When interfaith chaplain Sarah Bowen tells people that she is also an animal chaplain, the reaction is often the same: “You have a church for cats?”
Even though we can all agree that would be incredibly cute, Bowen and other animal chaplains primarily help people with end of life care and the grieving process for the animals who often become an integral part of our families but whose deaths we tend to not process as fully. The job can also entail working with animals in shelters, addressing behavioral problems through interspecies spiritual practices, and animal advocacy.
Bowen, a faculty member at the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York, has been a Buddhist practitioner for 20 years, though she has branched out to draw inspiration from and cater to all faiths. Her blend of influences and chaplaincy work is the subject of her latest book, Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Deeper Perspective and Higher Purpose (June 2019, Monkfish Publishing).
Here, Bowen speaks with Tricycle about what being an animal chaplain entails, the importance of including non-humans when we talk about all sentient beings, and how we can meditate with cats.
What is the day-to-day work of being an animal chaplain? There are four different areas that I’m working in. The first one is supporting animals. We have eight million dogs and cats that are surrendered to shelters each year. Those animals have needs, including spiritual needs. They’re lonely. They’re confused. Many of them have been abandoned. So I spend time with those animals at shelters, sanctuaries, and pet stores, and I address their need for love, for touch, for attention, for being seen, for being cared for. That’s one way to ease the suffering of the animals themselves.
The second piece is the human-animal bond. I teach interspecies mindfulness practices, which helps the animals in our homes ease their anxiety. This can address a lot of what we consider behavioral problems, but are often a result of those animals’ needs not being met.
The third piece is what I call sacred sendoffs—working around end of life and death. People can be very perplexed about what to do when an animal is coming to the end of their life. So I help them navigate questions about end-of-life care. I also do memorials, I’m present at euthanasias, and I perform rituals to help people pass that animal onto whatever is next—and that differs based on someone’s belief systems.
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The fourth piece is advocating for nonhuman animals. That involves education and awareness about our food systems, which is out of alignment with a lot of our values.
Let’s go through those four pieces one-by-one. What’s the grief counseling aspect of it like? What services do you offer? That’s a huge piece of this work and all chaplaincy. Our animals become members of our family, and we go through the same stages of grief. It can be especially important for older people who may have lost a spouse and that animal becomes their primary relationship in their home.
I do individual grief counseling and family grief counseling, which is very similar to what I do with human grief counseling. I normally do four to six sessions with someone. First, we honor the relationship with the animal. We look at the joyous moments and process the grief or the loss using Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance]. We also will do a ritual or a memorial to honor that pet’s life where we wish that animal a most auspicious next time around. And that can look like a lot of things. It can be anything from doing an actual burial to doing a releasing ritual with flying wish paper.
Why is the ritual important to the process? There is a letting go piece that is important in our grief and loss, and something happens to us when we make physical or somatic gestures. That’s the reason we bury humans. But what happens in our history with animals? A child’s goldfish gets flushed, and there’s nothing for the kid to deal with. But these things can be very traumatic.
At One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, when we start to discuss grief, we create a timeline of our loss—from the first up to the most recent loss—and then unpack all of those losses. The first loss on most people’s grief timeline is a pet, but we don’t necessarily help our children understand. It can be a wonderful opportunity to help young people understand the cycle of life. But instead, we rush out and get a new pet to replace it. So it’s important to be able to honor the life of that animal through some sort of experience.
You also mentioned that you work with animals who are up for adoption. How do you approach the shelters, and what do you do there? It can work a number of different ways. For some people, the words chaplain or spiritual are comfortable. For other people, they are not. So in some cases, I come as a chaplain, and in some cases, I’ll just be a volunteer. In other cases, I may be a donor or supporter of an organization.
I’m mainly there to support the animals. Many shelters have animals they consider that are unhomable, who are most likely not likely going to be adopted because they’re special needs. Shelters usually have a room for potential adopters to meet a particular animal, and I go into those spaces with the unadoptable pets to just spend time with them. The experience can be very heartbreaking. Seeing an animal in need who feels your compassion can be joyous, but it’s also sad because I can’t take them all home.
People don’t have to be chaplains or do anything special to do this work. We’re all capable of having compassion and love and easing the suffering of animals. I recommend that people go over to the adoption area at Petco or to a shelter and ask if you can spend some time with the animals.
Can you tell us more about practicing mindfulness with a pet? How does that work? My specific area of expertise is cats. I especially like working with cats who are very skittish, who have trauma. I teach a type of mindfulness that I call cat gazing. Cats often don’t like to be looked at directly in the eyes. They see that as a challenge. The practice is to look just off to the side of them, watch their breathing, and then start to match your breathing to theirs. And you’ll start to feel a non-dual moment where you’re breathing with the cat and the cat is breathing with you. (This practice also can help us explore our concept of the self: Where is self? Where do I end?)
Once you have that connection, the cat may perk up and start to come up out of it. This is analogous to when you’re meditating with a group and the guy next to you starts to get the itch and he starts to come out of his state. Animals do that too. They lose the moment. They lose that present moment piece. At that point, you can bring yourself a little bit up out of it, too. And then, when they settle, you settle back with them and match their breathing again. And you just continue to do this.
It’s based on a mindfulness practice called The Trust Technique, which James French developed with horses. It can be really beneficial. One cat who has lived in my home for about two years could not be touched for the first six months because of his trauma. Now, he comes running over because he wants to do mindfulness. We think it’s just a human thing, but my experience has been that it’s not.
Where did you learn about this type of practice? My training with cats and dogs comes from the veterinary school at the University of Edinburgh. The behavioral science around animals has changed significantly over the last 70 years. But we don’t necessarily get very educated on their needs or keep up with what science is telling us. For example, when dogs start to yawn, you need to back away a little bit. That’s the first point on their ladder of aggression. It’s a way that they try to relieve the stress that they’re feeling within their bodies somatically by yawning.
I learned about not looking cats in the eyes while meditating with lions in South Africa. Linda Tucker runs a preservation called the Global White Lion Protection Trust, where she has been almost single-handedly trying to keep a group of white lions alive. Two years ago, I went and spent time meditating with them, and there’s nothing like connecting with a lion in that mindfulness state. It’s remarkable and a little scary too. And I, for sure, learned not to look the lion in the eyes. I was taught to lower my head, keep my gaze down, and make sure that the lion knows that I am not a threat.
Do you consider your advocacy work to part of your role as an animal chaplain? Most of the people that I know that are doing work in this area are involved in the bigger picture—both the micro and the macro. There’s the individual work with animals, with the human, between the animal and the human, and then we have to look at our system. I think of it like lovingkindness meditation, where we extend out beyond ourselves to all beings.
The billions of animals each year that are being systematically abused in our food system is horrific. And if you look at the planet and climate change, our issue is not our cars, it’s our cows. The amount of PTSD being caused by the people who are working within factory farming right now is a human issue as well. They’re interlinked. You can’t look at one without the other. It’s very Buddhist. It’s all interrelated.
It would not be holistic for me to be to be dealing just with the animals that live in my house or with the ones with my friends or with my clients. If I truly believe in interdependence, I need to work as much as I can for all animals.
What reaction do you get when you tell someone that part of your work is in animal chaplaincy? The first response is a little bit of a joke. People say, “You have a church for cats?” Then, when I explain what it is about, people do a 180. Then, they almost immediately share a story of their grief and loss of a pet (though the term we prefer is companion animal). They tell me about how they experienced suffering when this happened, but there wasn’t anybody to help with it. Then they get it, and the conversation might open up and move beyond their companion to a discussion about all beings.
How do you support this work financially? None of us become clergy or chaplains or monks or spiritual people to get rich I have found. So it necessitates that we have additional things that we do. I write books, and I write for companies. I also teach. This allows me to work with clients on a sliding scale, based on what they have. Of course, it is helpful when people are able to pay, which allows me to cover my office space and other expenses. When I do a funeral service for someone, I also ask that they send 50 percent of the fee to an animal organization of their choice instead of me. I do the same with human funerals—50 percent is my fee and 50 percent is toward a charity.
How many clients do you see on average? I have probably three to four clients around animals each month. I also spend a lot of time removing dead animals from our roads. I drive a Jeep and keep a shovel, bags, gloves, and flower seeds in the back. I stop for roadkill. I move them to the side of the road. I do a blessing for them: May you have a most auspicious next lifetime. And I put flower seeds on top of them. I probably do that 50–60 times a month.
Roadkill breaks my heart the most because we continue to hit animals and leave them on the side of the road. And if they were our babies, our children, we certainly wouldn’t do that.
You also talk about speciesism. What do you mean by that? Speciesism is the privileging of human animals over nonhuman animals. Just like racism is the privileging of one race over another race, or sexism puts one gender over another gender.
Some people may object to comparing the suffering of animals in shelters to, say, starving children across the world. People often say that. Very much so.
What is your response? My response is that our compassion is not a pie to be divvied up. Having compassion for the animals in the shelter doesn’t take away from the compassion that I have for the children who need food as well. That would be a very binary view.
But my job is not to browbeat anyone for their beliefs or suggest that someone should have beliefs different than the ones they have. This is not a right or wrong conversation. Rather, we need to understand that our choices matter. If we are people who consider ourselves either spiritual, religious, on some sort of wisdom path, we need to consider that our choices have an impact. If your work is with children around food insecurity, awesome. Someone needs to do that work. My work happens to be here with animals. And we need all of us.
[This interview was edited for clarity and length.]