Our ‘Guardians of Being’

Our ‘Guardians of Being’

I recall a moment when I felt challenged to reflect on what it truly meant to be a ‘pet lover’ versus an ‘animal lover’ and whether the two were mutually exclusive.  While I and many of my ANZO colleagues are on a personal journey, trying to reconcile the complex and often-conflicted relationships humans have with other animals, I decided to forgo the possibility of creating the Anthrozoological equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru.  Instead, I choose to focus on the opportunity that companion animals offer humanity, should we choose to see it. Through their unique position in our society, “companion animals can open minds and hearts, as evidenced by the extraordinary number of fact-based accounts and fiction-based works…to increase awareness of the benefits of living in the presence of these animals” (Waldau, 2013, p. 29).  This speaks to the capacity of the nonhuman animals with which we most closely share our lives to become conduits for a deeper understanding about the realities of all animals.

guardians-of-being 2

Illustration by Patrick McDonnell from Eckhart Tolle’s book “Guardians of Being: Spiritual teachings from our dogs and cats” (2009)

A while ago, I was leafing through Eckhart Tolle’s book, Guardians of Being (2009), a refreshingly uncomplicated work that pairs his spiritual insights with sweet illustrations by MUTTs cartoonist Patrick McDonnell in which he writes“Millions of people who otherwise would be completely lost in their minds and in endless past and future concerns are taken back by their dog or cat into the present moment, again and again, and reminded of the joy of Being.”  Perhaps this is why they have the ability to serve as powerful therapeutic partners.  Such was my realization a few years ago when I brought our dog, Zoe, who was then just over a year old, along on a Mother’s Day visit.  At 86 years old, my mother, who had battled depression and anxiety most of her adult life, had been experiencing a steady cognitive decline since the previous year, most noticeably after the sudden death of my brother.  She never seemed to be able to make sense of losing her eldest son and slowly sank into a profound depression leaving her more and more confused.  Along with the cognitive changes, she began to lose her mobility and was ultimately confined to either a wheelchair or her bed.  Andre and I decided to bring Zoe with us that day rather than leave her crated in our absence.  We had recently adopted her through a local rescue after she had been found at large and then spent nearly 2 months of her short life in a shelter.  She was a young, smart, sweet girl who was still learning her manners, but loved nothing more than to be with us.

Zoe and mama

                                                    Zoe and Mama

My mother had historically been the tough opponent to bringing pets into the house growing up, a practice that was virtually foreign to her having grown up in a small town in Italy, but I had managed to plead my way to having a couple of cats and budgies, despite her initial protests.  She did, however eventually come to love our collie, Charlie, who, in his lifetime, had been a great companion to her through her bouts of depression over the years and who was instrumental in changing the way she viewed other animals forever.  I didn’t know how my mother would react to Zoe’s presence, so we kept her leashed initially but since her energy was uncharacteristically quiet for the visit, we decided to remove it.  Without prompting, she jumped up on my mother’s bed and curled into a comfortable ball with her back against my mother’s hip.  My mother, who years ago would have howled in protest about having a dog on the bed, reached out and touched her, spoke softly to her and smiled.  It was surreal.  In that moment, they had openly connected on some level and accepted each other’s presence completely.  It was really beautiful.

There continues to be scientific debate as to the efficacy (and ethics) of partnering with nonhuman animals such as chickens, horses or dogs for the therapeutic benefit of humans.  Are there real, measurable benefits for the human? Is there any harm to the nonhuman? Is it ethical for us to “use” other animals as participants when they are unable to give or refuse consent to participate and are often unable to choose to end the session if they wish?  Perhaps in response to some of these issues, Swedish healthcare researchers have even developed a robotic cat to “provide peace, be soothing and work as a tool for increased interaction and communication, complementing the care of people with dementia”.  Despite assertions to the contrary, it is difficult to refute the emerging evidence that seems to suggest a potential role for Animal Assisted Therapies in the management of dementia in the elderly, particularly in the improvement of Quality of Life indicators.  Partnering with nonhuman therapists, however, requires not only further research into how the interactions affect the human patient but also a willingness to develop strategies that allow the freedom for both participants to choose whether they wish to take part.

[And, yes, the photo above was taken the day we brought Zoe to see my mom for the first time 🙂 ]

Coming Full Circle: A reflection on Anthrozoology

Coming Full Circle: A reflection on Anthrozoology

Expanding our concept of ‘community’

“But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind. What am I? And what is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these outrunning laws, which our imperfect apprehension can see tend this way and that, but not come full circle.”


It came to me in a recent reflection that my time in this graduate program has shaped not only my understanding of Anthrozoology as a field of scientific inquiry but also my view of the world and place within it.  There must be, I thought, a way to integrate health and wellness into a broader paradigm of ‘community’, one that acknowledges the rightful place of other animals in policy discussions that affect not only our own ability to flourish but that of our greater-than-human community to do so as well.

Early in the program, courses in animal law, ethics and public policy illuminated the foundational themes of anthropocentrism & human exceptionalism, creating an opportunity to view challenges through a new lens. The interdisciplinary nature of this program has satisfied my own search for a more holistic framework for science, founded on the interconnectedness of all things, including spirit.  This program has served to quell a dissonance that persisted throughout my previous studies: that no matter how much we seek to categorize or group them by anatomy, physiology or cognition, non-human animals are individuals, experiencing their own realities which we can only begin to understand.

Unlearning old, reductionist ways of doing science (and some of its biases and preconceptions) has been liberating and emerging areas of inquiry are endless as people become more curious about the others, not just in terms of their value to us but in the context of their own intrinsic value.

There is so much more to learn, but I feel as though the experience in Canisius’ Anthrozoology program has been a transformative one for me.  I often tell people that I wish I had found this program as an undergraduate studying biology (almost 30 years ago), but the world apparently wasn’t ready for “ANZOs” then…and likely, I hadn’t yet seen enough to be ready to be one either.

One of my many nonhuman teachers

“…I look for the new Teacher that shall follow so far those shining laws that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of the heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy. ”  

~Ralph Waldo Emerson (Harvard Divinity School    Address)