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: While you’re away

Marcus-crop copy

Marcus the barn cat takes a break during the holiday season at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

Friends of mine used to check their rescue cockapoo, Holly, into the kennel a day or two early so she wouldn’t see them packing. Holly, of course, knew they were going away long before the suitcases came out.

Leaving our animal companions behind when we travel can bring stress for all involved. I know this firsthand, having fought back tears more than once when pulling out of the driveway or dropping somebody off at the vet clinic. Even when you trust those caring for your precious family member, when the moment comes, there may be pleading looks, trembling, and whining. The animal may not take it well, either.

However, you don’t have to deceive your cat or dog (you probably can’t anyway) to make it easier on either of you.

The obvious place to start is with the best possible arrangements for your animal’s care in your absence, whether in your home with a relative, friend, or sitter coming in; at someone else’s home; or at a boarding kennel or vet clinic. Consider the animal’s individual needs and personality, and trust your intuition about what is best for him or her.

Once those plans are in place, here are a few ideas:

Give it to ’em straight. With pictures. Tell the animal what you’re doing, who will care for him or her and where, and when you will be back. No, I am not kidding. Animals understand way more of our quirky English language than we think. As you are speaking, calmly hold the corresponding images in your mind, because these — just as much or more than your words — will get the message across.

For example, you could tell your dog: “We are going to visit Grandma next week, and Susan is going to come stay here and take care of you. Remember how much fun you had last time she was here? We’ll be back in four days.”

While you’re saying these things, picture Grandma … then Susan … then the dog playing with Susan during that previous stay … then the sun rising and setting four times … and finally, you coming back in the door with your suitcases. Keep it simple, positive, and fact-based.

Acknowledge any challenges or negative feelings. “I know you got upset the last time you went to the kennel, and that was hard for me, too. We’re going to try it one more time. I’ll try to be braver and hope you will, too.”

This respects both of you and sets the intention for a better outcome. It also affirms you as the decision maker. Again, it’s important to get in charge of your own state of mind first; if you are angry or anxious, that will drown out whatever you’re trying to communicate.

Check in. While you’re gone, you can call and have someone hold the phone out to Fluffy while you talk to her. Then you can listen as the human comes back on the line and tells you Fluffy twitched her ear and stalked off. Or you can touch base telepathically. Yes, you can; there’s a reason some dogs (and cats, and birds, and horses, etc.) know when their owners are coming home.

Find a (relatively) quiet moment, bring your animal companion to mind, and just say hello. Tell her you’re thinking of her, that you love her, and remind her when you will be home. You can leave it at that if you just wish to “leave a message,” or you can ask a question and listen for a response. Either way, she will appreciate you checking in.

Try one or more of these next time you travel and see how much clearer, and calmer, the experience can be for all creatures great and small.

For further support through animal Reiki or animal communication, visit me at www.njcrowe.com.