Book Club Channel
Compassion for Animals: An Interview with Laura Hobgood-Oster
I can't imagine life without the beauty of other animals. From the time I was young I felt a connection to animals and also connected them to Christianity. We would go on summer church camp to a wonderful beach where horses ran free, it was fabulous. Our family would always bury any pets who died and have a simple service for them. As an adult I've been so lucky to become involved with both dog rescue and with advocacy for food animals (those who are suffering in factory farms). So, in my opinion, it is all connected. If Christianity (and faith in general) calls for justice and compassion, why should that be narrowed to just humans (and, really, to just some humans—but that's a whole other issue).
Why did you decide to write this book now? Are we are at a particular tipping point on any animal issues that made this subject more urgent for you now?
In some ways I think we are at a tipping point. In terms of companion animals—dogs and cats in particular—there are more households in the U.S. now with dogs than with children under 18. This is for some complicated demographic reasons, including the aging population. But it's not a total anomaly; dogs have lived with humans for 30,000 years. I contend we wouldn't be here without them! So, that's one issue, companion animals hold an increasingly significant place in the lives of many people now.
Another important contemporary issue is the growing practice of industrialized factory farming also known as confined animal feeding operations. The suffering of animals in this system is unimaginable, yet it's real. And it's happening right in our backyard. Last year over 10 billion animals were slaughtered in the U.S. alone (that's 30 animals per person). Some might say that we have to do this in order to feed everyone. But a meat-based diet is not an efficient or a healthy way to eat. Factory farming has a huge, negative environmental impact. As a matter of fact, the way we eat has more of an impact on global warming than what we drive. So if one has compassion for animals or if one cares about the environment or if one just cares about one's own health, our meat-heavy diet has to change. Those are just a couple of the reasons why this seemed to be the right time for the book.
What did you find most surprising in your research for this book on the history of animals in Christianity?
How many animals there are! I've been doing this research for about ten solid years now and I still keep finding more animals in the history of Christianity. So I'll continue to keep on looking because I know there are even more out there.
In your book, you recount several stories of saints who had animal companions that were central to their lives and ministries. Many of us are familiar with St. Francis of Assisi and his "ministry" to the birds and the beasts. What are some of your favorite saint-animal stories?
Certainly Francis is a central figure. But several other saint-animal relationships are also very touching and telling. St. Jerome, best known for revising the Latin version of the Bible, is often pictured with a lion. One day this lion wandered into the monastery where Jerome lived. All the other brothers fled, but Jerome greeted the lion. The lion was in pain. Jerome found a thorn deeply embedded in his foot and removed it. From that day forward the lion and Jerome were constant companions.
Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team after more than ten years managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of Christian Education and music/theatre programs for young people and has served as a music director for worship and special retreats.