It’s the plea every mother dreads. More than whiny begs for high-priced toys or trips to Disneyland.
“Mom, look! We found a (choose one: robin, squirrel, chipmunk, rabbit, hawk, fawn, groundhog, mouse) that was (hit by a car, abandoned by its mother, found by the dog, caught by the cat, fallen from its nest). Please, can we take care of it until it (grows up, gets better). Please?”
At this point I grab desperately for a lifeline: “If you put it back where you found it, chances are its mother will come b—”
“Nope! We’ve already been watching from a distance for an hour. It’s going to die if we don’t do something.”
My sigh is deeper than the ocean. It’s hard to refuse a request, however inconvenient, that is motivated not by childish lust for possessions or good times but rather by the very virtues I want them to develop: compassion, kindness, mercy. Besides, I know exactly how they feel, since I plagued my parents with similar requests from spring through fall throughout my childhood. Still, this cute, wide-eyed bundle of feathers or fur is likely to die no matter what we do for it, and I’ll be mopping up tears for days. In recent years, the problem has been made easier thanks to a wildlife rehab center we discovered 45 minutes from our home. Now, if I can just keep Thumper or Cheepy alive until we get there, we can avoid most of the drama. And the animal has a much better chance of surviving.
The way we treat animals is not just a matter of emotional response to cuteness-in-distress. Nor is it simply to give our kids lessons in charity that will carry over to human relationships. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that kindness to animals is our duty: “Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness” (CCC, 2416). On the other hand, the Church by no means pushes an animal rights, species-equality agenda. It goes on to say that God entrusted animals to us for our benefit, including using them for our food and clothing, plus their domestication to assist our work and give joy to our leisure. Although it is wrong to cause animals to suffer needlessly, it is “likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery” (CCC, 2418).
That bit of money spent on animals versus relief of human misery has always given me pause. I don’t think it means we can’t keep pets or donate to animal welfare until sickness and poverty have been wiped off the face of the earth. On the other hand, we rightly shake our heads at stories of wealthy eccentrics who will their millions to a pet cat, or celebrities who pour their fortunes into saving baby seals yet applaud the destruction of unborn baby humans. But what about everything in between? What about the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of dollars that are spent to heal sick and injured wildlife? Obviously I ought to drop a few bucks at the wildlife rescue center along with the injured hawk the kids found on the roadside. And if I give money to other good causes that don’t exactly “relieve human misery” such as museums, then why not donate to animal rescue as well? It’s a matter of balance and priority: Giving to my needy brothers and sisters is primary, but helping animals is a good deed, too. What’s more, it turns out that serving animals can indirectly serve humans in distress.
In December of 2005 a baby dolphin with a tail severely injured in a crab trap was brought to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida. The tail and two vertebrae eventually had to be amputated. Volunteers worked around the clock to enable the young female, dubbed “Winter” to live in the water without drowning, and eventually re-learn to swim. Later, the aquarium’s biologist determined that Winter’s sideways swimming method might eventually cripple her spine and kill her. Attempts at development of a prosthetic tail initially failed because the device—designed similarly to those used for humans—was painful to Winter, who panicked and thrashed around until it came off. It took many months of trial and error to find a solution. The prosthetic designer eventually developed a gel pad liner that Winter accepted. Today Winter delights visitors as she cavorts in the water with her trainers. But that isn’t why the expense and thousands of volunteer hours put into saving Winter were worth it.
Instead, it was the small trickle of “miracles” that started when Winter began having visitors. A girl who had refused to wear her hearing aids to school, fearing the remarks of classmates, suddenly didn’t care anymore: “I felt a sort of connection between us,” said 11-year-old McKenna, “and from then on I was comfortable being seen with my hearing aids.” Children who themselves were amputees found the courage to go through the painful process of learning to use a prosthetic leg or arm—if Winter could do it, so could they. “I saw that Winter’s tail is just like my leg,” said four-year-old Kylie Smith—a typical response of the many disabled children who visit. The special connection kids feel for animals is well known, so perhaps this is not too surprising. But even adult amputees—wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq—also found that meeting Winter was just what they needed to get past despair and fear and get on with the next chapter in their own lives.
The Hollywood version of Winter’s story—Dolphin Tale—became a high-grossing film in 2011. After that, the trickle of miracles became a torrent. Clearwater Aquarium is now a top destination for the Make-a-Wish program. Director David Yates has thousands of stories which prove to him that “Winter’s ability to inspire people with problems is a gift from God.” He says, “I heard about a child who watched Dolphin Tale 100 times while undergoing chemotherapy. A girl with a cleft palate who decided that if Winter could be different and still be okay, so could she. I know another developmentally disabled young lady whose challenges include being severely underweight. Her family comes here often because after each visit she eats more for several weeks afterward.”
Even amputees who don’t need a dolphin encounter to motivate them have been helped by Winter. The comfortable gel liner developed for her prosthetic tail is now being used for human prosthetic limbs.
Messenger of hope
The story of Winter is repeated on a smaller, quieter scale by many rescued animals that make special connections with needy humans. After years of working as an animal welfare specialist, Kerry Petit understands the special bonds that can form between animals and people. But none of these meant quite so much to her as the friendship that formed between her husband and an impounded horse under her supervision. “Diablo” had been removed from its owner because of neglect and physical abuse. Kerry’s job involved daily monitoring the horse at his foster home, both to assist in his recovery and to gather evidence for the court case against the abusive owner. Meanwhile, Kerry’s husband, Jim, was at home recovering from a long and painful course of cancer treatment. He was weak, exhausted, and discouraged. To give him a change of scenery, Kerry began taking Jim with her when she went to visit Diablo. At first Jim stayed in the car, too tired to get out, and watched while Kerry slowly retrained the frightened, skittish animal to accept human contact. Jim soon became interested in Diablo’s progress. He understood what the horse was going through—feeling unwell, powerless, and uncertain of the future. Jim began getting out of the car and sitting by the corral—first in a wheelchair, then in a camp chair, and finally able to stand against the fence. Interest in the horse’s recovery gave him the motivation to maintain a positive attitude about his own. Eventually the Petits adopted Diablo, changing his name to Gabriel. Like his archangel namesake, it seems that Gabriel was sent into their lives by God as a messenger of hope.
Odds & Ends Of Note:
Dolphin Tale 2: The movie Dolphin Tale 2 opens this month! Winter returns to the big screen along with Hope, a new baby dolphin rescued by the Clearwater Aquarium. The original cast—Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, and others—are all back for this heartwarming family film. For more true stories of children helped by the rescued dolphin, go to SeeWinter.com
Saints and animals book
Here’s a cute book for kids about saints who were kind to animals and received help from them in return. Holy Crocodile! Stories of Saints and the Animals Who Helped Them by Caroline Cory (Our Sunday Visitor).
Donor beware! If you want to donate money or time to an animal rescue organization, check their websites to make sure they don’t have official political stands in favor of abortion or “population control” that contradict Catholic Church teaching. Your best bet may be small, local groups that are too busy helping animals to have time for political statements.