Sarah Bowen explores the intersection of animals and spirituality in Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice for Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, & Trying to Heal the Planet.
Sarah Bowen is an animal chaplain, multifaith spiritual educator, and the award-winning author of Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Finding Deeper Perspective & Higher Purpose. As a member of One Spirit Interfaith Seminary’s faculty, Spiritual Directors International, the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, and several recovery communities, she supports all beings regardless of their species or belief system. Bowen is also a co-founder of Compassion Consortium, the first interfaith, interspiritual, and interspecies spiritual community.
Explore the intersections of animals and spirituality in Sarah Bowen’s forthcoming book Sacred Sendoffs: An Animal Chaplain’s Advice for Surviving Animal Loss, Making Life Meaningful, & Trying to Heal the Planet.
S&H: How does respecting animals make us better people?
Sarah Bowen: Let’s start by remembering that people are animals. If we look at classification charts, there we are— right next to red kangaroos and giant pandas, not far from crested penguins and sea turtles—as part of the kingdom Animalia. Unfortunately, there’s a long history of using the word “animal” to rebuke, enslave, and exploit humans that we have to untangle. Realizing “people vs. animal” is a tautology is the first step towards treating all living beings with compassion.
The second step is looking at what we’ve learned in studies. Research indicates that when we treat animals with respect, we treat humans better too. The converse also happens. If we are okay with violence toward animals, we are more likely to allow violence towards other humans and the planet. Poor treatment of animals is a significant factor in climate change, ocean pollution, world hunger, deforestation, and other tragic problems. Respecting animals may help us mitigate some of these issues. And that’s good news not only for animals but also for humans.
Would you say that animals are worthy of the same respect and reverence as are humans? Do you think most humans agree with your position, and if not, why not?
Yes, I would say that all living beings are worthy of respect and reverence. That’s a core tenet of spirituality. The majority of religions and philosophical traditions include some version of the Golden Rule, “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” But! How these ideals are actualized in individuals’ lives varies widely due to how each of us has been socialized. That’s why we don’t all act identically.
Realizing “people vs. animal” is a tautology is the first step towards treating all living beings with compassion.
We each are inconsistent in our own beliefs and actions as well. Because living in an interspecies world is complex! I believe butterflies are worthy of respect. And I know that insect pollinators help create healthy ecosystems and are critical to creating a majority of the crops that I eat. And yet, I’d be in denial not to admit that because I drive a car, some of these beings may end up squashed on my license plate. So, positionality is helpful, but it is not the endpoint.
In your experience, do people with pets have more reverence for animals than non-pet owners? Can we avoid the word “owners”? Perhaps, In your experience, do people with pets have more reverence for animals than people who do not?
Yes and no. Especially since the Age of Enlightenment, concerns for animal welfare have been intertwined with other reform movements, including those calling for the abolition of slavery and improved conditions in prisons and mental hospitals. As people embraced “pet” keeping in cities, they became more sensitive to violence perpetrated on those used in entertainment (like dogfighting) and at slaughterhouses. That’s why early groups like the ASPCA were formed.
We’re more likely to have reverence for the kind of animal who lives with us―and ones similar to them. But that doesn’t always extend out to animals in general. (Or to humans either! Pet-keeping itself has been subject to class- and race-based attitudes and laws.) So, living with dogs or cats may help us be more compassionate towards other species, but it is not a given. (And some pets live in rough situations where they aren’t revered or even have their basic needs taken care of.)
Do you think animals in the wild view humans as adversaries? Should they?
The legacy of Darwin lives on in this question, I think, suggesting that we’re all competing for the same resources. And in some ways, we are. Yet, it’s not that basic. Interspecies living is much more nuanced and complex. There’s no denying animals have thoughts about us. As to what those are, I’m not sure we’ll ever know! Humans are very interested in how animals behave, as evidenced by books on the souls of octopuses and the genius of birds topping bestseller lists. Yet, precision on how each animal views humans remains a mystery.
We have evidence of elephants carefully covering sleeping humans with foliage in the same way they revere their kind who have passed on. And we observe that hippos will readily attack humans who get between them and a body of water. Some animals’ lives are entangled with ours in ways that help them thrive, especially when we leave parts of “our” yards wild and encourage native plants to grow. Other animals we harm by capturing them for zoos or wearing their fur on our coat hoods. I suspect there is a variation of views about humans from being to being, depending on how they experience us in their habitat.
The animal world can be quite predatory and violent. At the same time, there are so many examples of animals helping other animals and even interspecies friendships, which you write about. How can we human observers square these two seemingly opposing views of animals?
Likewise, human societies can be quite predatory and violent! So, what you’re pointing to is a need to address how we’ve been taught to think about animals―especially by animal documentaries that glorify the chase and kill. Luckily, there is an increasing body of knowledge about animals behaving in ways that benefit others, such as sharing space and food, cooperating to solve problems, and acting altruistically. Helping behavior has been seen in dolphins, gulls, apes, bats, and bonobos, among others. Interestingly, animals imprisoned in human systems comfort or assist each other in some fascinating ways, which I describe in Sacred Sendoffs. So, I think all living beings have the capacity to express compassion and to be violent. If we can acknowledge that about ourselves, we will be able to recognize that in animals.
You write about how human indifference to animals often corresponds to an indifference to other important issues, such as the environment. How can we approach people to consider their relationship to animals and how it impacts the environment?
Indifference is one part. Our ignorance is another. Perhaps most importantly, powerful, complex systemic issues hide what’s going on from us. And we self-filter. There’s a lot of information in the world, and necessarily we have to choose, which makes us really well educated on some topics—and not so much on others.
Healing Earth starts by repairing all our broken interspecies relationships.
When our eyes open to the connection between human, animal, and planetary welfare, we need to share what we find gently and compassionately. If we express how we want to live and where we find ourselves falling short, others are more likely to join us on that journey. Share your Aha! moments on your social feeds―not just reposting facts but describing your challenges and what has helped you see the connections. Invite friends and family to join you to watch documentaries about the intersection. Or start a book club. Hey, bring them to a Sunday service with me at Compassion Consortium! Most importantly, begin with the people you know, as you will likely have the most impact. Then, be willing to learn from them, too.
To save the planet, do humans need to recede somewhat and let nature and animals reclaim their natural habitats? How would you convince humans to reduce their footprint in the wilderness?
Well, that’s the gazillion-dollar question, isn’t it? There’s so much we need to do as a species. It can become overwhelming, and we can turn away. And so, an animal chaplain’s advice is this: Healing Earth starts by repairing all our broken interspecies relationships. Be curious about the challenges facing the habitats around you. When you come across an animal in your life, learn about them. Discover the role each plays in the health of the whole Earth―which ultimately sustains your life. Above all else, ask questions about what you think you already know. And then, use your spiritual practices to illuminate the answers, leading to the next right action for you.
Read Sarah Bowen’s column Creaturely Reflections in the print edition of Spirituality & Health and her latest digital content.
And don’t miss our review of Sacred Sendoffs.