Written by: Heather Clemenceau
The special custom called the Blessing of the Animals is conducted in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for all animals. St. Francis, whose feast day is October 4th, wrote a “Canticle of the Creatures,” an ode to all living things. A procession of animals – dogs, rabbits, and even donkeys, arrived at Fairy Lake Park in Newmarket, Ontario, for this special blessing ceremony, which was officiated by Father Gordon Sheppard of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Newmarket, and Father Daniel Graves, of Trinity Anglican Church in Bradford.
The bond between people and their pets is like no other relationship. No wonder pets enjoy the opportunity to take their people to the park for a special blessing!
Looking at BlessFest Canada’s website it’s easy to see that this event is rapidly gaining in popularity. In 2012, 80 pets were blessed, and on Saturday, September 14th, 114 pets brought their people to the park for the blessing, receiving sparkly silver halos afterwards. Additionally there were vendors present who provide services such as pet spas, sitting, walking, finding lost pets, a pet memorial service, pet clothing and accessories, and various breed rescues (and a donkey sanctuary), etc. There were lots of free samples, bling bags for the first 200 and just about everything you need if you are a pet owner and animal lover. My dog Coco, rescued during a puppy-mill raid in Quebec, was blessed at the park by Father Sheppard, and all of the pets were on their best behaviour, with no accidents and (almost) no barking. Well, a few dogs decided to bark at the leashed ferrets walking through the park.
Several of my friends ask me why, as an atheist, would I be interested in attending an animal blessing? To me, the answer is straightforward – I think such events are extremely positive when they acknowledge that animals have consciousness, or “souls.” The more we learn about animals from science, the more we can see that animals are not that much different from us. In fact, I dare say that they are better than us in many ways. The blessing also reinforces the knowledge that our close interaction with animals means we have a responsibility to protect their welfare.
While it might not sound like much to us to acknowledge that non-human animals possess souls, or conscious states, the body of scientific evidence is increasingly showing that most animals are conscious in the same way that we are, and it’s no longer something we can ignore. A universal declaration on animal welfare (UDAW) would recognize among people of all nations that animals are sentient – they can suffer and feel pain. Animal welfare needs to be respected and animal cruelty must end. The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) hopes that a universal declaration will encourage governments to make and enforce laws that benefit animals, as well as laws that help people and protect the environment. The world’s toughest challenges – food security, poverty, climate change – can only be solved when the humane treatment of animals are a critical part of the solution.
In addition, an international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are. The group consists of cognitive scientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists — all of whom have attended the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals. The group acknowledges that consciousness can emerge in those animals that are very much unlike humans, including those that evolved along different evolutionary tracks. Consequently, say the signatories, the scientific evidence is increasingly indicating that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.
“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states,” they write, “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.”
All around the world, millions of people look to animals for companionship; the human-animal bond has proven therapeutic benefits. I think that animals have come a long way in the church in recent decades; religious people have historically been told that animals do not have souls and, therefore, were not worthy of special attention and could not go to heaven, which most of us pet lovers refer to as the “Rainbow Bridge.” I prefer the view of the humourist Will Rogers, who is widely quoted as saying, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”