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“Swoosh.” That was the sound of a mighty rushing wind and suddenly my golden, syrup-laden pancake disappeared in the twinkling of an eye. Gone — devoured by one of the most clever, captivating pets a child could ever love, the Common Genet, a lithe, elegant creature with big eyes, spots and stripes, enormous ears, retractable claws, and a long ringed tail. In all, he was a most majestic and affectionate creature with a scintillating personality. This fair beast, whose name was, fitly enough, Genet, enjoyed star place in a menagerie of animals my children often dream of. Two dogs (dachshunds, a female called Luther because some people aren’t good at anatomy; and Thomas Jefferson, after the first president of the United States because others aren’t good at history); many cats; a baboon for a while; two duikers; a parrot; erstwhile guinea pigs; a monkey (for a while); a pair of suicidal jackals (only a few days); and a colony of unwelcome Egyptian Cobras — these were all my fellow friends.
I say “a while” because, well, time marches on, and I am in my mid-forties. I have outlived each and every one of these necessary and beloved creatures including, most lately, my own loyal dog of ten years, a poodle with an underbite. Ash (short for Ashurbanipal — the smaller the dog, the bigger the name I always say) was my mainstay. Always at my heels, I never moved a step or sat in a chair without him beside me. And yet God, in His providence, thought fit to take him to join the fellowship of animals who have made life so rich, comforting, and satisfying for me.
“For me” are the disquieting words. All these creatures fill a well of memory and loss shared in its fullness by no other person — and the same for anyone who has loved an animal, or many animals. Almost all the exotic pets of my childhood in Africa were rescues, caught out of the bags of hunters and the clutches of small children who just wanted a more interesting dinner than maize porridge. I was the only one who mourned them. And, in the case of Ash, though all my family loved him, I am the one who still can’t look at his grave in our back garden. And I am not alone. Join any peculiar dog breed group on Facebook and you will find countless prayer requests — long shot, hopeless pleas for God, to whom the poster has probably never prayed before, to spare a dog. Members of these groups pray, to whomever they imagine, because they understand the peculiar agony of the loss of a helpless and innocent creature who they were sure couldn’t die — and yet did.
Hope for the Hopeless. In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the strangest occurrences was that thousands of people ran out and adopted cats and dogs from shelters across the country.1 Stuck alone at home, people who had been too busy for the care and feeding of a cat or dog suddenly needed companionship and the constraints of another to generate order and meaning to life so suddenly out of control.2 But it went deeper than that. In the face of uncertainty and despair, the simple business of taking care of a cat — as it turned out to be in the case of my family — mitigated existential dread. It reminded us that life wasn’t over. Feeding the cat and walking the dog, in the midst of hopelessness, was an act of trust that the sun would come up again.
Margaret Renkl, at the New York Times, puts it beautifully:
In my own life, the apotheosis of canine hope was Emma, the miniature dachshund we inherited after my mother’s death. Emma believed she could climb the bookcase where dog treats are kept, never mind that her legs were all of two inches high. She believed she could open the closet door where the dog food is kept, despite her lack of opposable thumbs. And damn if she didn’t manage both feats. For a dog, hope is self-reinforcing.3
Keep going, in other words, because everything might come out alright. Which must be why, as the world began to return to normal, a lot of newly adopted animals were “rehomed.”4 Their comfort had been enjoyed, they had been “loved” well enough, and now life was going back to the way it was before. Nature must have healed.
Except, of course, as Renkl elucidates in her own catalog of lost dogs, that even in the era of COVID-19, for the animal lover, the death of the family dog was too much. It must be an axiom that a person can suffer the loss of a person — a mother, a father, a lover, a friend — and stand tearless by the grave, heartbroken but unable to express the grief, but then, at the loss of a pet, come absolutely unglued. Why is that? Why is it that I knew ten people who died during the era of COVID-19, including my two remaining grandparents, but it was only when my dog died that I found myself on my bathroom floor, sobbing inconsolably. And I was not alone in this. Renkl, expressed nearly the same thing: “Is it any wonder that Millie’s unexpected death was what finally broke my conviction that better times would soon be on the way?”5
A Rainbow Bridge? “I’m so sorry about your cat,” whispered a vet who went under the name The Cat Doctor, handing me an envelope that contained the bill for a very expensive cat ultra-sound, the bill for cat euthanasia, and a copy of “Rainbow Bridge.”6 Your animal, when it dies, posits the poem, goes to a big green field where it plays with all the other dead animals, waiting for you to die, and the two of you can cross the Rainbow Bridge to live forever together somewhere that I suppose must be like Valhalla. The poem didn’t go any further than that imaginary joyful reunion, and I shoved the envelope in a desk drawer and tried not to think about it. The idea of a field full of all the world’s dead pets waiting for their owners to die too felt, if not luridly idolatrous, at least twee and too nakedly self-referential.
And that is the trouble. The death of a beloved animal speaks volubly to the mourner about human ability and power. It is the helplessness that is so intolerable. The cat hadn’t done anything wrong. She had only been a good cat, the best. She had fulfilled her cat creatureliness according to the design of her Creator. The pain of her illness was incomprehensible to her and our communion, broken so ruinously by the fall, meant that I couldn’t explain it to her. The great chasm that is fixed between heaven and hell (Luke 16:19–31) must surely be emotionally glimpsed by looking into the eyes of a mute beast who cannot understand why she hurts and why you, whom she trusted so completely, are not making it stop.
This is why the Psalmist’s proclamation — “Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O LORD” (Psalm 36:6, emphasis added)7 — is so necessary for the believer to cling to. The ramification of our corporate and individual failure to do the work that we should have been able to do to care for creation is not just a matter of discomfort, it has brought every creature, even the household pet, under the curse of our rebellion. And there it huddles, groaning: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19–21). If this subjugation seems vastly unfair, John Wesley, in his epochal sermon, “The General Deliverance,” draws out Paul’s point:
As all the blessings of God in paradise flowed through man to the inferior creatures; as man was the great channel of communication, between the Creator and the whole brute creation; so when man made himself incapable of transmitting those blessings, that communication was necessarily cut off. The intercourse between God and the inferior creatures being stopped, those blessings could no longer flow in upon them. And then it was that “the creature,” every creature, “was subjected to vanity,” to sorrow, to pain of every kind, to all manner of evils: Not, indeed, “willingly,” not by its own choice, not by any act or deed of its own; “but by reason of Him that subjected it,” by the wise permission of God, determining to draw eternal good out of this temporary evil.8
It is this strange permission — that Adam in his first estate would exercise dominion over the creatures of the earth — that illumines the reason why the death of a pet can be so hard. Adam was supposed to name those creatures (Gen. 2:20), to tend the garden where they lived, to preserve and protect their innocence, and to share in the communion of obedience and joy that God first ordained (Gen. 1:26–30). Adam was to be God to them, indeed as God was God to Adam. Their innocence was in his hand.
To do this work, he was given a helper, Eve, who must have been the genesis of Lewis’ description of Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce. “What are all these animals?” complains the narrator to his heavenly guide,
“A cat — two cats — dozens of cats. And all these dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
“They are her beasts.”
“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over them.”9
As often as I have held a dying creature in my hand, or sat next to some sick little beast, or been far away and anxious about the state of a dog or cat, I have yearned for that primordial garden. My great amount of loss over animals must be in proportion to my ancient ancestors’ untrammeled, as yet unfallen enjoyment in Genesis 2 of the animals whom God had made. To contemplate each one and give it a name, to consider the food and lodging of so many creatures, to study so many various and wondrous habits, indeed, it sounds like heaven, though it was only God’s first creation.
From thence to singer Sarah McLachlan’s heart-rending but overplayed video of dogs in cages, begging the Facebook user to give money to the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), to offer to adopt a pet, is a mere several millennia.10 We are responsible, not just in the theological sense of our fallen state, but in the very practical business of often being cruel and neglectful of nature in general and animals in particular. In as much as we sin against God and each other, we very often sin against all those who can only broadcast their pain, their groaning, by wordless cries and mute, reproachful gaze. That sin — neglect, sometimes outright cruelty — speaks loudly even to the unbeliever about God’s original design, about the authority He invested in Adam and then in us to care for those whom He made. The piercing grief over the death of a pet forces an admission of how far we have fallen and how full up is the world with the shame of death. I was meant to be God to Ash, and yet I was not, being myself bound to death and sin. I could not save him, though I should have been able to.
How Much Is That Cat Stroller? What can one do, then, overwhelmed by such a grievous truth? Discovering that we have subjected creation to futility and ruin, that we have been wicked to all whom God has made, many feel that the remedy is to exalt the household pet into the very heavens, almost to an object of worship. We make it even worse and exchange, as St. Paul so presciently points out, the truth of God for a lie, worshiping the creature rather than the creator (Rom. 1:18–23). One way this manifests itself is in the elevation of animals to the place and position of people. We begin to talk about them as if they are people, to choose to have them instead of children, and to pour all our worship into their adorable big eyes.
I say “we” because, though I have six children, my Instagram account is almost exclusively, at this moment, made up of kitten pictures. I push my children out of the shot so that I can get a perfect angle of him curled up in a ball in my sunhat. Of course, I love my children — of course I do — but when I walk in a room, my first greeting is for him. And, though it embarrasses me to admit it, I’ve hankered after one of those cat strollers so I can push him around the neighborhood on my daily walk.
Wesley, once again, gives us a proper, biblical perspective of animals. The first task is not to idolize God’s creation, but to, in meek, hopeful, and compassionate trust, care for a world now that God will restore to glory later. Apprehending the suffering of the innocent of the earth:
They may encourage us to imitate Him whose mercy is over all his works. They may soften our hearts towards the meaner creatures, knowing that the Lord careth for them. It may enlarge our hearts towards those poor creatures, to reflect that, as vile as they appear in our eyes, not one of them is forgotten in the sight of our Father which is in heaven. Through all the vanity to which they are now subjected, let us look to what God hath prepared for them. Yea, let us habituate ourselves to look forward, beyond this present scene of bondage, to the happy time when they will be delivered therefrom into the liberty of the children of God.11
And secondly, we should properly esteem humanity, and our own position in God’s kingdom:
So much more let all those who are of a nobler turn of mind assert the distinguishing dignity of their nature. Let all who are of a more generous spirit know and maintain their rank in the scale of beings. Rest not till you enjoy the privilege of humanity — the knowledge and love of God. Lift up your heads, ye creatures capable of God! Lift up your hearts to the Source of your being!12
Having the capacity to know God — because He is God — is a great blessing that God poured out not only on Adam and Eve in creation, but once again in the redemption wrought by Christ on the cross. Was it not Christ Himself who, knowing the death of every sparrow, calls you to trust Him in your own helpless condition (Matt. 10:29)? Admitting your own weakness and futility, especially in the face of death, is the first step in the way of life — even and especially for the restoration and reunion in that great City of all those creatures whom God has made. Not confined to some meager green field and the elusive consolations of an ephemeral rainbow, the new heavens and the new earth will be filled with the sounds of a great and perfect communion, wrought by God’s own Almighty Hand.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People (SquareHalo Books, rev. 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on Patheos.com.
- Kim Kavin, “Dog Adoptions and Sales Soar during the Pandemic,” The Washington Post, August 12, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/08/12/adoptions-dogs-coronavirus/.
- Genevieve Rajewski, “How Animals Help Us During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Tufts Now, March 30, 2020, https://now.tufts.edu/articles/how-animals-help-us-during-covid-19-pandemic.
- Margaret Renkl, “Everything I Know About Hope I Learned From My Dog,” The New York Times, July 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/05/opinion/hope-dogs.html.
- Blake Harper, “People Are Returning Their Pandemic Pets at Alarming Rates,” Yahoo News, May 11, 2021, https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/people-returning-pandemic-pets-alarming-174554385.html?.
- Renkle, “Everything I Learned,” New York Times.
- “Rainbow Bridge,” https://i.pinimg.com/originals/32/8a/f1/328af1619a72f23c7769905ec262f218.png.
- Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version (ESV).
- John Wesley, “The General Deliverance,” John Wesley Sermons, https://johnwesleysermons.com/sermons/the-general-deliverance/.
- C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 1946), 120.
- Sarah McLachlan SPCA Commercial, https://youtu.be/IO9d2PpP7tQ.
- Wesley, “The General Deliverance.”
- Wesley, “The General Deliverance.”