125th Anniversary of the SPCA A Service of Thanksgiving and Blessing
Welcome, welcome, welcome especially to our furry, woolly, feathered and scaly friends who make this annual service so lively. And I want to reassure any wolves, moose or caribou in the congregation, that while I’m an American, you are perfectly safe. I am neither from Alaska nor a Republican.
And welcome also to those of you who love them enough to bring them to a special service of thanksgiving and blessing. A service of thanksgiving for the 125 years the Auckland SPCA has devoted to their care and protection, sadly from humans, and a service of blessing to thank our animal friends for the many ways they enrich our lives.
For instance we could hardly describe ourselves as human without them. She works like a dog. He eats like a pig while she eats like a bird. Trying to lead a congregation is like herding cats, because we don' t want to be "a pack of lemmings" or even a flock of sheep. Those who annoy us get our goat. The incompliant are stubborn as a mule or just bull-headed. The fearful are timid as a mouse. We lionise the brave. Those who evade responsibility are slippery as an eel. A-type personalities are busy as bees. The clever are cunning as a fox. The meek are cowed, the rambunctious horse around and only the dogged ferret out the truth. Without them, even Jesus could not have advised his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Aside from providing useful metaphors for our human nature, we all know we couldn’t survive without our non-human friends. They provided covering for our fragile skins, food for our empty bellies, bones for tools, oil for light, free labour for our fields and farms, and subjects for scientific experiments that have benefited you and me.
While humans aren’t always the sharpest tack in the box of animal species, 20,000 years ago we figured out how useful they could be. Dogs we discovered could be useful in hunting. Seven thousand to 9000 years ago we learned to keep livestock and dogs were useful in protecting them. We began breeding them to improve on their usefulness beyond hunting and guarding. For instance the poodle was bred to find valuable truffles buried in the ground for the royal dinner table. Poodles were apparently much easier to manage than wild boars who are equally adept at finding them.
Thinking about the usefulness of animals, I began to wonder about who was using whom. This occurred to me because whatever else I am, I am a boy with a dog.
Not just any dog: His name is Zorro. As a puppy he had a black mask, which has faded with age. But his swashbuckling nature has not. He is somewhat famous in Auckland because he rides on my back as I commute to the church over the Harbour Bridge on my Vespa. He has logged 25,000 kilometres with his ears flying and tongue hanging. Countless tourists, one photojournalist and two motorcycle cops have snapped his picture. When he arrives each morning he is eager to greet his workmates and to assume his duties of checking out all who visit St Matthew’s. I confess though that today is not his favourite day of the year. He is a little overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of so many non-humans invading his territory. While St Matthew’s prides itself on its inclusiveness, Zorro is not convinced.
Zorro and I have known each other since he was one week old. While his is a rare breed from Madagascar, he’s a Yank from Santa Barbara. You can tell by his accent.
He began training me from the moment his eyes opened. I didn’t fully appreciate that fact until I took him to obedience school as a yearling because of his stubborn nature. I was surprised to learn that the school was not for him. It was for me so I could communicate with him better. He has been patient with me these seven years since and I am getting more obedient every day.
He has been a wonderful mentor over these years, teaching me more than I have time to share this morning. But let me offer one instance.
While the Bible puts humankind in charge of the animal kingdom that is really only wishful thinking on our part. In truth there is much more mutuality than the Bible suggests. Zorro has taught me that animals don’t exist for our exploitation. He reminds me daily that they are here for us and we are here for them.
When Zorro was only weeks old I suffered a painful neck injury that nearly immobilised me and made it impossible to sleep. Zorro never left my side, welded to my hip. Today I remember his comfort more than the pain. Seven years later calcification in his neck pinched nerves making it difficult for him to walk. Remembering his love, compassion and faithfulness, I sought to return it in his time of need. I hope he, too, remembers the comfort more than the pain.
Throughout our relationship there have been many experiences that have blurred the lines of who is master and who is pet. As a result Zorro and I are neither. We are companions.
I suspect animals always understood this but we are just catching on. Besides leading the blind, companion dogs are everywhere. They let the deaf know when the phone or door bell ring, dispense love to the elderly in rest homes, aid the healing process by visiting the sick in hospitals, reassure children learning to read, and protect us from ourselves on the streets as K-9 cops working hand and paw with their human partners.
While this part of my learning is typical of any boy and his dog story, I would like to take it to another level. Zorro has patiently taught me that one of us is not dominant over or more important than the other. In doing so he has trained me to be more sensitive to and respectful of all creation not just because it is the nice thing to do or politically correct but because it is essential to the well-being, if not survival, of human and animal alike. Creation, he reminds me, is a web in which we are all inter-connected. It is in that connection I experience whatever it is I mean by God.
Sometimes I think that he sees his task as teaching me to be a better human being. It is because of him I care about the treatment of animals raised to feed me. I now buy range-free meat and dairy. It is because of him I eat less meat. It is because of him I squish fewer bugs. It is because of him I support politicians committed to protecting the environment. It is because of him I treat others of my species better than I might otherwise. He has taught me well that we are all companions on the way. Because of that I consider myself blessed. Look around and know you are as well.