Moore was in the fourth grade and playing at her grandmother’s house when she all but tripped over what she thought was a rock. It turned out to be a baby turtle with a tiny crack in its shell. A born animal lover, Moore convinced her mom to make an appointment with the vet to have Pokey’s shell examined.
“My sister and I nursed him back to health, putting Vaseline on his shell daily,” said the now 30-year-old Moore, who lives in Heflin. “Every week for a year, I checked out the same book on turtles at the library. I became a young expert, or so I liked to think.”
When Moore left for college, Pokey stayed with her mom. He lived in a large cage built out of an old sandbox covered with chicken wire. A heating lamp fought back the chilly winter weather. Pokey loved people, often sticking his neck out from his mended shell just so visitors could pet him.
“At times, I swore he smiled at me,” Moore remembered. “I could even yawn in front of him and he would mimic me and yawn back.”
Two years ago, Pokey died. After being Moore’s pet for 18 years, his passing was very emotional. With tears in her eyes, Moore and her husband said a prayer before burying Pokey in the backyard.
“How could something as un-cuddly as a turtle make me cry?” asked Moore, who currently has six pets, including three dogs, two cats and a new turtle named Caesar. “The answer was simple. That turtle was part of my youth. When he died, I felt a chapter of my childhood had come to an end.”
But she also felt at peace. “I knew that Pokey was in heaven.”
Ask an animal lover if pets have souls, and the response is generally swift and certain.
“To say that only humans have souls is rather species-centric,” said Susan Sullivan of Anniston, who has two dogs, eight cats and a 19-year-old king snake named Stephen Kingsnake. “Some religions think animals are actually closer to God than humans are because of their simplicity. One can certainly learn and experience the basic tenants that loving, compassionate religions teach by caring for animals.”
The Bible on animals
The Bible is noncommittal on whether animals have souls, or whether they’ll be in heaven. Genesis states that both man and animal have the breath of life, the main difference being that man is made in God’s own image, while animals are not.
The prophet Isaiah said God will include animals in the afterlife. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain, says the Lord” (Isaiah 65:25).
In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John’s vision included Christ and the armies of heaven “riding on white horses.”
There is no question that man and animal are different. But this difference doesn’t necessarily mean a distance or separation from God’s favor.
“Logos” is Greek for “word,” but in early Christian philosophy it meant much more. Basically, “logos” meant the “essence of the divine,” the part of God that did not stay with God at the creation, but that traveled down into the world.
While humans obviously use this logos more perfectly than the rest of God’s creatures, it’s important to note that, even though animals can’t give voice to the logos in the same way that humans do, that doesn’t mean they don’t share it, writes Ptolmey Tompkins in The Divine Life of Animals.
“In other words, even if animals don’t manifest the logos or essence of the divine in the form of a conscious, rational ability, this does not necessarily bar them from participation in the immortality of the divine life that so many traditions promise,” he writes.
“That’s why Saint Francis could address all animals as if they were his brothers without fear of going against the truth he found in the scriptures, and it’s why so many Eastern saints and holy people could treat animals as if they were their brethren, as well.”
The legend of Saint Francis
Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was the patron saint of ecology, nature and animals, among other things, and was the poster boy for man’s harmony with nature.
Because he truly believed that all of nature was wondrous and all creatures sacred to God, Francis introduced a new way of looking at the world, one accessible to the rich and poor.
But it’s his relationship with animals for which he is most famous. It was said that birds would quiet down and listen when he preached, and there were many tales of his ability to communicate with animals.
It’s in the spirit of Saint Francis that various churches, including Grace Episcopal Church in Anniston, host a “Blessing of the Animals” service on the Sunday before Saint Francis’ Feast Day of Oct. 4. Over the years as a priest, Grace pastor Lee Shafer has blessed everything from cats and dogs to snakes – even a hedgehog.
For Shafer, who’s had both cats and dogs, it all comes down to one thing. It’s all about love,” she said. “On every level and in every bit of scripture, it’s all about love.
“Nothing shows us how to love better than animals, because their love is unconditional. That’s what we’re saying when we bless these animals. We’re affirming that they bring us joy, and it’s our responsibility to take care of them the way they take care of us.”
Joy Patty always knew that one day she and her husband would move to the area outside of Piedmont where she grew up.
So when two of her beloved Chinese pugs died while they were still living in Prattville, Patty buried first Tang (1983-1997), then later Rocky (1996-2004), in plastic coolers in the backyard.
Four years ago, when they bought a house on Highway 9 between White Plains and Piedmont, Patty reburied Tang and Rocky, who were soon joined by Walker (2002-2011). She added headstones for each.
Now they have only Frankie, a rescued pug they found on St. Patrick’s Day in 2008.
While Patty hasn’t given much thought as to whether animals have souls, she knows that, for a couple who never had children, those dogs were a part of her family just the same.
“People go to the cemetery to visit the people they love who’ve died,” Patty said. “It’s different going to the grave than it is just sitting in the living room thinking about them. That’s the way I feel about my dogs. I know it might sound strange to some … but I wanted them close.”
There’s no question that losing a beloved animal is cause for grief. “It’s important to honor the lives of those we love,” Shafer said. “And these animals are often family members; they deserve to be treated the same way when they die.”
Shafer has officiated at several funerals for pets. She remembers one in another state where the family placed its beloved dead cat on a satin pillow on the dining room table.
“That was kind of creepy … and over the edge,” she said.
‘In my heaven’
After the funeral service, be it a simple prayer before burial in the backyard or something more elaborate, the question lingers … what happens next?
When Barry Nicholls, veterinarian at Animal Medical Center in Anniston, tries to comfort someone who has lost a pet, he’s reminded of what a preacher/client once told him.
“The Bible said that heaven would be everything you could imagine it to be. ... Since he could not imagine his dog not being there when he went to heaven, then dogs must indeed go there when they die,” Nicholls said. “They did not cover this in vet school, so I have deferred to the preacher’s opinion.”
Patty concurs. “We’re taught that everything is going to be wonderful up there, but how could it be without the pets we love best?” she asked. “In my heaven, all my dogs will be there.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org