(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

Please click here to listen to the message or see below to read it.

It is an amazing fact that the biological similarity between animals and humans is very high.  Almost all animals, including us – since we too are animals – have the same organs and organ systems.  In every animal, these systems perform identical functions.  

In veterinary science, over 90% of all drugs used to treat animals are the same as those used to treat humans.  Humans and many animals also  share a lot of the same DNA.  A mouse, for instance, shares 99% of its genes and DNA with us.

My father, who was a plastic surgeon, regularly used pig cadavers to practice surgeries he would later perform on people – especially for burn and traumatic injury repairs.  Pig skin and tissue are virtually the same in us. 

Beyond biological sameness, anthropologists say many animals share the basic emotions we have – those of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.  In animals like dogs, cats, horses and primates, they even exhibit complex human emotions of jealousy, sympathy, guilt and shame.  And, as all pet owners will agree, those animals share with us the complex emotion of love – between themselves… and between they and us.

More fundamentally, animals have implicit worth because they are animate andconscious beings.  The 2012 Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, which emerged from a conference of scientists including physicist Steven Hawking, said that most animals have conscious experience – meaning they are aware of themselves as separate beings and of their individual place within nature.  Consciousness has been proven even in animals that lack a frontal brain cortex that allows for high level reasoning.  Octopuses, as an example, are highly intelligent and have conscious awareness – even though they lack a frontal cortex.

This was and is important because it places animals on the same level of sacredness as humans.  They have value and spiritual essence the same as we do – and they deserve rights of ethical treatment and decency as well.  It echoes what virtually all world religions believe.  There is oneness and interdependence between all of life – and all life therefore has specialness and value.

This month I’m examining in my three messages some of the seven Unitarian Universalist Principles.  Today, one on which we celebrate and bless our pets, it’s a perfect opportunity to look at the Seventh UU Principle which says that, “We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

For me, interdependence means connection with other things based on mutual reliance.  As humans, we rely on every part of the universe in order to survive.  And other things that exist rely on us to protect them, live in balance with them, and allow them to thrive.  When we damage mutual connections with other forms of life, or other parts of the universe, we threaten not only their well-being, but our own survival too.

We thus share an implicit oneness with everything.   I compare our  oneness with everything in nature to the cells in our bodies.  Each cell has a unique function – but no single cell can survive and thrive without all of the other cells working in harmony and collaboration.  And when some cells begin to function independently from other cells, as in cancer cells for instance, the entire body is put in jeopardy.  And it is an ironic truth that by harming the whole, those independent cells eventually harm themselves.  When a person dies from cancer, the cancer cells die too.

Using that analogy, we as humans cannot act as cancer cells within the one human family, or within nature and the universe.  It’s our duty, for the well-being of all things – and of ourselves – to act inter-dependently.  Following up on my message last Sunday, spiritually minded people should collaborate and work together.  We should feel the oneness between our sister humans, between us and animals, between us and the air, water, and dirt, and then outward between us and the cosmos.

Interestingly, psychologists say studies show that people who deeply believe in a oneness between all things are far more compassionate, empathetic and generous people.  The humility of mind that it takes to be unselfish within nature, to see ourselves as very minor parts of the cosmos, is the same attitude that it takes to act and speak with kindness and humility to one another.

Most of us are that way – or we sincerely try to be.  People who love animals are that way.  My partner Keith is one such person.  I’m always amazed when he and I walk down a street and encounter someone walking a dog.  The pet is immediately drawn to Keith as a friend.  Keith deeply loves animals – and they intuitively know that.  But that same kindness and gentleness of spirit is one he shows people too.  And, as I said, I know that is true in many other people.  To be someone who serves and loves animals is usually to be someone who serves and loves people.

For me, it’s a spiritual battle to act true to the oneness I believe I have with all people, creatures and things.  Albert Einstein commented on the selfishness he often saw in humans by saying, “We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest.”  In other words, Einstein said we can sometimes wrongly act not as one with the other people, animals or things, but as superior or dominant to them. 

I too often forget that the food I eat and the air and water I consume should all be treated ethically and compassionately.   If they are like the cells in my body, how is it that I can look the other way at cruel treatment of fellow animals, or disregard polluting the air, water and land by me, my car, my home?  Even more, I often fail to love my fellow humans with the collaboration I desire for myself.  I can too often not act interdependently – and instead act like a cancer cell.

But sometimes failure in me is why I’m here – not just to be a minister, but for all of us to be ministers to each other and to the outside world.  Perhaps that’s why the Principle imploring us to respect the interdependence of all things is the seventh and last one – it’s the highest and most important spiritual ethic we should practice.  How we love and treat our sister creatures is a window into how we treat one another.  Today, we have not just asked for a blessing on animals and pets.   We  have humbly acknowledged how animals bless us far more than the reverse.

There are literally thousands of stories of how animals have loved and blessed humans.

One such story you can find on YouTube is of Linda Koebner who courageously rescued two chimpanzees from an abusive laboratory.  She then formed a bond of affection with the chimpanzees Doll and Swing as she healed them from their traumas.  Afterwards, she placed the chimps in a Florida refuge for abused primates.

Eighteen years later, Linda returned to the refuge to reunite with them.  But would they remember her?  Her reunion was documented on video.  As she approached them, the chimps immediately recognized Linda.  They embraced her, smiled broadly, and smothered her with hugs and kisses.  They were overjoyed.  This was not a human and chimp encounter.  It was a reunion of friends who loved one another.

In just a moment, you’ll watch today’s mindful media video about another rescue – this one between a dog and a man.  As you’ll see, who rescues who?  It’s a story not just for a man and his pet, but one for ALL relationships.  Can humans be drawn together by the high ethic of mutuality and love, or will our species and all of nature be destroyed by our selfish minded divisions and false beliefs that we alone are right and others are wrong?  Let us find in the love between us and our pets the blessing of universal oneness between all existence.  Let us be interdependent people.