On Pets, Moral Logic and Love

By Tish Harrison Warren

In January, I fell in love with someone. It was the last thing I’d expect and caught me completely off guard.

He has sandy blond hair with flecks of gray and gorgeous, sad eyes. He loves to go on walks and cuddle. His name is Herbie. He is just over eight pounds and is a mutt of some terrier variety.

My affection for Herbie came as a surprise because I have never been much of a pet person. I don’t want to sound like Cruella de Vil. My go-to line when asked if I had a pet was that I didn’t but that I loved my friends’ pets.

But if I’m honest, there’s a little more to it than that. When I was in my early 20s, at a conference on global inequality, I saw a video that interspersed photos of people in intense poverty and famine with news clips reporting on the epidemic of overweight dogs in the United States. The video was direct and didactic. It affected me, even more so after I spent time in East Africa and saw grinding poverty up close.

I didn’t think it was wrong to have a pet, and I’m surrounded by people who are so enthusiastic about their pets that I’d never articulate this concern out loud. Yet in an unspoken place inside me, I’d created a zero-sum system where any money, time or energy I gave to a domestic animal was taking money, time or energy from other humans.

I’m not the only one to feel this tension. In a 2018 episode of the hit sitcom “Blackish,” the Johnson kids ask for a dog. Their father, Dre, later says, “You know what makes me angry? People giving more consideration to animals than people” and brings up those who raised money for stray animals after Hurricane Katrina when human lives were at stake. Pope Francis drew ire last year when he criticized couples who have pets instead of children. A friend of mine lamented to me that during the holidays, her corporate office voted each year on a charity to donate to and each year the local no-kill animal shelter would win. Exasperated, my friend said, “I don’t even care what the charity is at this point. I just want it to be for human beings.”

Beyond that, pets are a lot of work, and with three children, I already had enough small, hungry creatures needing me and didn’t want to add another. So I had settled into happily being a non-pet person. Then, along came Herbie.

A friend of ours texted me. Her family had found a dog, emaciated and shivering, no tags, no chip. They had done an exhaustive search for the owner, but no one turned up. Because of their lease agreement, they couldn’t keep him and the shelters were full. Would we consider taking him? They sent a photo.

My children had been begging for a dog for months. Without a word, I handed the phone to my husband, thinking “Oh, no, I see where this is going.” He had grown up around dogs and is a softy. He took one look at the sad little guy wrapped in a blanket and that was that.

Herbie moved in. He came anxious and traumatized. Ever so slowly, he gained weight. His pallid coat began to shine. His tail began to wag more. He began to respond to his name and come when we called him. Now the only thing he wants in the whole world is for us to pet him. Well, that and cheese. What’s surprising, though, is how he’s changing us. My husband credits him with resuscitating his prayer life. He wakes early now to let the dog out so he has a couple of quiet hours in the morning to read, to pray, to jog, to center. This is his favorite time of day, and he’d tried to get up early for years, but the alarm proved less of a motivation than this insistent ball of fur.

Herbie has also forced us to be gentler. My family is raucous and roughhousing, but we found quickly that whatever Herbie has been through causes him to lose his mind around loud noises. So we’ve had to learn to yell less, be gentler and, as a result, be kinder. Herbie held up a mirror to our family and wisely told us to chill out a little. When I travel now, I miss Herbie and worry over him.

The problem with my belief that any resources, energy or affection I could give a pet was stolen from human beings who needed it more was that it was a kind utilitarianism. But love is not something you can plot on an Excel spreadsheet with inputs and outputs carefully marked. It isn’t a math equation. It is also not like a pie, where if someone takes a piece, everyone else’s gets smaller. Just the opposite, really.

The 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards said that love restores “an excellent enlargement, and extensiveness, and liberality to the soul.” Love is opening one’s heart to another. And once your heart opens, the door keeps getting wider. Love expands. The more you give, the more you have. My love for my husband and kids led me to open the door for Herbie. And love for Herbie is teaching my “Bam-Bam” of a little 3-year-old boy how to be more careful around others. Tenderness for Herbie is making us each more tender in general, more constitutionally tender. “The love we have for our pets,” wrote Karen Swallow Prior in a 2014 Christianity Today essay, “increases the love we have to offer the world.”

In the creation story in Genesis, Adam names the animals. There is something inherently loving and dignifying in giving something a name. These creatures, like us but different, were not mere machines to treat however we pleased. They were worthy of a name. Caring for animals, then, is something that is deeply human and therefore humanizing. The “dominion” humans are given over creation in Genesis is a care-taking role, a role marked by love, not merely power. In the creation story, humans and animals live not in competition but in mutual delight. C.S. Lewis went so far as to suggest, “The tame animal is, therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal — the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy.”

The problem, then, is not that we shouldn’t love animals or that what we experience for animals isn’t actually love. The problem is the paucity of a single English word for many types of “love.” “We kind of know the difference between ‘I love peanut butter’ and ‘I love my mom,’” the Catholic bishop (and dog owner) Daniel Flores told the National Catholic Register last year. “So it’s within that scale that we can say, ‘I love this dog.’ I thank God that it’s here in creation, and I happen to share a planet with it, and not just a planet, but a backyard.” Or in my case, a roof.

I still think Americans sometimes go a little too crazy over pets, and I won’t be referring to Herbie as my “fur baby” anytime soon. But I find genuine joy in making a beloved little creature happy. And I have discovered a unique kind of pleasure in watching my human loved ones love an animal, seeing my husband collapse after a hard day and curl up with Herbie, who worships the very ground he walks on. Or seeing my daughters drop their book bags the second they get home and pull Herbie in for a hug.

“Herbie” is a nickname. The full name is George Herbert, after the 17th-century Anglican priest and poet. Herbert’s poem Love (III), which is about God’s inexplicably generous, expansive love for human beings, begins with the words: “Love Bade me Welcome.” Love, without diminishing, always welcomes more. And so, Herbie, welcome home.

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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