Blessing of the Animals

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on June 4, 2017

Henry. That was the name of my very first pet – a white and brown hamster that I received on my 8th birthday. I woke up that morning to find him downstairs in the dining room inside a glass aquarium, which was filled with fragrant cedar chips and had a screened lid on top.

My parents, who were opposed to having anything that shed or required too much hands-on labor, must have decided that a little whiskered rodent would be a good, low-maintenance substitute.

Henry the Hamster lived 24/7 in his own little house, so there was no chance of him leaving his hair all over ours. He didn’t eat much and his food of dried corn kernels and seeds could be left out for days in his bowl. And, as hamsters do, Henry took control of his own exercise schedule. Every day, he would run neverendingly on his little and squeaky metal wheel. 

With those glossy black eyes and wiggly nose, Henry the Hamster was pretty darn cute. Truth be told, though, I was afraid of him. I had never held or even petted a hamster before. I remember when my mother first put him in the palm of my hand. I could feel his nervous energy coursing through his little body and the hard pressure of his small paws and toes. I thought Henry might bite me, but I pretended to be brave. I remember quickly handing him back to my mother, who may have sensed my uneasiness.

For the next several days, I would watch Henry in the mornings from the dining room table as I ate my breakfast before school. He might be sleeping, burrowing, sipping water from his glass water bottle, or running on that wheel. And, when I came home in the afternoon, I did the same. It seems I was more comfortable being a spectator to Henry’s life than really being a part of it.

Unfortunately, Henry’s time with us was short. After only about a week, I came downstairs one morning to find him stretched out and motionless on his glass bowl. My mother found an empty matchbox, and we buried Henry in it in the backyard.

Even though I had been afraid of Henry, I was nevertheless quite upset about his sudden death. And, so my mother suggested that we go to the mall pet store to get another one.

And, that’s how we came home with Tina, the second and only other hamster I’ve ever had. Unlike Henry, Tina did not like to be held in captivity. She made that apparent not long after the pet store clerk put her in one of those small, white cardboard boxes that looked like it was for Chinese take-out, except it had holes in the top so Tina could breathe.

I put the take-out box next to me on the seat in the car, and our new rambunctious rodent wasted no time using those big front teeth of hers to start chewing a small hole in the side of it.

“Mom! Mom!” I shrieked from the backseat. “Tina’s getting out! She’s going to get away!” My mother pulled over and we examined the box that Tina was rocking and rolling in on the seat. Satisfied that Tina’s escape might take while, Mom resumed the drive home.

My mom eventually decided that she would grant Tina her freedom. In the weeks and months that followed, she often would take Tina out of her cage and give her the entire run of the house while she did laundry or got dinner ready. Tina would stuff her cheeks full of hamster food and then use her hall pass to hide it all over the place – under the sofa, beneath chairs, and in-between the bedcovers.

One time when Tina was scampering about, my mother was in the kitchen making dinner when suddenly she heard the motor on the refrigerator go silent. Pulling it away from the wall, she was shocked to see Tina sitting calmly behind it next to a pile of corn and seeds, with one end of the refrigerator’s chewed electrical cord in her paws. How that hamster escaped getting electrocuted, we’ll never know.

Tina was meant to be my pet. However, it was my mother – not me – that frequently held her and played with her. It was my mother – not me – who cleaned out Tina’s cage and changed her food and water bottle. It was my mother – not me – who had compassion for that little hamster and her seemingly small existence and who would periodically set her free to roam the wilds of our suburban townhouse.

Back then, it was my mother who was the animal lover – not me.

Me – well, I was afraid of Tina at first (as I had been of Henry), and then later disinterested in her. Tina may have been my hamster, but she really belonged to my mother.

And so, I think, it is with pets. It seems that they truly belong to those who understand that they invite us to a potentially profound relationship. They belong to those who understand that affection given is affection returned . . . that responsibility is rewarded with loyal companionship, as well as the growing awareness that your beloved animal is helping you become a better person.

Anatole France wrote, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” At eight years old, I was perhaps too young or just not ready to learn these lessons of the heart and spirit.

And, so when Tina died two years later, I didn’t ask for nor did I receive another pet. My sister Toni got Annabelle the cat. And, later, we repurposed Tina’s cage, replacing the cedar chips with water and filling it with goldfish.

It wasn’t until my mid-30s – and with my spouse Gail’s encouragement – that I finally got another pet, our poodle-mix Lucy that we adopted from the Atlanta Humane Society. Like my mother, Gail understands the sacred invitation that domestic animals extend to us to befriend them, to care for them, and to learn from them.

And so, through watching her, I learned. I learned how to be a compassionate and responsible pet owner. And, without realizing it, I started to change. At least that’s what Gail and my sister told me.

“I would never have imagined you scooping up dog poop . . . but just look at you now!” Gail happily exclaimed one afternoon as we were out for walk with Lucy and I stooped down to the ground with my little plastic bag.

“You’ve lightened up since getting Lucy,” my sister Nicki observed, making a not-so-subtle reference to what I gather was my former uptight self.  

When our second dog Leo joined the family, I was propelled a little further down the continuum of personal growth. For example, my little lint brush from the neighborhood dry cleaners was no match for Leo, who was a big black dog that shed copious amounts of fur. So, I gave up and my clothes got hairy. During the day, both dogs lounged on the sofa – certainly not on the floor! At night, it wasn’t long before they stopped sleeping in their kennels and started sleeping in the bed with us.

Our house became filled with doggie toys, doggie blankets, doggie beds and doggie treats. We took a zillion photos and videos of Lucy and Leo, and we took the two of them with us everywhere we could.

Lucy and Leo turned me into something I swore I would never become . . .  one of those crazy persons whose universe revolves around their pet. I swore I would never lose control like that.

Well, luckily, I did.

Those beloved dogs became my catechism. They helped me find the answers to some of the questions lingering in my heart . . . answers to questions like, “Why am I here?” To love, to explore, to experience happiness. And, “What is most important?” Right here and right now. And, “When my life is over, what do I hope is my legacy?” That I never stopped caring.

The poet Robert Sward wrote, “In a world of Nos, dogs are a Yes.”1)In Praise of Animals: A Treasury of Poems, Quotations and Readings, collected by Edward Searl (Skinner House Books, Boston, MA: 2007), 103. Ultimately, I believe that all pets offer us a Yes – if we’re willing to take them up on the invitation.

They offer us a Yes to embracing our sweet and oft-forgotten child self. They offer a Yes to finding our inner wellspring of courage and compassion. They’re a Yes to experiencing the beauty and breadth of human emotion. They’re a Yes to play, a Yes to responsibility, a Yes to the mysterious and amazing birth-life-death cycle that we share with all living things.   

In the words of Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Phyllis Hubbell, as we go from here,

May we see the miracles of life and love
in all the animals with which we share our lives:
in the cold nose of a dog,
in the warmth of a cat on your lap,
in the wondrous otherness of the hamster
and the songbird,
and in the graceful beauty of the goldfish.
Bless them all as they bless us.2)Ibid, 127.

Blessed be and Amen.

References   [ + ]

1. In Praise of Animals: A Treasury of Poems, Quotations and Readings, collected by Edward Searl (Skinner House Books, Boston, MA: 2007), 103.
2. Ibid, 127.