I’ve just watched again, for the umpteen-gazillionth time (that’s a Southern expression for a bunch) the ASPCA’s commercial featuring Sarah McLachlan’s soulful ballad ‘Angel’. It is a tear-jerker to be sure. Sad, lonely, and abused animals fill frame after frame while the singer’s haunting melody drifts woefully along in the background. The ASPCA nailed it with this one. Their two-minute ad has garnered over $30 million in donations since it began its TV and website appearance in 2007 – an unimaginable windfall in the world of nonprofit fund raising from a single campaign.  I’ve also seen an increasing number of advertisements for ‘nutritionally sound’ dog and cat food, more ‘comfortable’ methods of leashing and grooming our pets, psychiatric care for stressed-out pets, and one particularly new brand of food that is bought from the refrigerated section and kept in the refrigerator at home because it’s made from 100% fresh ingredients! Exactly the same food we eat – minus the preservatives, additives, and fillers.

Is it just me or have we gone a little pet-crazy?

Let me be quick to say, I love animals. I’ve had numerous dogs and cats throughout my life, a few fish, and even a lizard for almost two years (and if you know me, it was truly a sacrifice of love for me to allow any kind of reptile inside the house). I draw a hard line on rodents. Absolutely not. No way. Not happening. But I’m getting off point…

I really do love animals and have experienced the ecstasy of puppy kisses, the amazing birth of kittens (three different litters), blue-ribbon worthy photographs, and the abiding loyalty from a pet that only its owner can understand and appreciate. I’ve also suffered through the agony of emergency vet appointments, lost and runaway pets, accidents (two dogs hit by a car), injuries (one dog bitten by a snake), mental instability (a cat who went crazy), and saying good-bye to a four-legged friend who shared life with us for 18 years. I often referred to our flat-coated retriever, Tiger, as my second oldest child.

However, it strikes me as of late that we as a society have elevated our pets to an almost god-like position within the family. People name pets in their wills (think Leona Helmsley), provide air conditioned dog houses (remember Tammy Faye Baker?), and buy puppy treadmills for their dogs to enjoy a pleasant walk inside when the weather outside is frightful. For the super-elite (or insane), pet owners now have the opportunity to provide the Fauna Sauna Heated Spa Bed. At a cool $850, their pet will enjoy lounging on an elevated, heated spa bed to relax muscles and treat anxiety. I’m not making this up, folks – it’s out there. Google it.

While I deeply appreciate the work that animal rescue organizations do to promote spay/neuter campaigns and punish animal cruelty, it flabbergasts me (another Southern expression for shock and amazement) that the loss of even one cat or dog in a shelter is intolerable. Extreme measures are taken – and accompanying exorbitant costs – to provide emergency surgeries, treatments, foster parents, etc. Sadly, many of these pets don’t survive in spite of the monumental efforts on their behalf. And if a female dog or cat is pregnant? The call to action is desperate, if not hysterical. We must not lose a puppy or a kitten!

What does this elevated pet status say about us? Rabbi Shmuley Boteach reflected in a 2009 Huff Post Healthy Living article, “…I met [a woman] recently in a Manhattan office. Seeing that an enormous Great Dane sat next to her desk, I inquired as to why the dog was at work and not at home. Her reply startled me. “My husband and I divorced about six months ago and we share joint custody of the dog. And since she’ll be going back to him this weekend, I want to spend as much time with her as possible.”” (July 20, 2009).

Really? What could possibly be going on in our minds and hearts that would cause adults to fight over who gets to spend the most time with their pet but not their own children? I think I have an idea…

Unconditional love.

We crave it. We bounce through relationships trying to find it. We read books and visit counselors and attend seminars to learn how to give and receive it. But we are human. Imperfect, broken, and flawed. And emotionally intimate relationships are fragile. Our very nature shuns vulnerability. Since the Garden of Eden, we have been trying to hide our nakedness, physically and emotionally. But our pets don’t tell us we are overweight, or financially irresponsible, or negligent housekeepers. Our pets don’t blame us for a divorce, or become disrespectful teenagers, or get strung out on drugs. They don’t cheat on us, or hurt our feelings with an ill-timed remark, or give us the silent treatment after an argument.

They simply love us where we are, for who we are. They are happy to be with us, whether lazily spending the day watching TV or going to the park for a brisk walk and a game of frisbee. They wag their tails from the simple joy of being called by name, tenderly scrubbed around the ears, or given a crunchy little dry treat out of a box off a shelf in the laundry room.

We love them because they do not judge us. They do not compare us. They love each of us individually and uniquely. And we don’t fear losing their love. Hmmmm….sound vaguely familiar?

Check out Psalms 139:13-16:

“For you [God] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

God knew every one of our days before we took our first scared, cold, naked, vulnerable breath. He knew about first days of kindergarten, hurtful nicknames, straight As, first dates, college classes, divorces, lost jobs, car payments, vacations, and cancer. And He knew our nature would be to reject him, to run from that which knows us too well. Still He loves us. Still He pursues us. Still He died for us. Still He answers prayers, performs miracles, provides unexpected blessings, and remains faithful when we are not. Is it possible that we are trying to fill a void intended for God with a pet? Satisfy our craving with the creation instead of the Creator? The Bible tells us that He calls us by name, knows the hairs on our head (which change daily), and has our name carved on the palm of His hand.

Enjoy your pet(s). Love them. Provide your best care. But remember: at the end of the day no pet, no spouse, child, friend, or significant other can fill the void intended for our relationship with God. And the next time you have a cool $850 laying around? Give it to a local children’s shelter. Your pet won’t know the difference and you could very well be the hands and feet of Jesus to someone who needs to know they are special, valuable, and unique.

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