I heard a beautiful story about the animal world told by Native American Indians. The myth tells that in ancient times, when the world was created, a deal was made between people and animals. In the deal, the animals took the job of serving humans every way possible, even if it cost them their life. Humans, on their side, solemnly promised to protect and nourish their brothers of the animal world. Shortly after, however, the humans forgot their promise. The animals did not. They are still honouring their commitment to us.
In his book The Instinct to Heal, Professor Servan-Schreiber, affirmed neuro-psychiatrist and author of successful books, says that the medicine he most voluntarily prescribes to those who live alone is to adopt an animal.
Researchers have discovered that whoever lives with an animal is more protected against depression and shows more psychological resistance when confronted with difficulty.
Some years back, at the University of Buffalo, he conducted a study that makes one think: a large group of stock brokers suffered from hypertension and extreme stress. Half of them were given traditional medicine and half were encouraged to get a dog or a cat, depending on their preference. It only took six months to see the results: the medicine temporarily lowered the blood pressure but did not stop the spiking of it during stress, while the owners of animals demonstrated more capacity to manage the stress and interpersonal relationships, had more mental clarity and more calculating speed. Above all of this, their blood pressure remained stable even in moments of overwork.
Another research study published in the American Journal of Cardiology demonstrated that among people who had had heart attacks, the owners of a domestic animal had six times less probability to die during the year following the attack as those who did not have one.
One of my clients shared: “For a long time, I thought that I did not need anyone or anything. Now I understand that maybe closing my heart to the world was a strategy to feel less embarrassed about having been abandoned.”
When I asked if her strategy had been useful, she answered, “Well, I isolated myself. I saw people, but I never let anyone get close to the real me; I only showed a part of myself, one side, dressed and made-up. I thought I could live well even without love . . .”
It is not true. We cannot live without love. We can live without a sentimental relationship, but love is a biological need for us humans, as has been confirmed by many leading figures in modern science.
In this regard, Professor Servan-Schreiber explains that one of the substantial differences between reptiles and mammals is that mammals’ offspring are very vulnerable and are unable to live without constant care. The most extreme case is human beings, the offspring that need the most care for the longest time. For this reason, evolution created a brain structure in us that makes us very sensitive to the needs of our children. Through this instinct, we are driven to feed them, caress them and protect them.
This mental programming is particularly strong and powerful since it was conceived to assure a relationship of love—indispensable for the survival of the species. It is exactly this need-capacity inherent in human beings that is at the base of our existence and our relationships, not only with our children but even with others. The need to give and receive love is, in fact, one of the fundamental needs in Maslow’s pyramid. If, like my client, we negate this need for long, we end up drying up our energy.
A relationship with animals allows us to train daily for love and compassion; an animal does not judge.
Its love for us does not depend on our social position, on our physical appearance or on the intelligence of what we say. An animal loves us and accepts us just as we are and teaches us to be ourselves and to open our heart.
Obviously, the same can be done by directing your love toward other human beings doing volunteer work or helping the elderly or children. One does not exclude the other. Indeed, as we have seen, the more we use our capacity to love, the more we fill our life with passion (love in action).
It’s not true that an animal can’t live in an apartment. Certainly, if it had a garden, it would be better. But a cat or dog is definitely better in 500 square feet that in a cage at the shelter. We are not being selfish by bringing them into our home; we are selfish if we abandon them to their destiny.
In Theravada Buddhism, the kind practiced in Thailand and a good part of Southeast Asia, it is said that every good deed gives us what we deserve. So, in Thailand, even the poorest share their food with monks or with whomever has less than they do. They call it merit-making, doing good deeds.
To take care of a wounded or homeless animal, besides bringing love and positive emotions into our own life, produces merits. If you really can’t take an animal into your home, you certainly can regularly visit a shelter. You, who live with an animal, know what I’m talking about. Animals are a wealth of pure unconditional love. Having one is like having an everlasting battery of warmth and affection.
I think that this is the commitment they made and are continuing to honour. Are we ready to honour and accept their love?
This text is based on my book A Whole New Life