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Pets Gaining Recognition in Places of Worship

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
October 6, 2006
 
At St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut, the pews are
filled with some unlikely worshipers.

Dogs sit by their owners' sides and cats peer out from carriers during a monthly pet-friendly service.

Barks and purrs—or "prayer noises," as the church calls them—can be heard during the afternoon celebration of Eucharist, in which people receive communion and pets a special blessing.

The half-hour service focuses on the special relationships people have with their animals, says Rev. Mark Lingle.

"At our church there are a number of people who are single or who have lost a loved one, and their pet is one of their primary relationships," he said.

(See photos and get more information about domestic cats and dogs.)

The church's special service is part of a growing movement among places of worship, some of which not only recognize the human-animal bond but offer pet owners support and services almost unheard of a decade ago.

In addition to special blessings or regular church services, these places hold private pet memorials or burials and offer grief counseling to comfort members whose pets have died.

Dealing With Loss

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom, a progressive reform Jewish synagogue in Santa Monica, California, says that when a pet dies, owners suffer the same grief as they would over the loss of a human.

For years he's made condolence calls or visits with members of his congregation whose pets have died. And after each service he says a prayer for members mourning the loss of an animal or human.

(Related: "Photo Gallery: Pets, Hurricane Katrina's Other Victims" [September 2005].)

"It's something people don't necessarily expect their synagogue to do, which is to recognize how important their animals are in their lives," he said.

Rev. Gill Babeu, a Catholic priest at St. Bridget of Ireland in Stamford, Connecticut, says he understands the pain of losing a beloved companion animal.

Six months ago he was devastated by the death of his poodle, Louise Frances, and fell into a deep depression.

Even though the church does not condone masses or funerals for pets, Babeu still presides over backyard burials by reciting a simple prayer.

When asked if there are dogs in heaven, he replied: "Well, the church says no. But I really believe I'm going to see my little doggie when I get there."

Chaplain Duty

Rob Gierka is a new breed of chaplain.

Originally trained to provide pastoral care at hospitals, he now consoles North Carolina pet owners whose animals are sick or dying.

Gierka grew up in a houseful of animals and experienced a deep sadness with each one's passing, he says. But no one ever acknowledged his feelings or seemed to care about his pets' deaths.

Today the Baptist chaplain provides clients at a local animal-rehabilitation center with what he didn't have as a child—a shoulder to cry on.

The soft-spoken chaplain also oversees private memorial services where he plays guitar and recites a few prayers. And he provides emotional support for owners during euthanasia procedures.

Gierka says he's careful not to impose any religious views on the owners he counsels.

But most veterinary hospitals struggle with the issue of religion and pet care and shy away from Gierka's services, which are offered for free, he says.

"It's an uphill climb to try to get these large veterinary hospitals to accept pet chaplains," he said. "But I know it was the same uphill battle for chaplains in human hospitals."

In the future Gierka would like to see an army of trained pet chaplains around the country.

A Place to Rest

In New Providence, New Jersey, a garden at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church offers animal owners, regardless of their religious affiliation, a final resting place for their pets.

Created some 40 years ago, the pet cemetery is believed to be the only one located on church grounds in the United States.

The ashes of more than a hundred faithful companions are buried in the flower-filled garden.

No headstones mark the grave sites. Instead a memorial book with photos of all the buried animals is kept in the church.

"People's pets become part of their family, and it helps their grieving to have a prayer and a special place to bury them," church rector Margaret Hodgkins said.

As religious leaders begin to recognize the human-animal bond, some Episcopal Church leaders have gone a step further by raising awareness of various animal issues such as cruelty, neglect, and exploitation.

The Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare—launched two years ago—has about 200 members as well as 15 churches that have pledged to be "animal friendly."

The churches must hold an animal-blessing service each year, provide pastoral care and prayer for members grieving the loss or illness of a pet, serve vegetarian fare during community meals, and agree not to hold fundraisers that center on the killing of animals, such as pig roasts and lobster boils.

"People get a lot of flak for caring about animals," said Rev. Rebecca Deinsen, a priest in Worthington, Ohio, who helped start the network. "This gives people a sense of support and of community."

Christians' views of animals are slowly changing for the better, says Andrew Linzey, an Anglican priest and author of several books on the subject, including Animal Rights: A Historical Anthology.

Historically, Christian theology has been against animals, Linzey says, regarding them as little more than lumps of meat.

"It may be that we exploit animals so much precisely because we have such a spiritually impoverished view of their status," Linzey said.

"The Christian mind should be [that] we are given life by a generous creator," he said. "And we in turn, in the image of God, must show that generosity to other creatures."

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