Franciscan Joy: Animals are close, yet distant


God designed that there be a healthy distance between all his creations. As a result from the fall from grace there has existed an enmity between humans and animals. We are afraid and cautious and fearful of them, as they are of us. We understand this distance as a means to ensure our safety, and yet we long for connection as if we yearn for the days of Eden where there was no enmity and all lived in harmony in the peaceable kingdom.

While this longing goes unfulfilled we have been given a bridge between the human realm and the realm of animals. This bridge of course is domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, horses, some primates and various types of rodents and reptiles. In some ways the connection we have with animals is a bitter reminder of what he have lost in the fall from grace. This connection also comes with responsibility on our part. We must ensure the housing, feeding and care of these animals. Failing our duty these animals can soon cross the chasm and become wild.

There are entire television programs on the rescue and rehabilitation of animals that are abused and neglected when humans fail their responsibility. Caring individuals sacrifice their time and money to find such animals ‘forever homes". An entire industry has been established to ensure the happiness and long life of our pets. Yet there are some of us that see our animal friends as disposable, something forgotten when times are rough, less than important. I am reminded of the many animals abandoned during hurricanes and other natural disasters. They are in fact left to fend for themselves while their willingness to bond with us means the loss of their own self-reliance.

Br. Tim poses with a lion.

Even among domesticated animals there exists, at times, a distance with humans. This is especially true in non-Western cultures. My experience in Kenya speaks to this truth. Domesticated animals are for the use of humans for protection and other services such as keeping rodent populations in check. Many do not have a name and will never enter the living space of humans. They are fed and watered and kept from harm but are subject to greater exposure to disease and often die earlier than their counterparts in the West.

In comparison their lives are harsher but not necessarily without care. I have seen the Masai tribesmen show affection towards their dogs. The Masai are pastoralists whose entire lives are centered around the care of their cows. It is believed that a man’s wealth is determined by the number of cows he owns. Their dogs are working dogs and are very helpful keeping the herd together and away from harm. When these dogs are injured, become sick and die they are sorely missed.

One of the photos you see was taken at The Animal Orphanage which is part of the Nairobi National Park. I am seen crouching down in front of a cheetah. I had just fed the cat its breakfast, a piece of raw beef, through the chain link fence. She did not move away from me after I fed her, so I began to scratch her under her chin and she began to purr, loudly. I treasure this experience but I recognize that it was risky and realize that I was not the first to do such a thing. Would the cat be as receptive if I entered the enclosure? Not sure, but at least I was thoughtful enough not to find out. Because of disease, poaching, and accidents these animals were taken from their parents and are not able to be returned to the wild, so they are under human protection and care. It is a fact that because of their care they may live longer, but I contend that longer life may not result in a quality of life. If greater care were shown such orphans would not exist.

In the West we find it more and more necessary to "manage" wildlife with quotas for hunting and trapping. It is now necessary that we keep numbers in check through hunting because we have effectively eliminated or severely reduced the numbers of the top members of the food chain such as wolves and wild cats such as mountain lions. We are in control. In some of our national parks, wolves have been reintroduced.

Br. Tim feeds a cheetah.

The plan for this met resistance and controversy but scientists report that with a natural balance the animal population and the environment are healthier. Nature found its own balance. I contend that we are the ones that require balance. We move into areas that once were home to wild animals. Why then are we surprised to find a bear in our back yard or a moose chomping on our bushes? Either they are where they belong or have been chased away from their natural area. We are destined to displace all wildlife so that all animals will be managed from birth to life in a park or a zoo. Again, they will live longer, but is it a quality life? Isn’t free better that captive?

Is there a way to balance wild and free with the human need to be in control? Have we forgotten what we lost in the fall from Eden? Or are we still thinking and acting as if we are God? St. Francis talks about Original Sin as the thinking and acting as if we are God. Our need to control all of life denies the distance that God put between us and the rest of nature. This denial will be our undoing. There is a void between animals and people, and this void should be filled with respect, awe and a healthy awareness that we all bear the same thumbprint of our God.

(Br. Tim Lamb, in residence at St. Francis Seraph Friary in Cincinnati, most recently served as a formator with the Province of St. Francis in Africa, Madagascar and Mauritius.)