I have been following, with some interest, a long-running discussion in several of my favorite Catholic magazines on the subject of dogs and cats in heaven. This topic erupts from time to time, sometimes with amusing and/or obnoxious results (check out the Baptist-Catholic church signboard debate currently making internet rounds, for example). As far as I can tell, the world is (unevenly) divided into two camps: the Thomists, who loudly declare that, because animals have no eternal souls, there are no dogs in heaven, and the Franciscans who shade the subject more to the side of all God’s creation being good, and made new, and thus hold open the idea that the family bow-wow in some form or another might greet one’s arrival at the Pearly Gates.
It’s probably worth laying out my own bona-fides here. Although I am known in some quarters as WIlliam Wallace’s meaner sister, other insiders have dubbed me the Iron Marshmallow. And I am a marshmallow who simply cannot remember a time when I didn’t share my life with a pet. A home without animals is almost as unthinkable to me as a home without books....and if you saw my monthly Amazon bill, you’d have an idea of how unthinkable that is.
Still, I’m a scientist, and not prone to the Disneyfication of animals. I eat them, I’ve dissected them and I don’t harbor any illusions that they hold the same place in creation that man does, or that they should. I get the “dominion over animals and the beasts of the field” part of Genesis. Even so, I have my moments.
A couple of years ago, my son went through a rough patch, and adopted a ferret to keep him company through it. When he left to work at Philmont for the summer, the ferret , Frank, came to reside in the family manse. My groom was not overly appreciative of what he called the “tube rat” and even I had to admit that the little critter was somewhat odiferous. So I did what all good mothers do: I bought Frank a four story ferret mansion and banished him and his buddy Khan to the garage.
Little did I know that Frank was an escape artist. He managed to work his way out of the bungee-corded prison and escaped into the wild when we were on vacation. Fortunately (I thought) for me, he returned the evening we did, ambling up to greet us at the car. I had not been relishing telling my son that his mother had lost his therapeutic ferret by simple inattention.
My joy was short lived. It turns out ferrets are actually bred to be medical research animals and they have a pitiful immune system. Poor old Frank fell victim to a botfly larva, and got sick. I hauled him into the vet, who extracted the offending parasite, injected him with antibiotics and sent me on my way in the hope that all would be well.
It wasn’t. Frank went from one ferret problem to another over the ensuing weeks, and I started manning a one-woman ferret ICU. I force fed him, hydrated him, took his temperature, dosed him with aspirin and antibiotics, even gave him so much intra-peritoneal fluid that on occasion, he’d leak like a sieve if I held him up--but I made up my mind that the critter was not going to die on my watch.
And he didn’t. He waited until my son arrived home and died three days later, curled up at his side. When my son brought him down to me in the middle of the night, I cried like a baby, and I still can’t tell the story without tearing up. There’s something overwhelming about watching life pass away even when it’s rodent life. One minute, there’s vibrancy, breath, warmth--and the next nothing, at least, nothing we can see, feel, hold on to. And the line between the two is so very thin.
Go figure. I made my living for a good many years in the autopsy suite, and the death of a bred-to-die glorified rat brings me to tears. Something is seriously wrong with my priorities. I am not exactly a disinterested, objective student of the “Do dogs go to heaven?” wars, regardless of my intellectual proclivities.
What I do know is this: there are some beautiful and illuminating arguments, both ways. I do know that God touches something deep inside me with pets (even the smelly ones) I’ve shared my life with. I know--as the saying goes--I’d like to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am, and better than the person that I really am. And I know, ultimately, all the arguments about dogs and heaven are just that--arguments. And bless his little Ferret heart, Frank drove home a truth I have to learn over and over again.
There’s just a lot of theological “stuff” I can’t know, won’t know and probably shouldn’t bother trying to figure out because it has so little effect on what it is I am called to do on a daily basis: to know God, the obey Him and to love and serve Him.
The things I can know--those things I put in my intellectual box, and my job is to learn them and deal with them and manifest them to the rest of creation. The things that I cannot know--those things, I cheerfully put in God’s Box, and forget about them, content to leave them there. God’s box gets bigger and bigger with every passing year. I find there’s less and less I really need to worry about, and whether dogs go to heaven is just not on my list of essentials.
I don’t know whether Frank will amble up to meet me in heaven. But I do know that God has worked it all out, and I am content to trust His perfect plan. And smelly or not, I am glad of Frank.