cannot stand have been well documented. The most compelling argument against eating meat, for me, is that farm animals contribute more greenhouse gases than all modes of transportation put together.

Third, I ask myself at each meal, “What is the best food choice I can make?” This trumps everything. The answer is different if I’ve selected and prepared my food, if someone else is cooking, or if I’m eating out. My choice may be based on health or the environment, or on my love of culinary pleasure or being in community. If someone has made me a meal, or invited me to celebrate with them, then it’s obvious: I eat what I’m served. Nothing is, so to speak, off the table.

Long before we get a whiff of the sea, Opal, my rescued greyhound, knows where we’re headed. With her deep chest, muscular haunches, and almost furless body, Opal was born to run. Every day I can, I take her to a beautiful spot where she can lay tracks at 30 miles per hour, spin in tight circles, and zoom around long ovals of her choosing.

My spirit soars as I watch her coursing flight. Hiking with my dogs through cathedrals of tall straight pines, seeing them leap up granite boulders to a mountaintop or run along beaches that stretch forever are among my deepest joys. When I take a walk without a dog, it feels like a part of me is missing.

One day when Opal and I were finishing our beach walk, rain began to fall. A nursing-home van sat in the parking lot. The residents’ outing was ruined, and the driver had opened the door while they ate their lunches. Opal peeked in. “Oh, please let her come on.” “Here, doggie.” The driver invited her on board. She walked slowly from front to back, greeting each person, as if inquiring how they were, how they liked their lunch. Smiles and crinkly eyes lit up each face. I watched as the joy I get from my dog spread from person to person. This felt like animal ministry.

The openheartedness of many domesticated animals, their sensitivity to body language, can cut through to places we may not even realize we’ve shut away. Therapists know the value of animals in working with children, the elderly, abuse victims, people with mental and physical disabilities, the grieving, and anyone who feels misunderstood or lonely. Families with pets know the lessons animals teach about responsibility and kindness, about birth and death.

On the farms where my parents grew up, dogs and cats lived under the porch and ate table scraps plus whatever they could catch. Opal sleeps on the couch and wears a coat when it’s cold. Americans’ spending on pets keeps rising, and now totals more than $61 billion a year. The greatest growth is on items that would have shocked my grandparents: specialty foods, pet clothing, surgeries, dental work, daycare, and spas. I have no doubt my grandparents’ free-range dogs led better-quality lives than Opal does. Confining pets indoors or in fenced yards is safer for them, for us, and for the wild animals they may prey on. But twenty-first-century pets are more like captive animals we keep for our own pleasure than companion animals—and at a tremendous cost of resources.

A woman in my church took the microphone from the minister. All of us sitting in the congregation knew from past Sundays how much she cared for the feral cats who flock to her back stoop. Now the town was threatening to evict her from senior housing if she didn’t stop feeding them. She wouldn’t stop. She lit a candle of concern.

If any group would understand her plight, our Unitarian Universalist congregation would. Sprinkled through the pews were others who give up rooms to foster difficult-to-place animals, spend weekends driving dogs to adoptive homes, and run equine therapy workshops. Some years back, under cover of night, a church women’s group organized a mission to steal a neglected German shepherd with mastitis and mange from a cramped backyard kennel after legal attempts to get the dog away from its owner had failed.

Visiting a larger UU church, I listened to a parishioner whose dog had almost died in labor and had been turned away at an animal hospital. As a lay worship leader, I wonder how newcomers and members who aren’t animal people may react to these pet-related “joys and sorrows.”

Yet I know from experience these heartaches are real. I’m sure my unease comes from having a foot in each world—farming and pet owning—and from my own self-consciousness about how far I’ve gone down the pet-neurotic and unsustainable road myself. Our religion asks us to honor one another’s experiences with compassion. Who am I, or who is any of us, to question what brings a person joy, pain, solace, even moments of divinity?

Unitarian Universalism doesn’t draw a line at what counts as spiritual—and that aspect of our tradition is sometimes misunderstood, or made fun of. It has also, however, compelled us to push at evils rooted in conventional religious thinking such as slavery, racism, sexism, and homophobia. How we draw lines between the divine, human, and animal needs a push, too. We should be talking about this at church. The UU Animal Ministry started a conversation in the 1980s, focusing on animal rights and vegetarianism. As ministers have joined, including the Rev. Gary Kowalski (The Souls of Animals) and the Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner, who leads bird conservation projects in Central America, the group has created animal blessing liturgies, written curricula, and promoted rephrasing our First Principle to include “the inherent worth of all beings.”

It’s not our “relationship to animals” we need to rethink. We are animals, and just one small, very out-of-balance part of the animal world. The hubris of thinking that we are above other animals—denying our own “animalness,” our sexuality, the violence inherent in eating, the inevitability of death, and the limits of our control—has gotten us into serious trouble on this planet. The human-centered perspective is so entrenched in how we think, we may not even realize it: we speak of an alligator-“infested” swamp, rather than a natural habitat; fearful of mosquito-borne viruses, we demand aerial spraying that also affects fish, amphibians, and pollinators critical to the delicate web of life.

Our love for animals may be a way to help us change course. As my daughter Shaya wrote in a college essay: “We won’t survive as a species with our current understanding and sense of entitlement toward the planet. We need a paradigm shift from owning the earth to being part of it. Understanding animals is one way humans can learn this paradigm.”

Unitarian Universalism can help us sort out our place in the animal world—how we find joy in other animals; how we bless, celebrate, and grieve our bonds with them; how we act on the ethical questions about animal products we consume and resources we devote to pets; and most important, how we can call one another to reverse the imbalance and damage we’ve done to the earth that all of us animals depend on.

These interlocking ethical and spiritual questions are complex. What guides me is a belief that we are all one. Life sustains itself by consuming other living things. Everything living reproduces, dies, and goes back to the earth. I will keep walking with my dogs, gardening with snakes, laughing at my chickens, and pushing toward answers.

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