Animal Wise: ‘Guides’ sheds light on difficult subjects

Photo by MabelAmber:Pixabay(Photo by MabelAmber/Pixabay)

As much as Susan Chernak McElroy gets it right with Animals as Teachers and Healers (Ballantine Books, 1997), she gets right to the heart with Animals as Guides for the Soul (Ballantine Books, 1998).

This follow-up is not only a worthy exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, but also a potentially transforming walk through some of the thorniest aspects of these relationships.

8482McElroy, who has worked as a technical writer and editor as well as in several animal-related occupations, writes largely from her experience on a small Wyoming farm. Insights from people who wrote to her after reading her previous book are included.

I appreciate so much in Guides for the Soul, but here are three primary take-aways.

The first is that the healing benefits of our relationships with animals are often subtle, but no less powerful. It isn’t always the spectacular, tossing-away-the-cane miracle with the therapy dog. More often, it’s the steady warmth of the cat curled up on the patient’s lap or the jingling of tags along a quiet country road day after day. Sometimes the miracle is only seen in hindsight.

“We are so conditioned to expect drama and heroics in healing that we forget the staggering importance of all the healing that goes unseen,” says McElroy, a cancer survivor. (Check out this wonderful six-minute video about two guys — one a morbidly overweight human, the other a middle-aged rescue dog — who healed each other.)

What if, she asks, we were to believe that the being at the end of the leash, in the cat carrier, or on a perch could heal by his or her very presence, offering exactly what is needed in every moment? That the dog nuzzling a crying adult was administering critical emotional first aid, or the horse heard the bullied teen as no one else could? Is that so far off the mark?

Second, McElroy delves into the rocky territory of death in a way that can benefit anyone who has lost a much-loved animal, particularly when the loss is accompanied by shame and guilt. These experiences and memories, however long ago, stick to us until we acknowledge their multilayered impact, she says.

Quoting respected authors on pet loss as well as people confronting long-buried grief and remorse, she offers perspective and tools for healing. However, she is respectful enough not to put forth easy answers. The stories of McElroy’s precious llama, Phaedra; and Jody Seay’s elderly black Lab friend McKenzie, are likely to bring both a tear and a spark of hope.

Finally, even when the animals involved are not our own, what can we do when we witness the inexplicable and cruel? When McElroy was about 11, a young coyote with his mangled leg still dangling in a steel-jaw trap was part of a wildlife exhibit at a nearby park. Day after day, he lay in a rusting wire cage with no food or water. She pleaded with the park rangers to care for the coyote. They ignored her. She begged her parents to do something, wrote to the local paper, and contacted the town mayor and her family’s veterinarian.

No adult would intervene until she called Mrs. Roberts, the mother of a friend, who picketed the park. The exhibit shut down within a week. The coyote made the front page of the local paper and was released to Mrs. Roberts, whose veterinarian husband helped care for the coyote in a backyard pen. Months later, Mrs. Roberts drove the coyote to the desert and released him back into the wild.

“She reminded me that although it was she who freed the coyote, it was I who had brought the coyote to her attention. At the age of eleven, I learned that one person can stand up against suffering and make a difference,” McElroy recalls.

We should all have, or be, a Mrs. Roberts.

Animal Wise: The only thing left to do

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I worked with an angry dog very much like this one during my Animal Reiki III training. (Photo by asommerh on Pixabay)

Normally, I steer clear of individuals — dogs or not — who are barking at me. But something drew me to Lyson despite his barking and the warnings posted all over his kennel at The Devoted Barn animal sanctuary, where I was doing my Animal Reiki III training with Kathleen Prasad.

The warnings were about keeping hands and fingers away from the cage, letting him out separately from the other dogs, and keeping him muzzled when he was out of the kennel. I could understand why, given the anger convulsing his body with every bark. I did not have Lyson’s backstory or any illusions about fixing whatever was bothering him. My classmates and I had dispersed around the barn to share Reiki with the animals, and that’s what I was going to do.

I pulled up a chair by his kennel and turned slightly to the side (some animals interpret your facing them directly as confrontation). I let both Lyson and Mojo, the dog in the next kennel, know they were free to take as much or as little of the energy as they wanted. It was completely up to them. Then I began my meditation, pulling in the energy of the earth and sky to remain grounded and connected to God.

Mojo, who I think was a recent rescue from Saudi Arabia, sat quietly, cocking his head a bit. Lyson furiously barked and barked. I held a space of peace for both of them and myself, trying to remember the particulars of Kathleen’s “be the mountain” meditation. As a Reiki practitioner and empath, I have learned the hard way that taking on or getting sucked into another individual’s emotions or problems helps no one. It’s not mine to do. That’s the beauty of the Reiki space; it lets me care while stepping out of the way and allowing a higher wisdom to work.

A couple of times, Lyson stopped barking and went to the back of his pen. When he returned, he looked at me like he couldn’t believe I was still there, that someone was interacting with him in a way that did not involve violence or force. Then he started barking again.

About midway through the meditation, I looked down and noticed a mouse peeking out from a hole under Lyson’s pen. “Well, hi,” I said quietly. “You’re welcome to join us.”

As the session drew to a close, the mouse drew his nose back into the hole. Mojo relaxed, still curious about what the humans in the barn were up to. Lyson barked a couple more times just to make sure he got his point across. Before I rejoined my classmates at the other end of the barn, I briefly met his gaze. There was something about the healing energy we had just shared that he understood, even if it was just a tiny sliver. Perhaps that was wishful thinking on my part.

When I discussed my experience with Lyson, Mojo, and the mouse with the rest of the class, Kathleen said she heard Lyson was to be euthanized. Apparently, his aggressive behaviors had been deemed too severe for any other solution to be workable. She said it was good that I worked with him, that he got to have some positive interaction with human beings. I know enough about this particular sanctuary to say that such decisions are not made without careful assessment, love, and anguish.

Would I have loved to hear Lyson made a total turnaround during our Reiki weekend and was granted a reprieve … and if not adopted, at least able to live out his days among the other dogs at the sanctuary? Of course. But making that happen was not within our power, and practicing Reiki with a specific outcome in mind only blocks the healing energy you are trying to share.

Therein lies the tension between a Reiki practitioner’s natural and sincere inclination to help (and to want to see the results of said help) and the way healing actually works: with us mortals doing what is ours to do and leaving the rest to a power beyond ourselves.

What was ours to do that day at the barn was exactly what we did — share healing energy with the animals, regardless of what had brought them there or what may or may not happen after we left.

Sometimes, the only thing left to do is to offer someone a peaceful presence.

Maybe that’s what Lyson, in between his bouts of barking, began to understand.

Animal Wise: Faith and strength

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Faith at The Devoted Barn, May 2017. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

I looked up into the eyes of the majestic black Percheron at The Devoted Barn in Newport, Michigan, where my Animal Reiki III class with Kathleen Prasad was about to wrap up. Rain had drowned out whatever had been said about Faith, her story, and what brought her to this volunteer-run animal sanctuary during our tour two days earlier. In that moment, it was just her, me, and the healing energy I offered to share.

Certainly she was tired of all these humans traipsing around, occasionally chanting, talking about and trying to practice using healing energy — something animals understand much better than humans anyway. Right? A horse with the strength that radiated from Faith might be thinking: OK, nice try, but enough already.

Instead, she cut my cynicism off at the pass, telling me I too was strong and to bring it on. We had a lovely session, after which I thanked her and asked if I could take a picture to remember her. She obligingly offered the profile you see here.

I did not know, then, that Faith was living with a brain tumor, had nearly died months earlier, and had miraculously bounced back for another go at life. She knew, as all animals do, that every day is a gift … but she knew it much more deeply than I realized. She didn’t have time for the doubt of the journalist/Reiki practitioner/animal communicator in front of her. Whatever I thought I did not have in that moment was of no consequence; she saw what I did have to offer and gladly accepted it. And I’m sure, during that last year of her life, Faith taught many other lessons.

As Faith’s tumor worsened, The Devoted Barn family a few days ago had to make the agonizing decision to let her go. Faith is off on her next adventure, but her cut-to-the-chase, show-me-what-you’ve-got strength will remain a part of my practice and life forever.