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What Animals Teach Me About Forgiveness
by Deborah Straw

Forgiveness has not always been my strong suit. I come from a long line of grudge holders, and I'm not proud of it. I am working on becoming more forgiving, even when people do something totally against my beliefs or values. I try to understand their motivations, to become them for a brief time.

One of my mentors, Albert Schweitzer, has this to say about forgiveness: "... I am obliged to exercise unlimited forgiveness because, if I did not forgive, I should be untrue to myself, in that I should thus act as if I were not guilty in the same ways the other has been guilty with regard to me. I must forgive the lies directed against myself, because my own life has been so many times blotted by lies; I must forgive the lovelessness, the hatred, the slander, the fraud, the arrogance which I encounter, since I myself have so often lacked love, hated, slandered, defrauded, and been arrogant. I must forgive without noise or fuss."

Many studies and authors report that the ability to forgive improves health--physical, emotional and spiritual. People who do not forgive stay blocked and angry and even can become sick. Forgiveness appears to be a required part of becoming whole and authentic.

For guidance in how to lead this increasingly complex and crowded life--in how to treat others, in how to enjoy myself, in how to relax, and in how to heal -- I often look to animals. My dogs and cats have always been my spiritual mentors. I've also learned a lot about forgiveness from reading or hearing about or watching non-human creatures. I'll focus here on two especially intelligent and sensitive species--dogs and chimpanzees.

Examples of dogs' forgiveness in the face of being left, abandoned and even abused, are legend. Here's one amazing yet not unusual story of canine forgiveness, "The Secret Life of (Abandoned) Dogs," in an issue of Best Friends magazine, published by the largest non-kill shelter in the United States. Francis Battista recounts the story of Roxie, a black German shepherd, found sitting by the roadside north of L.A. Beside her were two cardboard boxes, each containing four puppies. Roxie had a fractured thigh bone.

The woman who found and rescued them soon placed the pups in homes, but Roxie posed a more complicated situation. "She was a submissive wetter and suffered from gale force level separation anxiety, on top of being a not-at-all -trained large dog." But the woman got her a "much-coveted pass" to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Battista arranged to take her to Best Friends, but he had to first keep her for a few days due to foul weather for travel. During that short time, he became taken with her, and she with him. Battista already had a wife and 15 other dogs, but what was one more canine in the pack? Roxie adjusted to all this company, but she still had a few serious behavioral problems. She tore the place up when left alone, she sat on the dining room table, and she sometimes peed on it. However, the family has worked with her. Roxie is learning and is clearly ecstatic to have a home. Although Roxie is grateful for her new home, Battista continues, "Even though... they left her to live or die by the side of a highway... Roxie still waits for them in the quiet of the evening." He says knowingly of dogs as a species that "Roxie could never in a million years begin to understand such betrayal, because it isn't in her. It isn't in any of them."

Think how often our dogs forgive our leaving them--for hours, for days, sometimes for weeks--with no stated reason. Even if we leave them in cold, outdoor shelters with inadequate food or water. We don't know what they think about where we are and when we'll return, but we do know they are always genuinely thrilled to see us. Every time we return. No questions asked.

Another perhaps even more amazing example of remarkable forgiveness is the story of a former biomedical laboratory chimpanzee, Billy Jo, who lives in a retirement sanctuary, Fauna Foundation near Montreal, Quebec. Chimpanzees, who may live to 60 or 65 years, are our closet relatives; they share 98.4% of our DNA. They are like us in so many important ways.

Billy Jo was purchased in 1983 by LEMSIP, the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates at New York University in Tuxedo, New York. LEMSIP has since closed; Fauna purchased 15 chimpanzees from this facility in 1997. Two have since died, and two new primates have joined the community.

Before he lived at LEMSIP, Billy Jo had spent 15 years as an entertainer. During that time, he had his teeth knocked out. Their teeth are chimpanzees’ main form of defense, and they become more submissive without them. Chimpanzees often don't want to do the tricks demanded of them, so their owners knock their teeth out, sometimes with a crowbar. In his 14 years in the lab at LEMSIP, Billy Jo, formerly known only as

Ch-447, was sedated more than 289 times, 65 times by four or five men surrounding his cage, throwing tranquilizer darts into his body. The drug they used was Ketamine, a hallucinogen currently popular on the streets.

Today, Billy Jo, born in 1968, still cannot bear to have strangers grouped in front of him. When he first arrived at Fauna, he used to bang on his cage, scream, rock and stare into space when left alone. Even today, he sometimes chokes, gags and convulses as a result of his traumas.

But he is much, much better. He receives kind, loving attention, good food and stimulating activities at Fauna. The staff, led by Gloria Grow and Richard Allan, is absolutely committed to providing a safe, comfortable home until the chimpanzees die. Billy Jo is now the most sociable of the apes with humans, and he spends less time alone in his room. He even sometimes tries to reassure other chimpanzees who are fighting.

Gloria Grow, who spends up to nine hours a day with the chimpanzees, realizes how much she has learned from her extended animal family. "One of the loudest and clearest messages we have received is that many of these chimpanzees have learned to love certain humans," she tells me.

According to Grow, " They learn to forgive because they have faith in someone, faith that they will not be betrayed. This is part of their healing process."

Why are non-human animals apparently more able to forgive than we are? One explanation of forgiveness by Caroline Myss, Ph.D. in her book, Anatomy of the Spirit, sheds some light on this dynamic.

Myss defines forgiveness as "a complex act of consciousness, one that liberates the psyche and soul from the need for personal vengeance and the perception of oneself as a victim...forgiveness means releasing the control that the perception of victimhood has over our psyches. The liberation that forgiveness generates comes in the transition to a higher state of consciousness--not just in theory, but energetically and biologically." (Animals, in many ways, exist in a higher state of consciousness than we do.) Myss continues, "In fact, the consequence of a genuine act of forgiveness borders on the miraculous." This miraculousness is what I witness in animals in their very being, in their every gesture. They appear to know things we have forgotten or discarded.

To grasp the powers of forgiving and healing, I just need look to examples like Roxie and Billy Jo. These and other non-human creatures remain some of my strongest influences and teachers.

© Copyright 2003 Deborah Straw.  All Rights Reserved. 

Deborah Straw
Deborah Straw of Burlington, Vermont, has been a published writer for 25 years. Her first book, Natural Wonders of the Florida Keys, an ecotourism book, was published by Country Roads Press/NTC Contemporary Publishing Group in August 1999. Why is Cancer Killing Our Pets? How You Can Protect and Treat Your Animal Companion was published by Healing Arts Press (an imprint of Inner Traditions International) in November 2000. became the first Straw is also a widely published essayist and fiction writer, with work in several anthologies. Besides being a writer, she teaches writing and literature classes at Community College of Vermont, Burlington.




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