My Pilgrimage

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My Pilgrimage
Me and "Animals"

By Ben DeVries

As a boy I was fascinated by anything animal, or “aminals” as I called them well into kindergarten. I went exploring for whatever insects, feathers and small carcasses I could find, and back inside I pored over any books I owned or could find on my grandparents’ or library shelves. I put together ambitious reports, for school and on my own time, on subjects ranging from butterflies and hamsters, to dinosaurs and endangered mammals. My family thought I was destined to be a veterinarian, and I thought I would grow up to work in a zoo.


Bubba and Ben

Though my parents were reluctant to bring larger pets into the house, they did encourage me to keep any number of smaller animals: goldfish and parakeets, lizards and turtles, rabbits and my favorite, hamsters. I was captivated by these furry little creatures with mild personalities but such serious habits: running in wheels and see-through hamster balls; lushly padding their nests, no matter how many times I cleaned the little house in their cage; and packing their cheeks with food to laughable proportions, only to drop it off in their favorite “pantry” spot.

I was deeply affected by the suffering of these and other little creatures which I was witness to. My mother describes one instance when, as a five-year-old, I happened to break the wing of a butterfly while playing with some friends. When she told me the butterfly wouldn’t be able to fly any longer, my eyes brimmed with tears and I set to putting together a book of “things we should be fragile with.” I was beyond distraught when my first pet, goldfish “Jack,” died, and I experienced the same intensity of grief a few years later when my first hamster “Scooter” died by an unfortunate accident.

Forgetting My Friends

But as I grew a little older and more distracted by interests such as sports and computer games, and other hormonal pursuits, I became gradually less affected by the animals in my care, and less interested in giving them the attention they deserved. And this neglect almost certainly contributed to their demise on more than one occasion. By my mid-teens I didn’t even bother with pets, which was at least the responsible decision to make. I hardly kept any contact with animals at all, and carried this shortcoming with me into adulthood, falling in line with the general obliviousness of much of society towards animals.

Grace in a Small Package

But seven years ago, alone and terribly lonely in my first apartment out of college, a providentially-placed neighbor introduced me to a stray kitten which she had nursed to health but couldn't keep. I instantly fell in love with this little ball of life and had no choice but to take her in, despite the fact that I had never imagined myself a “cat person.” “Baby,” as I couldn’t help but call her, with her beautiful Halloween-spotted coat and snow white bib and paws, would wait to use the bathroom with me in the morning, and on the window sill until I came home at night. Everything about her enthralled me, from her deep golden eyes that could melt your heart one moment or stare daggers the next, to the way she followed me around the apartment but only allowed me to touch or play with her on her own terms.

Between “Baby” and the others that followed, adopted between me and my young wife Cheryl: the ultra-timid “Missy” and equally laidback “Bubba,” and petite “Bitsy” who taught herself how to play fetch and squeaks whenever she lands - I couldn’t help but develop an extraordinary appreciation for the unique makeup and endlessly precious existence of each of these creatures under my roof. And by God’s grace just the same, I was gradually beginning to reopen my eyes to my outdoor surroundings, and the wide assortment of fauna which inhabit them.

Reawakening

During long walks along the Des Plaines River trail, tucked behind an otherwise schizophrenic Chicago-suburb strip, I became increasingly absorbed by the animals which I happened across. I would pause to watch the geese with their young families on the water along with the butterflies, frogs and turtles which wandered across the path; and I kept a wary eye on the territorial red-winged blackbird which followed me noisily from tree to tree. On campus and around our apartment complex I paid more attention to the gaggles of ducks, and scurrying rabbits and squirrels which watched me even more intently. And I was fascinated by other glimpses of animal personality and human-animal connection, such as through the moving documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill or even America's Funniest Home Videos.

I came to realize that the same unique reason for being and will to live which I found in my own cats must be present in all other animals as well. It had to be, whether we humans happen to tame an animal or not, and regardless of whether we acknowledge their uniqueness. It belongs to every creature because God made it so. And if God created each of them with such love and attention to detail, then he can’t help but continue to care about their wellbeing. And we as his children can’t hope to honor him, or his creatures, unless we respond to them with the individual recognition and nurturing their existence warrants.

A Friend in Need

Appreciation for the value and wonder of each of God’s creatures led me naturally to the animal welfare cause over the past few years, and only deepened as I looked more closely at the Christian doctrines of creation, stewardship, and redemption. But during the same period I also became increasingly conscious of the realities of humanity’s fall from grace, of atrocities of neglect and cruelty being committed against animals on an isolated and institutionalized scale. Each of them amounted to an individual negation of one or more of God’s cherished creations: the mother and kittens left to fend for themselves on an abandoned farm, or the deer which bounced off of my windshield on a dark winter night and lay crippled and trembling by the side of the road until three bullet shots put her down, and the reports I continued to hear about the unspeakable conditions in which animals were raised for food on industrial farms.

It became clear to me that we can’t randomly assign individuality and dignity to some animals, but withhold it from literally millions of others when it’s convenient for us to do so. I knew that God had granted humanity certain permissions to benefit from animals in Scripture, but I was just as strongly convinced that God's heart must be deeply saddened and angered by the ways in which we as a society had twisted those permissions into indefensible abuses of his creatures. I also began to understand that God has even more life-affirming intentions in mind for his creation, intentions which we can work towards even now as followers of a gospel which is good news for all of God's creatures.

Being A Friend Indeed

A year and a half ago I realized that God didn’t just want me to care about animals and their suffering, but he wanted me to do something for them. I knew I was wired for something along the lines of communications and advocacy, but I didn’t know which issue I could commit to with so many causes vying for attention in my head. But one day, I was suddenly at peace with the idea that I was meant to be a voice for animals, from the Christian worldview and especially to the Christian community, which at best hasn't had much to say about animals and at worst sees most tangible concern for them as unfaithful. One capstone project at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and more than a few gut-checks later, my website Not One Sparrow hatched out, and I can only hope it grows to bear out its name: “Aren’t five sparrows sold for a couple of pennies? But not one of them is forgotten by God” (Luke 12:6).

Ben welcomes personal correspondence about the animal concern by email.


Originally published on Vegetarian Friends.

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