On Judaism & Animals
In this time of COVID and quarantine, there is one trend worthy of a positive headline. Animal shelters across America are seeing a record number of pet adoptions. If we can’t have our morning office banter, or our weekly coffee date, we’ll opt for a purring cat on our lap or a sleeping dog curled up on the foot of our bed.
There’s no question that animals have a positive affect on our mentality. Scientific studies show that people who own dogs live longer, and that owning a pet is even good for our cardiovascular health. It’s been long assumed that pets improve our mental health, but now we have scientific data to prove it.
A couple of years ago, when I was serving as a clergy person, I visited a dear woman named Betty, who at age 98, suffered from severe dementia. I know that Betty didn’t recognize me, and that my visit likely confused her. But when I placed our dachshund puppy, Trixie, on her lap, her eyes lit up immediately. A smile blossomed across her face. If Trixie jumped down, Betty appeared somber again, but as soon as I placed the squirmy pup back on her lap, her smile reappeared. Her family told me how much she adored dogs, and as I watched her petting Trixie, Betty seemed to be transported.
It’s no secret to people who know me that I love animals. My husband has barred me from visiting our local animal shelter for at least the next two years. I have a habit of visiting the place once a year, and bringing a new pet home. At the time of this writing, we have four dogs, and five cats (including the occasional bonus cat that decides to frequent our backyard and share the cat food). A few years ago when my daughter’s cat EJ disappeared for three weeks, we visited the animal shelter to look for her. We didn’t find EJ, but we did find Mr. Whiskers, a friendly, long haired black cat with the meow of an angel. Sure enough, that evening as we sat on our deck admiring Mr. Whiskers, EJ appeared in our drive way, shooting us a glare for having the audacity to bring another feline into her home. And just like that, we were a five cat family.
My rescue of animals extends beyond shelter visits; our Yorkie mix, Teddy, was given to us by an alcoholic woman living out of her van. I met the woman in a grocery store parking lot. I could tell Teddy was sick, and the woman clearly needed money. So I marched myself into the store, withdrew the $200 that the woman requested from the ATM, and Teddy was ours. We learned the next day from our vet that she suffered from a severe uterine infection and was on the verge of being septic. Following an emergency surgery and several doses of antibiotics, Teddy perked up, and began the odd habit of dragging any possession of mine under our bed to make a little “nest.” To this day, whenever something of mine goes missing, we know to look under the bed. She’s taken countless pajama tops, my eye glasses, my lipsticks, my headphones and even my wallet. I don’t know what goes on in her little head; if she were a human, her obsession with my things would be creepy, but when you watch her drag a shoe half her size under the bed, you can’t help but think it’s adorable.
Given my affinity for four legged creatures, I was excited when I read about Judaism’s emphasis on kindness to animals. I once heard a rabbi talk about never letting animals go hungry, and to this day when I’m preparing a meal, I can’t help but glance at the pet dish to ensure that it’s full.
While I love all of our pets, there is one dog that no other canine can hold a candle to. His name was Matthew, but upon adopting him, I renamed him Henry. He was a half corgi, half dachshund that looked like a little fox, complete with a white tipped tail. Henry adored me, and I adored Henry. Having brought him home a month after my father died, two weeks after the 911 terror attacks, and a week after my employer received anthrax in the mail, I was undoubtedly stressed. Henry was my refuge, my anti-depressant. He loved to frolic in fields and sit on my lap. When I was in his sight, all was right in the world. It’s a privilege to be so adored by any living creature.
Henry had epilepsy, and when I was three months pregnant with my oldest daughter, he had a massive grand mal seizure that he never came out of. He’s buried in the backyard in one of our old houses behind some rose bushes. Sometimes when I am lucky, I have dreams of him. He’s just like the Henry I remember, with nothing but love radiating from his furry red coat.
In a world that that can be harsh and ugly, when we seem forever polarized, our love for animals is a uniting force. No matter if we vote red or blue, we cried when our teachers read us Old Yeller or Where the Red Ferns Grow. We grow angry when we hear stories of animal abuse and puppy mills, and we tear up when we watch clips of soldiers returning home to jumping, licking dogs. Dogs who waited patiently by the door for months for their person to return. And we can’t help but smile when we hear the familiar story of a cat who wandered hundreds of miles to find its owner.
The first time my children saw their father and I cry together was at the death of a pet. It’s a painful thing to watch, but it’s also a blessing. There’s something sacred about laying an animal rest, about scooping dirt upon its grave.
G-d made animals for a purpose, and perhaps more than ever, that purpose can unite us. I write this as Teddy snores on my pillow, and Trixie is curled up in a ball on a blanket on the floor. Our newest addition, Daisy, is snuggled comfortably next to my seven-year-old. With nine animals and four children, our house is never dull; it’s a home filled to the brim with the chaos and mess of life. How boring and plain our world would be without animals.
So here’s to you, sweet Henry. And Lenny, Elvis, Simon, Daffney, Dapper Doo, Colombo and many that went before you. All these animals, unique in their being, are now a part of our family’s story. Forever etched in our memory.
If you’re reading this, I pray that you’re blessed with the presence of an animal, whether it be a dog or a nest of birds in your tree. We can learn a lot from G-d’s creatures. And sometimes the lesson is simple: love the one you’re with.
Above: our daughter Pearl and Colombo, her favorite kitty. Colombo passed in 2018 at the age of 14.