Friday, October 23, 2009

The Unrecognized American Epidemic: Animal Cruelty, Part II -- Do domesticated animals have souls?

Hovering in the background of any discussion of animal cruelty is the question about animals and eternal souls. Conventional Christian wisdom holds that they do not, that the presence of an in-dwelling eternal soul is what sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Perhaps, however, I am not entirely convinced about this. The innate ability of certain, but not all, animals – dogs and cats in particular – to become companions for humans, and to largely need humans for survival gives me pause.

If the possibility of some animals possessing an innate eternal soul did not exist, then how could specific species of animals become domesticated over a period of time? This question is particularly pertinent for canines and felines (i.e. dogs and cats). Wouldn’t all animals remain wild and inherently unsafe for humans to be around, like lions, hippopotamuses, etc are today? Yet through the years there have been many reports of family pet dogs, cats, horses, even other animals enriching or saving people’s lives in one way or another.

I have heard people opine that a dog who alerts family members to the presence of a fire in the family home thus getting everyone outside in time is merely seeking to be let out for itself. In other words that it is incapable of any form of altruistic thinking or behavior. I disagree. If dogs lack the capacity for altruistic thinking, then how are seeing eye and hearing ear dogs explained?

I have heard many people express the view that animals have no concept of death and are incapable of feeling emotion, hence have no feelings. Plus, since they cannot understand human language, it is perfectly ok to make snide, cutting remarks about them in their presence. Again, I disagree, and for the same reason. I have seen contradictory behavioral evidence with my own eyes.

When I was a child my family’s life was greatly enriched by Tiger, a purebred male seal point siamese cat that we acquired as a very young kitten. Because the breeder also had a couple of very friendly, outgoing dogs, Tiger lacked the typical feline inability to coexist with dogs. Our net door neighbors had both a poodle named Kukla and an older female siamese cat. It did not take very long for Tiger and Kukla to become very good friends. When Kukla passed away Tiger very clearly went through his own mourning process. It is true that cats lack tear glands so they really can’t shed tears the way humans can, but all other outward signs of being in mourning can be expressed by cats.

Another piece of evidence in favor of some animals having souls lies in their ability to both give and feel love. For people struggling to overcome some mental illnesses – depression, in particular – therapy cats frequently provide the companionship and affection (not to mention attention) the person needs. By providing the person with the same benefits yielded by psychoactive medications, a therapy cat is significantly healthier for the patient.

There are numerous reports over time of dogs or cats becoming separated from their families during long-distance moves. The families, naturally, assume that they will never again see their beloved pet (since pets, presumably, can’t read change of address cards), so they begin to mourn the loss. Then, after a variable period of time, the missing pet turns up at their new doorstep ready for a very long nap. If animals lack the capacity for an eternal soul, then how is this behavior explained? More pertinently, how do the animals find the correct address?

To shift gears slightly, for many years I have been skeptical of the contention that cats have no souls. For one thing, a middle ages Pope drew on his own feelings about cats (he clearly hated them) and denounced them as the spawn of the devil. While this seemingly was rooted in black cats being linked with witchcraft and with this claim that ancient Egyptians worshiped cats, his denunciation has never made sense to me. In particular, the long-running claim that ancient Egyptians worshiped cats, based only on the discovery of numerous pictographs of cats in Egyptian temples, has never been confirmed through other uncovered records, to the best of my knowledge.

For another thing, on many afternoons (or mornings) when sunlight is streaming through the windows I have observed many (mostly) younger cats contentedly (and intensely) watching something moving around in mid air, something only they can see. Whatever this entity is, its presence clearly is a source of great joy for them. If these occurrences aren’t spiritual in nature, what are they?

I am no theologian, and am largely estranged from Christianity, so I will leave the debate over what the Christian Bible says about animal souls to those more knowledgeable about such matters. In 2007 Gary Kurz wrote a brief, very informative and well-reasoned article on this issue titled The Souls of Animals. There may be some Christian Fundamentalists who disagree with his conclusions. However, his analysis does make a lot a sense to me.

Additional insightful points are made by Stacy Mantle in an essay posted at's Veterinary Medicine section entitled Do Animals Have Souls? Her points bear repeating: animals simply do not treat humans the way humans mistreat animals. I have never heard of a cat drenching a human with a flammable liquid, then striking a match. I have never read any accounts of dogs locking their human companions in their back yard without adequate food, water or shelter, then moving. Nor have I ever heard of a dog putting two humans in a ring where they are allowed to fight until one is too injured to continue, or is dead.

In reflecting on the importance of animals to humans, I find myself wondering. Would God create this ability to form loving bonds with animals if they did not possess souls? In light of this, shouldn’t abusive treatment of animals be seen as morally wrong as abusing either young children or vulnerable adults? If people can accept that murder of other humans is morally wrong, then why can’t they accept that the deliberate killing of ferrets, dogs, cats and other companionate animals is also morally wrong?

1 comment:

Samantha Shanti said...

You go girl! Great post. I have spent too many lives around animals to even consider them as not having a soul. Of course they have souls! Duh, that humans ... some humans ... can dispute or deny this is simply beyond me.

As far as the "Christian" view, well they have a whole bunch of strange and frightening views that have NOTHING to do with God or spirituality and I AM a Theologian. Really, went to seminary and everything. Bachelors, Masters, Pilled Higher and Deep. Doctor of Divinity, all that lovely stuff. Put my mind about hell long ago, gave me some wonderful pieces of paper to hang on the wall, and lets me legally preface my name with Dr. And that is about it.

I really like what you wrote, I'm going to have to keep reading.