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: Fit for a queen

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For a delightful tribute to Dash (and Tori, who plays him), visit the New Hampshire PBS site. (Photo courtesy New Hampshire PBS)

If you are a fan of the “Victoria” series and have not seen Season 2, Episodes 3 and 4, you may want to stop reading here. Even if you have seen it, it wouldn’t hurt to have a tissue handy.

How many twenty-somethings today could rule a nation? Before you answer that, let’s revise the question to: How many twenty-somethings of any era could rule a nation without the love, companionship, and guidance of a wise soul? I’m not talking about Prince Albert or Lord M, but Dash, Victoria’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who was her constant companion from her isolated girlhood into the beginning of her life as a queen, wife, and mother.

Dash (played by Tori, who had the same role in the 2009 movie “The Young Victoria”) appears in many scenes with Victoria, usually in her lap, on her bed, or on a nearby chair. This is a dog who knows his place, and he observes everything that goes on and listens to all that is said (and unsaid) by his beloved human. There is nothing one would not do for the other — not for personal or political gain, but purely for love and perhaps the occasional treat. He was the one being in the world who did not care about her parentage or power. Dash cared simply and honestly for Victoria — not by doing, but by being.

Shouldn’t everyone with a country, corporation, or consciousness to run have that? Especially during the almost-adult to stuff-just-got-real-adult transition. Pepper, a miniature Schnauzer mix, saw me from eighth grade to my early journalism career and almost through graduate school. When I imagine those years without her, I see a lot more sadness and judgement and a lot less growth, acceptance, and fun. One little dog made a big difference for me and the people and animals around me to this day, and I’m no queen.

When it became apparent at the beginning of the episode that Dash may not be doing so well, I braced myself, but of course the tears flowed when he died. I love his epitaph:

His attachment was without selfishness,
His playfulness without malice,
His fidelity without deceit,
READER, if you would live beloved and die regretted, profit by the example of DASH.

A sweet, perceptive two-minute video about Dash can be seen on the New Hampshire PBS website.

The initially crusty, but increasingly insightful Duchess of Buccleuch becomes the conduit, in Episode 4, for a new puppy entering the queen’s orbit. An unauthorized leak in the royal bedchamber points to the need for a bit of training for the pup, but we are left assured that Victoria’s education will continue.