Category: Animal Studies

The Dog, Butterfly, and Owl

One day, as Dog was walking around his big green yard, a Butterfly landed on his nose.

Dog squinted.

“Hello friend,” Dog said. “How are you today?”

Butterfly fluttered her wings nervously. “Hello. I am not feeling so well today. My friends and I must travel a great distance and we fear the Great Owl looming nearby. Will you help us?”

As Butterfly flew from Dog’s nose, Dog saw an Owl perched atop the fence post nearby. Owl was a terrifying figure, particularly for a Butterfly. Dog, however, thought Owl was an amusing sight to behold.

Dog leapt across the green yard to Owl.

“Hello Dog,” said the Owl, looking down at the four-legged creature inquisitively. “How may I be of assistance?”

Dog marveled at Owl’s cool demeanor and great intelligence. Dog noticed Owl’s beak glinting in the sunlight. It appeared very sharp.

“Hello Great Owl,” smiled Dog. “My friend, Butterfly, is deeply concerned. She and her friends are worried that you will hurt them as they undertake a great travel. Are you aware of this?”

Owl narrowed his eyes playfully at Dog. “Yes, I am aware, but must I not eat? Are they not a good food source for me? What would you have me do?”

Dog, amassing as much wit as possible, looked down, then up, and then, speaking carefully so as not to insult Owl’s great intelligence, began, “Good Owl, you are truly wise and fearsome. We know that you fulfill a great role in the world. Your spirit is high and far reaching. I am just a humble dog. I serve my master and complete the work he has assigned me. The influence of my life is of little evidence, but I live a joyful life full of meaning. Allow me to ask, Wise Owl: Don’t you know there are creatures more deserving of your appetite? There are Rats causing a lot of harm around here and my master wants me to get rid of them. I’m sure they would be far tastier for you than Butterflies.”

Dog flashed Owl a look of insight. Owl grinned with pleasure.

“I see you know my kind,” said Owl. “Very well. You have my word: I will leave these poor Butterflies alone. Now, if you would be so kind, please show me where these delicious Rats are.”

Dog let out a yip and ran over to the side of his master’s house where he had seen Rats scurrying just a day before. Owl flew over to a nearby perch and scoured the ground with his impeccable vision as dog flushed the Rats out.

“There!” said Dog. “Do you see them?”

Without hesitation, Owl flew in and caught his meal.

Owl looked at Dog with affection. With a nod and a hoot, he said, “Thank you, Dog,” and then flew away to enjoy his fresh catch.

Butterfly rejoined Dog, perching sweetly upon his nose, and chimed, “Hurray! Good work, Dog! We would not have thought to approach Owl with that idea. You have saved us. Thank you!”

Dog yipped back joyfully, “You are welcome, Butterfly! Have a safe travel!”

Dog then heard his master call for him to come inside, where a warm bed and good meal awaited.

The purpose of wisdom is to protect the vulnerable from the powerful.

A Theology for the Homeless (from a Philosophy for Dogs)

In graduate school, I wrote a master’s philosophy thesis on the concept of animal souls, ethics, psychology, and other related things. One of the most outstanding things I discovered during the writing process is that many philosophical and theological authorities attest to psychological continuity between humans and non-human animals. (Yes, even Aquinas! [i]). Basically, what this psychological continuity means is that humans and non-human animals may share a common psychological life. While all humans and non-human animals are “subjects of a life”, what’s most striking about psychological continuity is that some humans and some non-human animals share psychical experiences in common with each other [ii]. It’s an exceptional discovery, but for some reason I found it almost impossible to apply in a specific and concrete way.

Until a few days ago.

Along with my interest in dogs, I have a deep, abiding interest in the poor. In fact, my patron saint, St. Roch, is not only the patron saint of dogs, he’s also a Franciscan mendicant that most would label “poor.” The poor, dog-loving saint: sounds good, doesn’t it? I could say a lot about my love and devotion for the poor and dogs here, but for now I’ll leave it with the words of Bl. Frédéric Ozanam, who said, “Knowledge of the poor and needy is not gained by poring over books or in discussions with politicians, but by visiting the slums where they live, sitting by the bedside of the dying, feeling the cold they feel and learning from their lips the causes of their woes.” [iii] We could say the same things about dogs, too.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with the poor. There’s an image I return to often when I recall my time spent with the poor. It’s the image of a homeless man sitting near a bridge with his Border collie. Whenever I see this man, he appears tired and worn out. His skin is strikingly tan and leathery, as if he were some old buffalo hide used to keep villagers warm. Seeing him is like seeing the wounds of Christ — which are unseen seen from afar — that would become manifest if one were to only approach close enough to the man’s venerable appearance. There’s a lovely Border collie that accompanies this venerable-looking man. Anyone with eyes could see that the two of them are an inseparable pair. And that’s what I think when I look at them: Why do they appear so inseparable?

“Knowledge of the poor and needy is not gained by poring over books or in discussions with politicians, but by visiting the slums where they live, sitting by the bedside of the dying, feeling the cold they feel and learning from their lips the causes of their woes.”

~ Blessed Frédéric Ozanam

People sometimes become sensitive about issues concerning psychological continuity between human and non-human animals. And rightfully so. I imagine they become sensitive about it for a number of reasons: for one, they don’t like the idea of psychological ‘sameness’ or ‘parity’ between humans and non-human animals; or else, they’re scornful about the ecological and ethical ramifications involved with there being psychological continuity between humans and non-human animals. Whatever their issue might be, it seems like there are good reasons to get sensitive about psychological continuity. I mean, think about it: Aren’t dogs treated better than the homeless sometimes?

I think what really bothers people is not that a homeless man and his Border collie together represent psychological continuity between humans and non-human animals; instead, what bothers people is that they can’t disregard the poor, especially when the poor are accompanied by the sentiments of an animal that represents their struggles. In one sense, the homeless man and his Border collie represent what’s good about the meaning of psychological continuity; in another sense, they represent everything miserable about it. On one hand, they represent what it means to regard the idea of psychological continuity positively. (The homeless man and dog “stick-it-out” together because only that will do when humanity chooses to not care!) It’s beautiful, really. But, on the other hand, they illustrate what it means to disregard the idea of psychological continuity as something positive. (The homeless man has to keep a representation of his injustice and plight with him just to get his fellow humans to notice!) The central question in either case is whether the life of the vulnerable is being regarded with adequate care and concern.

We are quick to dismiss the suffering and plight of the homeless. We judge, but we don’t do so sufficiently because we do it without charity. Then, we try to excuse ourselves, but in doing that, we miss out on the rationale of simple love and action. Capturing the eternal law for the poor is what really matters, because so many actions, even if they’re noble or honorable, pale in comparison to the higher lawfulness of merciful acts of justice and charity in feeding, caring and sheltering the poor, oppressed, hungry, thirsty and vulnerable.

“It is the notion that, in truly witnessing dog and man in a ‘bond of love’ — in a bond of psychological unity — the fire of compassion toward humanity is lit.”

Don’t worry though. I have a way to help inspire these actions of eternal significance. The notion of the Dog of God can be our guide. With this notion, we’re inclined to regard the life of the poor, especially if, alongside the poor, the common plight of our canine friends is evident therewith. The Dog of God is the notion that, in truly witnessing dog and man in a “bond of love” — in a bond of psychological unity — the fire of compassion for humanity is lit (Col. iii, 14). Witnessing this inspires us, but given the temporal nature of the bond of love between man and animal, one must act soon or else lose their inspiration and, with it, their willingness to act in mercy, justice and charity. The spiritual gift or reward for acting promptly? – the exuberant and waggish joy a dog feels when he has pleased his master. It’s a little gift for a “little dog” [iv]. Won’t the Eternal Master, Who is seated at the right hand of the Father, shower his flock with a higher gift than that of a natural dog? Yes, and the feeling of this spiritual gift is likened unto “entering into the joy of your Master”! (Matt. xxv, 21).

After being afflicted with a serious disease, St. Roch laid in a forest, dying, awaiting his death. Low and behold, it was the heroic action of a local man’s little dog who saved St. Roch’s life by bringing him the “bread of life.” There, together, the poor mendicant and the little dog represented not merely psychological continuity and unity between humans and non-human animals, but a holy image (see above) that signifies the loss of psychological diseases and the obtainment of Heaven. Let’s use this holy image to cure our own psychological disease of indifference towards the poor and the common plight of all creatures, who are all “subjects of a life.” In so doing, we follow the example of the holy life of charity. Those subjected to such a life (and follow it willingly) know that in visiting the poor, “we gain much more than they do.” [v] And let it be so.


See “About the Editor” for more on the author.

[i] cf. Judith Barad’s treatment of this in Aquinas on the Nature and Treatment of Animals (US: International Scholars Publication, 1995), print.

[ii] cf. Tom Regan’s “The Case for Animal Rights”

[iii] cf. http://vincentians.com/en/quotes-collection/frederic-ozanam-quotes/

[iv] cf. Greek kuón in Matt. xvi, 26

[v] ibid; http://vincentians.com/en/quotes-collection/frederic-ozanam-quotes/