How I Became an Animal Chaplain
(And Why It Matters)
Family Heirloom, Mary Alayne Thomas, maryalaynethomas.com
Sarah Bowen shares ways humans can rebalance their relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.
“You were real to the boy,” the fairy said,
“because he loved you.
Now you shall be real to everyone.”
—FROM THE VELVETEEN RABBIT
It’s possible the seeds for my call to animal chaplaincy were sown the first time I was read Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. In this classic children’s story, a stuffed rabbit struggles with some of the life lessons we humans do: What does it mean to be real? How powerful is unconditional love? Are some lives valued over others?
As a result of the story, I formed rich relationships with my stuffed animals, concerned about their welfare, loving them as the boy in the story loved his rabbit. William’s tale deeply informed my beliefs about what might have a soul or spirit, causing me to treat seemingly inanimate objects with great compassion. One day, I was in the toy store checkout line with my mother, preparing to hand over my allowance in exchange for a fuzzy brown bear. Taking a long look at the bear and then at 7-year-old me, the cashier noted, “Hold on a minute, sweetie, I’ll get you a different one. This bear is missing an eye.”
I boldly announced, “I know he is. That’s why I want him.” The cashier suggested, “Well then let me call a manager so you can get a discount since he’s damaged.” I emphatically countered, “That is just the way he is, and I will pay full price. He’s worth it.”
Much to my mother’s dismay, my growing love of animals also included bringing home dead chipmunks. Raised as a preacher’s kid, I often visited funeral homes with my father. I deduced that these animals needed burial in our bushes, accompanied by a small service ending with “May the Force be with you, chipmunk.”
Decades later, I found myself explaining to my new husband why we could not allow the cats to catch any mice in our house, teaching him how to capture the mouse in Tupperware and return it outside. In the event the cats won the scramble, a backyard burial would ensue, ending in the blessing, “May you have a most auspicious next lifetime, mouse.”
In my 40s, I enrolled in a seminary program to learn about the world’s spiritual traditions—but with no desire to be a pulpit preacher like my father. About a year in, students were asked to share about what each might do for their ministry. I blurted out, “I’m going to have a roadkill ministry.” Silence and wide-eyed stares followed. I continued (as if I was in a pulpit), “Each year, human motorists kill nearly 400 million animals, leaving them to die on the road. It’s just one of the ways we have become careless, callous, and cruel to the other beings we share the planet with.”
Perhaps impressed by my homiletics, my academic advisor suggested, “Have you ever thought about animal chaplaincy?” Now it was my turn for wide eyes, paired with a gaping jaw, as I queried incredulously, “Wait … that’s a real thing?”
A Day in the Life of an Animal Chaplain
No, I do not have a church that animals attend. However, you might be surprised how many people ask me if I do. Instead, my ministry takes place where animals are.
First, there are the needs of the cats we share our home with, and myriad critters who occupy the land on which our house sits. From our cleaning products to the type of ice melt we use on the driveway, each choice is informed by the needs of all the beings we live with, not just the two-legged ones paying the mortgage.
Next, there are the 8 million dogs and cats surrendered to animal shelters each year in the US—more than 913 each hour. Each week, I spend time sitting, playing, or talking with some of these animals. I’m especially drawn to those who are hardest to place in new homes, the so-called special needs animals. Many needs are simply symptoms of being scared, lonely, or confused as the result of being abandoned.
Humans can also be scared and downright perplexed when it comes to decisions around medical care and end-of-life decisions regarding their companion animals. As a chaplain, I help people deal with these issues and the grief and loss that often follow.
Finally, animal advocacy takes an increasing amount of my time, as I sign petitions and educate people on animal-welfare issues and rights. For example, as our society continues to expand into what was once wild, we traumatize and displace millions of other creatures. In the book Ethics on the Ark, William Conway notes, “It is a paradox that so many humans agonize over the well-being of an individual animal yet ignore the millions daily brutalized by the destruction of their environments. … We are touched with sadness at the plight of vanishing species but much more readily brought to tears by the difficulties of E.T., Dumbo, or Mickey Mouse. … Poorly equipped to discern data from deceit, we populate our concepts with caricatures.”
Further, we seem oblivious to what is happening in our food, entertainment, and consumer-goods systems, which are clearly out of alignment with what our spiritual and religious traditions espouse. Dr. Richard Schwartz, president Emeritus of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, outlines the horror we face today. “The insanity of current policies towards animals can be summarized as follows: Firstly, millions of animals are killed to protect our livestock. Then billions of animals are slaughtered for your food. As a result of our flesh-centered diets, millions of additional animals are tortured and killed seeking cures for ... diseases, which people generally wouldn’t get in the first places if we had more sensible diets.”
I profess, working to decrease the atrocities of our systems is hard some days. Our society’s collective denial, endless excuses, and senseless rationalizations abound as people tell me, “Stop. I don’t want to know. Leave me be.”
Luckily, two rebellious black cats named Deacon and Buba-ji, Picasso the rescued goldfish, Max the squirrel, a backyard full of yet-to-be-named critters, and my incredibly supportive husband await me at home. All greet me with unconditional love, reminding me what is real and inspiring me to continue working towards a world in which all lives matter.
Why It Matters
It turns out that what many of us were told as children is no longer real. Scientists continue to uncover plentiful evidence that many animals can empathize, communicate over long distances, complete complex tasks, and do all sorts of amazing things for which we historically have not given them credit.
Our food does not come from idyllic farms where the Farmer and his Wife treat animals well in the Dell. It’s heartbreaking to realize our species, which once had a deep reverence for life and consisted on a diet primarily of grains, now supports a system that abuses and kills six million animals each hour for food alone. Even for people unconcerned with animal welfare, there is a case for alarm: Animal farming is a major contributor to global warming. In fact, it’s the No. 1 cause of climate change.
Contrary to what many of us learned in Sunday School, religion does not unequivocally state that we can use animals as we please. Today’s theologians, including Andrew Linzey, Ken Stone, and Sarah Withrow King, have dug deeply into Jewish and Christian texts to expose solid academic cases that dominion was not intended to mean taking anything (or anyone) from the earth to satisfy our out-of-control desires.
Finally, sociologists who have begun to study the effects of speciesism suggest that as we privilege some animals over others, and humans over all animals, there is a relation- ship to other types of prejudice. A 2018 study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology notes, “speciesism is psychologically related to human-human types of prejudice such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.” In addition, people with speciesist views tend towards lower levels of empathy and prosociality.
The foundation of our inherited values about other sentient beings is cracking. In field after field, people are redefining what we now know as true. And they need your help.
The Lookout, Mary Alayne Thomas, maryalaynethomas.com
What You Can Do
• Reflect. Take a few minutes to consider your relationships with beings other than humans. What feels in balance? What doesn’t?
• Watch Speciesism: The Movie.
• Listen to the audiobook A Plea for the Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, and Evolutionary Imperative to Treat All Beings with Compassion by Matthieu Ricard.
• Grow. Cultivate a humane backyard using animal- friendly landscaping methods from Nancy Lawson (humanegardener.com).
• Reduce. Pledge to eat fewer animal products for 30 days at reducetarian.org.
• Download. Check out the Happy Cow app to find cruelty-free food worldwide and the Bunny Free app to find out if a company tests on animals.
• Volunteer. Visit your local animal shelter. Pet a cat. Play with a dog. Chill with a rabbit.
• Advocate. Get involved with an organization such as World Animal Protection, Animal Equality, or Mercy for Animals.
• Love. Save a mouse. Bury a chipmunk. Meditate with squirrels.
• Read. Dust off The Velveteen Rabbit.
• Become real.
Family Heirloom, Mary Alayne Thomas, maryalaynethomas.com