A glimpse at what it's like spiritually supporting animals (and the humans who love them!) through life’s heartbreaks and joys.
“Meow. Meoooooowwww. MEOW!” implores my morning alarm. “Bub, it’s Saturday! Come on. Five more minutes?” I beg. It’s ineffective, and I end up with a cold cat nose on my cheek.
Since his automatic feeder went off an hour ago, I know Bubba-ji is not waking me for breakfast. No, this loquacious tuxedo cat wants me to open the entrance to his “catio,” a screened room off our house. Presumably, he wants to start his morning rounds of chittering at chipmunks and soliloquizing to squirrels.
Although my digital alarm won’t go off for another hour, I acquiesce and rise out of bed. The more-than-human world is waiting. And they’ve been up for hours.
What the Fluff is an Animal Chaplain?
An animal chaplain supports animals and humans using spiritual practices, rituals, ceremonies, and the tools of conversation and companionship. I like to say, “I support all beings, regardless of their species or belief system!”
While it is a relatively new job title, the roots of this vocation can be found in most of the world’s religions, philosophies, and spiritual paths. For example, folks like St. Francis of Assisi, Samthann of Clonbroney, Mahāvīra, the Buddha, Jesus, and other less-famous folks beseeched the people around them to treat animals with compassion. Plentiful sacred texts suggested the same.
Today’s animal chaplains may work in religious communities, but they are just as likely to be found in animal sanctuaries, veterinary hospitals, and pet shelters. Many also help people 1-on-1 to cope with the loss of a companion animal. And, you can usually find us hanging out with furry, feathered, and finned friends.
7:00 AM: Morning meditation with squirrels
After opening the catio door for Bubba-ji and his buddy Deacon, I head out to say “good morning” to the other beings I share a habitat with. Settling in with a few deep inhales and exhales, I begin open-eyed interspecies meditation. Instead of following my breath, I follow an eastern gray squirrel propel herself from branch to branch. Next, I watch two chipmunks chasing each other in what I can only think of as joyful play. Finally, I tune my ears into the mixed melodies of cardinals and warblers. Twenty minutes later, I thank everyone for our practice and head onto my laptop.
7:30 AM: My email is raining cats and dogs!
It is remarkable how many of us live with animal companions. More than seventy percent of homes include cats or dogs, and about twenty-two percent contain both (APPA National Survey, 2021-2022). So during the next part of my day, I assist in the messy situations of multispecies living. For example, I might help someone make mindful decisions about a critically ill golden retriever, plan a furry wake for a Maine Coon, or find a pet loss support group nearby. Or I might arrange to be present with them for support during the euthanasia of their animal companion.
Some days, the work is less heart-breaking, as I share tips for dog “problems” or a playlist for a nervous cat. My favorite moments are teaching humans how to meditate with animals. Other times, I develop workshops for people to learn the tools of animal chaplaincy.
12:00 PM: Visiting animals outside the home
Itching to get out-of-doors, I depart to check up on free-living community cats or to a shelter to support animals there. Because last year, over four million cats and dogs entered U.S. animal shelters! So, I spend time sitting, playing, or talking with some of them. 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 due to abandonment.
On the way home, I snarf down a plant-based burger overlooking a “wild” field on a cul-de-sac’s edge, delighted to see life fluttering among the tall swaying grasses.
2:00 PM: Learning about the more-than-human world
After lunch, I grab a book off my never-ending to-read list about other beings we share the planet with. (Since humans comprise only 0.01 percent of life on Earth, I’ve got a lot to read!) Right now, I’m deeply engrossed in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments). Or I grab a copy of the Journal of Animal Ethics to stretch my mind in other ways.
Then it’s time to sign a few petitions. Advocacy plays a big role for me. For example, we try to stop geese from being gassed or get pet-friendly housing laws passed. Did you know 14 percent of dogs are surrendered due to housing issues? And some pets get evicted merely because of their breed. I also help farmed animals who suffer in CAFOs (“factory farms”).
5:00 PM: Putting the finishing touches on my sermon-ish
When I first started out as a chaplain, people used to ask me, “Do you have a church for cats?” At the time, I giggled with them and said, “No,” and then added, “But maybe someday!”
Fast-forward a few years, and now I am part of an interspecies spiritual community. Accordingly, some weekends you’ll find me writing a lively speech about quandaries in human-wildlife relationships, offering possible solutions for resolving problems and ideas for how we can improve our Earthly kinship.
8:00 p.m.: Compassionate self care
“Meoooooowwww. MEOW! MEOW!” screeches Bub from the catio. It must be Ginger Cat coming for a visit again. So, it’s time to close the catio and suggest we all settle down for a bit of R&R after our busy days. I’ve learned that being a night owl only leads to me having to count too many proverbial sheep.