When watching nature shows on TV, I marvel at the animals: their intelligence, their rituals, their
instincts, their ability to fly thousands of miles. I am amazed by their ability to hunt, to communicate, to establish hierarchies, to mate for life—indeed their very presence.

The more I observe and learn, the deeper my appreciation of the genius, the beauty, the adaptability, the ingenuity and the elegance of animals becomes. The more we all learn from and about animals, the easier it becomes to rebuke the belief that they are mindless machines tantamount to a pencil sharpener or a lawn mower without awareness or feeling. The more we learn only behooves us to form a wiser and more mystical concept of animals.

During his 1982 visit to Assisi, Blessed John Paul II invoked the spirit of St. Francis when he said in his message on reconciliation, “Creation is the marvelous work of the hand of God. His solicitous care, not only towards men, but also towards animals and nature in general, is a faithful echo of the love with which God in the beginning pronounced his ‘fiat’ which had brought them into existence. How can we not feel vibrating in the Canticle of the Creatures something of the transcendent joy of God the Creator?”

St. Francis, the son of a prosperous Italian cloth merchant whose birthday on October 4 has given rise to “World Day for Animals,” has also provided documentation by historians of the intelligence of animals.

Historians relate the story of the man-eating wolf of Gubbio to cite the striking rapport that can take place between humans and animals. The wolf terrorized the citizens of the Italian city of Gubbio for many years with his predatory attacks on humans and other animals. Recognizing that the wolf’s ways had sprung from hunger, St. Francis communicated to the wolf that the townspeople would provide food for him as long as he, in return, would not harm another human or animal.

Historians are in agreement that the wolf bowed his head in acceptance of the saint’s offer, and for the rest of his life the wolf respected the covenant, going from house to house every day to be fed by the townspeople until he died of old age.

All Creatures Great and Small

Even contemporary scholarship supports St. Francis’ conviction that there is a self behind the animal’s eyes. Ecologist Douglas Fur demonstrated that dolphins communicate in ultrasonic sounds far above human range; wolves are able to formulate complex strategies for hunting and then assign roles in the hunt; insects are able to build elaborate shelters and organize labyrinthine societies with knowledge that is genetically acquired.

Animal behaviorist Ronald Schusterman showed that a sea lion named Rio possessed cognitive skills required for language. Georgia State University psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh showed that a chimp named Kanzi demonstrated a grasp of grammatical concepts such as word order. The chimp also had an understanding of the spoken language by pointing to lexigrams printed on a board and by punching symbols on a keyboard that generated words in English.

More and more, we seem to be renegotiating our relationship with animals, understanding that they are connected to the interrelatedness of all life. The furred, feathered and finned all come from the Father. Animals are teachers, messengers and reflections in physical form of divine principles.

To neglect the importance of our relationships with animals is to neglect the pressing needs of humans: Can the underprivileged be educated, the hungry fed, the poor clothed, the homeless given shelter, the lonely befriended, neighbors colonized or different cultures understood if we devalue our relationships with animals?

As we see shows like Nature on PBS, and as we read studies of animal behavior by scientists, we are acknowledging our links to them in terms of communication, intelligence and emotional life. We understand that animals possess higher mental capabilities, and are able to feel pain and grief, joy and anger.

This acknowledgment is making us more sensitive in two ways: We are giving animals their rightful place in creation and we are seeing ourselves, not as the center of everything, but as one species given special responsibility in the midst of other living things. Father Larry Evans of Our Lady of Mercy Church in Jersey City, New Jersey, says, “People of faith have been called upon to care for the most vulnerable among us—the animals.”

Animals Belong to God

In springtime, just like the return of the cherry blossoms, the geese come back to the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia’s famous Fairmount Park. The geese, like the trees, are part of the physical and mystical poetry of the park. They are symbol bearers of faith and peace.

I’ve been coming to this piece of paradise in the city for 40 years to walk, to talk, to run, to sun, to write, to pray. I drink in my time here in passionate and prayerful gulps. The geese are part of those gulps, particularly when I watch them glide idyllically on the river or rest peaceably and beatifically on the green grass of the banks of the river. They are creation. They are part of the web of life. How can we think otherwise?

The other day, as I was walking along the people path that stretches for three miles along the river, I saw a man with his dog crouched behind a bush, eyeing a flock of geese munching on the grass. Suddenly, the man unleashed his dog and it raced toward the flock. Immediately, the birds, en masse, flew off. One goose, though, slipped on its takeoff and the dog came dangerously close to pouncing on it. Fortunately, the bird recovered and escaped.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the geese preyed upon here. I’ve seen teenagers throwing stones at them. I’ve seen adults spooking them. I’ve even seen geese with their heads cut off, lying on the banks of the river.

I always ask: Why do some humans believe they are above the rules and rhythms of nature? The geese may have a different culture, a different language and different habits from humans, but
they have the same desire to live—and live in peace.

The difference between them and us is both vast and negligible. After all, the geese are caught with each of us in the net of life. Indeed, the geese are like the unborn: They deserve the sanctity of life.

Karl Barth put it best when he said, “Animals belong only to God.”

Creatures/Teachers

Geese—all animals, really—teach us in the same way good professors do. Job 12:7 says, “But now ask the beasts to teach you, and the birds of the air to tell you.”

David Quammen in his essay, “The Miracle of Geese,” writes: “Geese are the images of humanity’s own highest self. They show us the apogee of our own potential. They live by the same principles that we, too often, only espouse. They embody liberty, grace and devotion. When they honk so musically, we are treated to a glimpse of the same sort of sublime creaturehood that we want badly to see in ourselves.”

The more we learn from the beauty and cunning, the persistence and patience, the adaptability and ingenuity, the elegance and physical prowess of animals, the deeper and more profound is our sense of spiritual wonder.

Each time I visit this part of Fairmount Park, I learn something from the geese. They are alert, curious, awake. They seize me with their conscious competence: playing and fooling around with one another; communicating with their musical honking; flying in perfect order and elegance, like an airplane squadron; inspiring by their devotion to the flock.

They are imbued with extensions of the senses we humans cannot fathom or attain. They are essential to the splendor of God’s earth. Indeed, as Quammen says so eloquently, they can show us humans how to lift up our own potential. To trouble their joy and their peace is to go against God, for these creatures are without sin.

Dostoyevsky said, “Love animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled.”

Chief, a Goose and a Red Van

This same day, I was privy to and part of giving joy to a lone goose. I had stopped to buy one of Philly’s famous soft pretzels from a man everyone in the park calls “Chief.” He sells snacks from his red van and is considered a legend by the thousands who come down to this piece of the park to run, walk, bike, in-line skate or row.

Chief has been selling soft pretzels, soda, water, ice pops, candy, cookies and crackers for 66 years in Fairmount Park. He is a lively, alert and curious 84 years young. Chief is also a good example of someone who puts compassion into action. He feeds the squirrels and pigeons in the park. He donates money generously to a number of animal welfare organizations and shelters. He takes in stray cats.

But Chief is equally as good to humans: He gives the homeless people in the park something to eat. He treats others who have brought no money with them to water or a pretzel. And he has given $75,000 to the families of three people who had loved ones die.

As I was eating my pretzel, I noticed something unusual—a lone goose sidling up the people path, side by side with humans who were out walking. In fact, I’ve never seen this happen in all of my 40 years of coming here. Geese tend to stay with the flock and avoid humans. This lone goose stopped in front of Chief’s red van and immediately began to drink from a water bowl for dogs that accompany their human companions on a walk or run.

“Here,” said Chief, as he handed me some peanuts to feed the goose. And so I fed the goose. When I ran out of peanuts, the bird followed me around like a puppy.

“Here,” Chief said again, and he gave me some cookies and crackers to feed the bird. In the following days, this goose became a regular visitor to the van. Chief would give food to other people who had stopped to marvel at the bird’s comfort around humans.

The point to be embraced from this story of the goose, as Andrew Linzey puts it cogently in Christianity and the Rights of Animals, is: “To love animals is not sentimentality but true spirituality. To go out of our way to help animals, to expend effort to secure their protection and to feel with them their suffering and to be moved by it—these are surely signs of spiritual greatness.”

I walked away from Chief’s red van that day fully convinced of our human potential to recognize that all life—human, the unborn, animals—is sacred, and I am even more fully convinced that if we put this potential into action, it will reflect our highest self.