Compassion for Animals: An Interview with Laura Hobgood-Oster

I'm regularly amazed at the sheer joy my dog brings me just by being in his presence. One of the greatest gifts he offers me is the invitation to "play." What other spiritual lessons can we learn from animals? Is there something unique about the animal-human bond, and do you think God intended this?

There are countless spiritual lessons we can learn from animals! The first one that comes to mind is to be in the moment, to focus on today—on this belly rub or on basking in the sun and taking a nap or totally focusing on playing ball. Dogs, in particularly, also teach us about loyalty and forgiveness. The human-dog bond is unique, as I've mentioned before, because we have lived together as companion species for so long and enabled each other to do things that would not have been possible outside of that partnership.

So the question about the uniqueness of the animal-human bond is a hard one. It seems to be one of, if not the, primary foundation for religion. The earliest images in cave art are of animals; humans reflect on ourselves through these other beings who are also born, live, and die. Animals are totems, they are representatives of the divine, they are other 'peoples' with their own relationship to God. They escort us after death. All of these are aspects of the earliest religious traditions.

We can't live without other animals; we know that. So there is necessarily a special bond because our very lives rely on having other animals around. Interestingly, and back to the issue of humility, most of the other animals on the earth (with the exception maybe of dogs and a few other domesticated animals who would really need to readapt), would live perfectly well without humans though.

You raise some very serious animal-care issues in your book—such as animals and sport (dog-fighting, horse-racing, and exotic trophy hunting to name a few), factory farming, puppy mills, and species-extinction, and—by citing biblical examples—challenge us to consider a Christian response to these contemporary issues. What are the most critical issues regarding animals today and how might we become more engaged with these issues? What are some next steps we can take in any of those areas?

While I think those four issues—factory farming, the state of companion animals, extinction, and sport—are all incredibly important, the two that are the most urgent are the rate of species extinction and the sheer size and impact of factory farming. With factory farming the answer might be a little more straight-forward: we simply need to eat less meat. Whether that means selecting at least one day a week when you don't eat meat or move in the direction of a meat-free diet altogether, it is something each individual can do. This makes an immediate and direct difference. I also suggest compassionate potlucks for churches that can be both an action and an educational activity.

The huge issue of species extinction seems overwhelming, but we basically need to take up less space! Humans are using up so much of the earth that there is literally nowhere left for many other species to live. So we need to cut down on our consumption in general in order to focus on saving enough spaces for other animals. I think of the other great apes, for example. We are using up all the resources in the great tropical forests where they have lived for thousands of years. There is a real likelihood that there will be no great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans) left in the wild within just a decade or two. So we must stop destroying these forests.

In your chapter on "Animals and Food," you raised a very provocative question, essentially asking, Does God intend Christians to be vegetarians? Is eating meat un-Christian?

I don't think I would claim that meat eating is un-Christian, though there are some who do claim that. I will claim, however, that eating meat produced in the horrible, terror- and torture-filled confined animal feeding operation system is un-Christian. I just can't imagine Jesus walking into a factory farm and saying that it's okay! Remember, in Luke 12 he says that not one sparrow is forgotten by God. I wonder what he would say about the 8 billion chickens killed in factory farms last year in the U.S.?

You don't speak to this in your book per se, but an issue that's important to a lot of pet-owners is whether animals go to Heaven. Do you have an opinion on that? What might the Bible suggest about meeting up with our animal companions in Heaven?

The question about Heaven is a difficult one for me because I'm not so sure that I've come to any conclusions about what, where, or when Heaven is, much less whether or not animals are there. But, if there is a place or a condition that is Heaven, then I can't imagine it without animals. It would be boring, lonely, and wouldn't make sense. A Heaven without animals seems to me to be Hell!

6/15/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Deborah Arca
    About Deborah Arca
    Deborah Arca is the former Director of Content at Patheos. Prior to joining Patheos, Deborah managed the Programs in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, including the Program's renowned spiritual direction program and the nationally-renowned Lilly-funded Youth Ministry & Spirituality Project. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of music and theatre programs for children and teens, and a music minister. Deborah belongs to a progressive United Church of Christ church in Englewood, CO.
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