In 2004 I founded Pet Chaplain, a non-profit veterinary pastoral care service. I began working with people who had lost pets, providing grief support and pastoral care.
When I reflect on this work, the image of the whale comes to mind. I often recall the story about Keiko, the killer whale, that was the inspiration for the movie “Free Willie.” When Keiko died, a chaplain named Thomas Chatterton performed a memorial service for nearly 700 people. Chatterton said, “Keiko was not one of our kind, but nonetheless he was still one of us.”
The connection between whales and my work as Pet Chaplain first appeared to me in an impromptu conversation with one of the “brickyard preachers” at North Carolina State University. At the time I was a doctoral candidate studying pet loss and bereavement. The NC State brickyard is a large common area outside the university library. Students gather there for various activities, raising money for Habitat for Humanity, celebrating Earth Day, or just hanging out and talking with friends. Itinerate preachers also harangue students there, some preaching “hell-fire and damnation” others arguing about the meaning of passages in the Bible. One preacher, Jonathan, reads from the Bible. You can see him pacing or standing beneath oak trees with his thick black beard and prayer shawl, reading aloud from Isaiah, Ecclesiastes or another part of the Bible in his signature, piercing voice, which can be heard from all corners of the courtyard and beyond.
In 2005, I met Jonathan as I was returning from my Pilates class in the university gymnasium. Unlike most of the preachers who frequent the Brickyard, Jonathan is less interested in preaching his interpretation of the Gospel to the passers-by than just reading the Bible. I saw him and paused to chat. We had talked before on several occasions. I would sometimes stop to listen to part of the passage he was reading and ask a question, as many students did.
In our conversation that evening I mentioned that I was providing pastoral care online and in person to people who have lost a pet and that I called my ministry Pet Chaplain. His brow furrowed, and he began to stroke his beard and looked searchingly into my eyes.
I mused that Jonathan was either concerned, intrigued or inspired. I never know what to expect when I tell people that I provide pastoral care to those who have lost a pet. He querried, “Do you mean to say that you believe animals have souls?” I had a three-mile bicycle ride ahead of me and the sky was quickly darkening, so I tried to dispatch the topic. I told Jonathan that I could not say for sure, but that the question often comes up in conversation with people who have to euthanize a pet. They want to know if it’s OK, and they want to know if their pet will go to Heaven. They want to hold on to some hope that they will see their pet again.
The preacher began to search through his dogeared Bible. He turned to a passage in the book of Jonah and began reading aloud. He read the part where the king of Ninevah, having heard Jonah’s story, believed in his prophetic message. The king threw off his robes, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. The king ordered all of the people of Ninevah to do the same for themselves and to also put sackcloth and ashes on the animals. After reading, the preacher looked at me and added, “You know, when Jesus comes back he’ll be riding a horse.” I smiled. The passage Jonathan had read confirmed to me that the Book of Jonah included the animals in Ninevah’s ritual of reconciliation with God.
The following week I received an unexpected phone call from the NC School of Veterinary Medicine. The woman who called asked if I would help them develop a grief and loss program for students, faculty, staff and clients. I had never been to the vet school so I was awe-struck when I walked into the lobby for our first meeting and saw a full-size whale skeleton hanging high overhead from the atrium ceiling. It reminded me of my conversation with Jonathan about Jonah’s story. It seemed like a sign, a good omen. As it turned out, the vet school hospital administrators I met with that day agreed to let me have a go at creating a grief and loss program there.
The connection between my work as a pet chaplain and whales surfaced again the following semester when I attended a work-related conference at the Portola Plaza Hotel in Monterey. While taking an early morning walk on Fisherman’s Wharf, I introduced myself to Ben, who was a guide for a whale watching service. He and his brother lead tours out of the wharf. Ben was a strong man with large, rough hands who spoke in a brogue. As he described his whale-watching tours to me and some early-morning customers waiting in his shop, Ben told us stories about the whales and other animals we might see on the tour. As he spoke, he wove in stories about his pets, including three dogs that had died and that he had cremated. He still remembered and loved all his deceased animals, and for many years he kept their cremains in three urns on his mantle. He even mentioned a fourth urn, which contained the remains of his pet goldfish. While he spoke about his pets, Ben paused and wiped a tear from his eye. He finished his speech with the following words: “When I go over the side, me pets’ ashes are goin’ wit’ me.” This was a powerful moment for me, to witness this big burly man publicly demonstrating his enduring love for his deceased dogs and his goldfish!
In my work as a pet chaplain, I knew that the experience of a continuing human-animal bond is normal for people who have loved and lost a pet. Many who experienced a special relationship with an animal continue to express that connection after the animal dies. Research confirms my observations, clearly demonstrating that humans who lose a pet maintain the connection long after the animal’s death. This connection is called a continuing human-animal bond.
For me, the deep emotional connection that Ben expressed with his deceased pets is like a whale hidden deep beneath of the surface of the water. Sometimes that connection only becomes apparent when we lose the animal and are surprised by our emotion, often years later, affirming that our love for the animal remains strong. This connection is confirmed by the Book of Jonah and the whale and Ninevah’s insistence that animals are an important and continuing part of our spiritual life and our relationship with God.
Pet Chaplain Rob Gierka