Last night, I had a very strange dream. I dreamed I owned a dog and a cat—not just any dog and cat, but a dog named Abby (who actually belongs to my friend Jennifer) and a cat named Caiomhe (who actually belongs to my friends Sonja and Mike). Both very cute and loving animals, may I say. In the dream we all lived in a large house filled with clutter. Unfortunately that detail was not as shocking as what came next.
The dream turned problematic as Abby frantically found her treat bag and shoved it into my hand. Her eyes told me she was desperate for food. In a panic, I realized in the dream I had forgotten to feed them. I heard in my head Jen's voice saying, “Don't worry, she'll eat anything, even paper.” (Disclaimer: this was a dream, and I have never actually heard Jen say this.) The dream ended with Abby happily munching away on a stack of computer paper in the office.
Maybe the next time a parishioner suggests I get a pet, I will tell him or her about this dream. The ending may well get a laugh, but the person making the suggestion will see why this might not be such a good idea.
After I moved to this small town four years ago, it didn't take long for me to realize that this is a pet-obsessed town. Summer nights find a whole community out walking their dogs after the sidewalks have cooled down. People will sacrifice to purchase a purebred dog or cat or pay for expensive treatments, even if money is tight everywhere else in the budget. If you don't have a pet, chances are you are either a student at the local college, or you are allergic.
Sadly, the flip side of this pet culture is that there is a lot of animal neglect and cruelty out there. There is a thriving community of feral cats, whose ancestors were “dropped off” in the wild. There are puppy mills in the countryside, under the radar, and breeders who don't always follow ethical standards. The news regularly has stories of alleged animal neglect, where dozens and dozens of animals are rescued from owners who insist they are doing nothing wrong. Recently there was even a story about a local man (who was clearly not well) apparently marinating his cat in preparation to eat it. (Fortunately the cat was rescued while still very much alive.) For those who truly love and care for their pets, these practices hurt them deeply.
After being here for a few years, people started asking me, “Pastor, don't you want to get a cat?” Usually this question is followed by a description of the very cute kittens that were just born under their porch or camper. A few women don't beat around the bush at all and just inform me periodically, “You should get a cat!” or even once in a while, “You should get a dog!” I started wondering to myself…why? Is it because they want me to save at least one animal out there? Is this a sign of incorporating me into the community? Do they feel sorry for me, being “all alone” And then it hit me: Maybe they want a sign that I am a responsible adult who can care for another living being. Maybe they need to know that I really am a grown-up and not a college student who will pick up and leave after the semester ends.
After all, I am not married, I do not have children, I do not have pets, I cannot keep my garden or my house from falling into chaos and I kill houseplants. I lack all the traditional signs of being a stable, rooted, nurturing adult. And let's face it, encouraging your single pastor to adopt a kitten is a lot safer than, say, encouraging her to find a nice guy and get married (which would not only be overly personal and rude, but might also inadvertently encourage her to move away).
Just for the record, I like cats and dogs. Really, I do. My parents have two wonderful cats that I miss dearly and look forward to seeing when I visit. And I am reasonably sure I could manage to feed a pet something other than computer paper. But I don't want to get a pet just because of the reassurance it will give to my parishioners, or the validity it will lend to my ministry. When I do adopt a cat or a dog, it will be because I am ready to have another living and breathing being as part of my family. Who knows, maybe I'll be one of those people who takes their pet everywhere and feeds him or her from my own plate. But for now, I'm on my own.