Animals and Spirituality – a Personal Journey

Speaker: Dianne Waltner

Last Sunday, we had a wonderful service celebrating our relationships with our animal companions.
Today, we continue and expand on that topic, including the rest of our nonhuman brothers and sisters
in honor of World Animal Day, which was actually Thursday, Oct 4. This date was chosen because it
is the Feast Day of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. This was begun in 1931 at a
convention of ecologists to highlight the plight of endangered species. It has since grown to
encompass all kinds of animal life and is widely celebrated in countries throughout the world with
special events to heighten public awareness of animal issues and to encourage people to think about
how we as humans relate to animals. To do that, I will share a bit of my personal story of how I came
to be involved with animal issues, and the very important part animals have played in my spiritual
growth, perhaps encouraging you to also consider the part animals have played in your lives, both
directly and indirectly.

I grew up on a farm in rural Moundridge, about 60 miles from Wichita with the typical farm, Christian
view of animals – don’t be needlessly cruel, but they are basically here for our use and we have
“dominion” over them to do with what we wish. This attitude never really set well with me – and
eventually, was one of the major reasons I quit going to church for several years. I was always more
in agreement with Alice Walker when she stated, “Animals of the world exist for their own reasons.
They were not made for humans any more than blacks were made for whites or women for men.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a soft spot for animals probably at least in part because,
after some health problems at age 4, I ballooned into a really obese child. And growing up a fat kid in
a small rural school was not easy. Throughout most of grade school, animals and books became my
best friends and I was much more comfortable in the company of our dogs and cats with their
unconditional love and acceptance than with other people. Looking back on many painful
experiences, I now realize that they taught me valuable lessons about compassion and sensitivity.

A turning point in my life came when, at about 16, I came across the book Man Kind? Our Incredible
War on Wildlife by Cleveland Amory, a scathing indictment of the hunting and trapping industries.
Although I always felt that hunting and trapping were wrong, this book served to help cement those
feelings and realize that I wasn’t alone. There were actually other people out there who felt the same
as I did.

My dad actually helped to really set me on the path to vegetarianism. When I was in high school, I
remember being outraged upon hearing that people in Europe were quite fond of eating horsemeat. I
expressed my outrage to my family and I’ll never forget Dad’s response, which was, “So what’s the
difference between eating a horse and eating a cow?” My immediate response was that “a horse is a
pet and a cow is just a farm animal,” or something to that effect. But I knew that was a very
unsatisfactory answer. If I was opposed to the slaughter of horses, how could I condone the slaughter
of cows, who were also sentient beings. This question continued to haunt me over the years, and
again as I learned about other cultures who dined upon cats and dogs. How could I condemn that
when the bodies of pigs, cows, and chickens continued to be on my plate. However I rationalized that
they would have been killed anyway, so I may as well eat them. But, to quote Unitarian Ralph Waldo
Emerson, “ You have just dined and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the
graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

Humans are remarkably adept at denial, and I continued in my complicity for many years.
I moved to Wichita in 1979 and a couple of years later, after breaking up with my boyfriend of 5 1/2
years, I decided to get a cat. Although I had had cats at home on the farm, I discovered that it was a
different experience living with an indoor cat, 24/7. I really got to know Tash’s personality and
discovered a wonderful, loving soul. After living with three other cats, I became even more convinced that animals were very intelligent,
feeling beings, very much like us. Although I had known this in theory, I now was able to actually see
it as fact.

I also got involved in the local animal rights movement (with fur protests, tabling, passing out info)
and met some real live vegetarians. I was also introduced to the books, Animal Liberation by Peter
Singer and Diet for a New America by John Robbins. (By the way, I have brought these books as well
as a few others that had a tremendous effect on me, if anyone is interested in looking at them. I also
have other information that I would be happy to get to anyone who is interested.) I soon found that I
could no longer justify the torture of animals just to satisfy my palate.

Seeing The Animal’s Film really sealed the deal. This is an extremely powerful film which explores
our relationship with nonhuman animals and deals with all forms of animal abuse, going inside factory
farms, slaughterhouses, laboratories, and fur farms. It shows how steel jaw leghold traps work and
what often happens to animals caught in them. It also includes some military footage of animal
experimentation as well as some hunting footage. My defenses and denial were totally broken down
and I was hit with the full impact of animal suffering. As Mary Lou Randour describes in her book,
Animal Grace, “To absorb the extent and depravity of animal suffering can raise us to a new spiritual level. . .
Our expanding awareness may lead us to feel that we are experiencing disorganization of the self. Writer
Joanna Macy teaches us, however, that what feels like a disintegration of the self in these periods of
intense transformation is not the self breaking down, but its defenses. The breakdown of these
defenses needs to be welcomed rather than feared, for they have dimmed our awareness and
stunted our compassion. Their dissolution can free us spiritually… The structure of the old defensive
self must die so that a new, larger, and more encompassing structure can be born.” This was what
was now happening to me. At times the emotional and psychological pain was so incredibly intense
that I had thoughts of suicide. I knew that I could NOT continue living the way I had been – I either
needed to change my way of life or end it all. Since you see me standing here today, you can
probably guess what my decision was.

Of course, for me this meant becoming a vegetarian, which was much more difficult 20 some years
ago than it is today. So, I actually lived as a closet vegetarian for several weeks before summoning
the courage to “come out” to family and friends. Considering the experiences of some of my other
now vegetarian friends, I was very lucky in that most people around me, including my immediate
family, were supportive and considerate.

Now, instead of being a mindless task, grocery shopping became a mindful, spiritual act in which I
could actually put into practice my newfound awareness. And cooking was so much more pleasant,
not having to deal with blood leaking out of those disgusting styrofoam meat containers. And not
having to wonder what was really in those hot dogs. Eating truly became a celebration of life in that I
no longer required the death of another being in order for me to live. Vegetarianism thus became an
integral part of my spirituality. And I discovered a whole new world of food which I had never
encountered before, including tofu (which really CAN be very good), tempeh, textured vegetable
protein, hummus, falafel, tabouli, couscous, and many other wonderful ethnic dishes.

In addition to changing my eating habits, this new awareness also entailed learning about the many
other ways that my life and my purchases up to this point had been contributing to the pain, suffering,
and death of countless animals. Most (if not all) of the soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, and household
cleaners I had been buying were tested on animals in painful and lethal ways like the
LD (lethal dose) -50 and Draize eye irritancy tests. And charities I had supported in the past were also
conducting painful animal experiments.

So, I could no longer buy the same products I had been buying or giving to the same charities. I
began going to health food stores for my cleaners as well as my vegetarian foods. And, for those
times when I couldn’t afford to buy these cleaners, I learned how much cleaning could be done with
just baking soda, water, vinegar, and borax. And, since these products were also much better for me,
animals, and the planet as well, it was truly a win – win- win situation. I also actively searched out
those charities that did not fund horrendous animal tests, but instead actually helped people and did
much more valid non-animal research.

One of the most unexpected “side effects” of this lifestyle change (and it IS truly a lifestyle change)
was the incredible sense of peace and deepening spirituality I felt. It had taken a great deal of
emotional energy to keep my true feelings from surfacing, and now that I had accepted and embraced
them, I was in some ways liberated and felt more at peace with myself. And more energy could now
be spent in trying to rectify the situations that I had been denying for so many years.
And I was thrilled when, on my first 1st Sunday lunch here at the church a few years ago, there were
2 wonderful vegetarian soups. As a matter of fact, that Sunday was totally vegetarian and I have to
say that that was a major reason that I came back and eventually joined this church.

There are still issues that I struggle with, and there are still times when I cry myself to sleep at night
over all the suffering and injustices in this world. But I know that things can change, and I feel that it’s
now my turn to try and repay, in some small way, the animal kingdom for all the gifts they’ve given me
over the years by working towards a more humane. more just, and more loving world for all of us,
human and nonhuman alike.

I would just like to leave you with this thought, taken from the book The Good Good Pig by Sy
Montgomery (which is a wonderful book I highly recommend to everyone) about a sick piglet who was
allowed to grow into a 750 pound pig: “Christopher Hogwood knew how to relish the juicy savor of this
fragrant, abundant, sweet green world. To show us this would have been gift enough. But he showed
us another truth as well. That a pig did not become bacon but lived 14 years, pampered and adored
till the day he died peacefully in his sleep – that’s proof that we need not “be practical” all the time. We
need not accept the rules that our society or species, family or fate seem to have written for us. We
can choose a new way. We have the power to transform a story of sorrow into a story of healing. We
can choose life over death. We can let love lead us home.”