12/07/2011 11:43 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

Caring For Our Pets: More Than Dominance and Affection

I may not be able to see "War Horse." I still cannot watch "When the Levees Broke" or "Philadelphia." It's always hard to watch people and animals suffering. Played repeatedly, it becomes disaster pornography. After 10 years working in disaster spiritual care management, and another eight years in hospital and hospice settings as a chaplain, I need and receive much emotional and spiritual support from many sources. I am extremely sensitive to animal support stories, whether reflecting on World AIDS Day, or the high human cost of battle, hospice experiences, or remembering pets lost in disaster. As a person of faith, I have been changed, and see many connections in a diverse spectrum of specialized settings -- the battlefield, the hospice and the path of the tornado. I now devote more time to walking the dogs, watching the river, and filling the bird feeders. But, this reflection will remember dogs.

10 years after the September 11 attacks, nine years into the Iraq invasion and continuing battles in Afghanistan, the renewed emotional and spiritual support value of trained canine units is well documented. At home, many groups have matched dogs with returning combat veterans, and the expansion of pet therapies for emotional and spiritual support services across healthcare.

Military chaplains, healthcare chaplains and disaster chaplains can advocate for the inclusion of companion animals as well as the family dog as part of the reentry into civilian life as well as support for the chronically ill patient. When disaster strikes, the whole of community response also includes a provision for the evacuation, care and feeding support of the entire household -- which may include a dog, cat, parrot or pony.

For those who are taking care of our soldiers abroad and public safety officers at home, or improving the end-of-life care of their patients, or being the compassionate presence after the storm or flood, self-care is basic and non-negotiable. For some, that care may come from the family dog. From rural American to studio apartments, dogs serve as companions for children, the elderly, and all types of families, and work as guardians, sentries, protectors, and 'cures' for isolation and depression.

War. Battlefront dogs have companioned and served our nation by supporting our troops --individuals and units -- as morale boosters, humanitarian search and rescue, bomb snifters and scouts. Stateside reunions may appear extravagant unless one has had their life saved by a unit canine. There are monuments to heroic canine 'soldiers,' and the services of animals in war, on Park Lane in London and in South Africa, and, for humanitarian service in Central Park. The emotional and spiritual impact, the cultural interpretation and power of the story have intense value. The emotional and spiritual impact of the theatrical version of "War Horse" has been mentioned and fully documented. The holiday movie follows suit. Baby boomers, who grew up with Lassie, Old Yeller and Rin Tin Tin, also had Noah's Ark and The Good Shepard. So, did many mental health and spiritual care professionals. The traumatized and vulnerable may remember hope, may identify care, and transcend momentary pain and suffering when reunited with a canine 'best friend'.

Natural and human-caused disaster. A society may be judged on how it cares for the most vulnerable -- special populations including children, the elderly and those with functional needs -- and, animal welfare. In natural disasters and human-caused disasters, i.e. the accidental, and the criminal, our environment is shared, and the impact is shared. The recession is also a disaster. Animal shelters have been receiving dogs and cats where their owners are no longer able to provide due to the economic downturn. Severing bonds that have been established and nurtured, the pack unraveling, is not independent of homelessness, poverty, and hunger, our spirits descend even as we seek to identify basic hope and find some future optimism.

Can one be fully human and not care? I am emotionally and spiritually treated for compassion fatigue through, in part, the animal kingdom, and their proxies and our privileges, the family dog, the backyard birds, and the giraffes and pandas that live three miles away in the zoo.

Hurricane Katrina gave us heart-wrenching images of dogs on rooftops when rescuers could only take people. The severe impact by this combination natural and human-caused disaster fused new relationships that developed into co-sheltering families with their pets in proximate locations -- not only for public health reasons, but also for the positive emotional and spiritual value of maintaining a 'united' family. Families may have endured the loss of a home and neighborhood, the separation of children and loved ones, and stay strong, but the loss of a treasured family pet is inconsolable.

New training for capturing and caring for animals in disaster and emergency evacuation plans for horses and other livestock now exist and are normal considerations for the extreme abnormal event -- the flood, earthquake, or wildfire -- not only humane, but also good 'business' and government practice. Truly, the 'whole of community' approach to emergency planning for disaster and other disturbances.

A two-week-old baby pulled from the rubble lifts the emotions and spirits of earthquake rescuers and all amidst great destruction, death and despair. Though certainly not the equivalent to a successful human rescue, many also celebrated the retrieval of a puppy from a collapsed apartment block. When hope has been dimmed, any sign of life may give considerable solace and peace, and add meaning and comfort to those who risk their lives to save others, and the greater world that supports their efforts.

AIDS and Healthcare. 30 years into the AIDS pandemic, in reflection and remembrance, I am grateful for pets in hospice settings -- a smaller historical coda to a time when 'failure to thrive' was part of an end-of-life diagnosis. Yes, this hospice chaplain walked dogs, and was gifted by a newer inclusive best practice that illuminated the need to include domestic pets into the treatment plan for the emotional health and spiritual support of the chronically ill patient. Dogs and cats were welcome and could spend the night in the patients' bed and give solace and comfort, and, for some, unconditional love. I remember my patients. I remember my colleagues and team. I remember their families. I remember what helped sustain some and comfort others when disowned by family and religion... oftentimes that was their dog. Loyal to the end.