"All creatures are created from the same paternal heartbeat of God," said St. Francis, who is most often pictured balancing a bird on his arm. He also said to a flock of chattering birds "Little sisters, if you have now had your say, it is time that I also should be heard."
Imagine that. He called birds his sisters. He conversed with them. No sense of dominance in Francis. He approached everyone - and every non-human creature - from a position of equality - eye to eye. Many humans don't stop to think that animals have rights just as human beings do. But they must. Animals and birds are also God's much loved creatures.
Meet three people who have very special gifts for communicating with animals, who approach them eye to eye: Kevin Richardson, the Lion Whisperer; Jane Goodall, who has a special bond with chimpanzees; And Dean Koontz, proud owner of a golden retriever named Trixie.
In other words, he really meets them, eye to eye. He refuses to break their spirits by using any object, like sticks or chains to subdue them. Instead, he uses love, understanding, and trust to get to know them as individual beings with individual personalities. He learns what makes each one happy, sad, angry, or irritated. His goal isn't to train them; his goal is to bond with them.
These are all lions that Kevin has known since they were born. He worked for a while in the South African cub-petting tourist industry until he found out that once these cute little lion cubs reached maturity and were too old to be petted, they were, for the most part, sold to the canned hunting industry. Each tourist will pay the government up to $40,000 to have a mostly domesticated lion locked in an enclosed space where this so-called "hunter" can kill his "trophy."
To save his lions, Kevin bought the cubs grown to maturity that he had known since infancy and established his own self-sustaining wildlife sanctuary. Here he works with volunteers for the preservation of wild species and the elimination of canned hunting through education, awareness, and funding. Here he also produces films that show him sleeping with lions, swimming with lionesses, playing and cuddling with them, kissing them on the nose. This man, who has been dubbed "The Lion Whisperer" explains "a lion is not a possession; it's a sentient being, so you must pay attention and develop your bond like with any relationship."
Kevin's book, "Part of the Pride," details his journey. Profits from its sale help support his sanctuary. He was recently featured on "60 Minutes."
Fascinated, Jane observed two chimpanzees making and using tools. Until then, anthropologists had thought of tool-making as a distinctively human trait.
But much of the chimps' behavior was human-like. Cuddling. Fighting and then reconciling. Adult male chimps altruistically adopting orphaned infants. Darker behavior like cannibalism and splinter groups making war on each other. Jane wrote "They are more like us than we ever imagined....When a baby chimp looks at you, it's just like a human baby. We have a responsibility to them."
Jane broke established, impersonal scientific traditions in her reports. Looking eye to eye, she knew the chimpanzees as individuals with distinct personalities, minds, and emotions, and so she gave them names. She began her studies as a researcher; she left her studies as an activist, determined to save the amazing creatures she had grown to respect and love. She wrote
"In what terms should we think of these beings, non-human yet possessing so very many human-like characteristics? How should we treat them? Surely we should treat them with the same consideration and kindness as we show to other humans; and as we recognize human rights, so too should we recognize the rights of the great apes. Yes."
Lately, Goodall has begun gazing into the suffering eyes of birds and animals raised in inhumane conditions to be slaughtered and then placed on our tables to be eaten. They too have rights that are being violated, she says.
"No matter how close we are to another person, few human relationships are as free from strife, disagreement, and frustration, as is the relationship you have with a good dog. Few human beings give of themselves to another as a dog gives of itself. I also suspect that we cherish dogs because their unblemished souls make us wish, consciously or unconsciously - that we were as innocent as they are..."
Dean has written a memoir about Trixie called "A Big Little Life."
We are still in the early stages of understanding the minds and souls of our animal brothers and sisters. But we are all called to act in some way for their protection and preservation. As Goodall says " You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."
Maybe we could all begin as St. Francis suggests, by doing what is necessary: looking, in a loving, honest, searching way, into an animal's eyes. Somewhere in that gaze lies the heart of the Creator.