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“All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.”–St. Francis of Assisi

Today, October 4th, is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.  Our church–like many–conducts a Blessing of the Animals in honor of St. Francis, and we try like anything to get our critters up there because it goes without saying they need a spare blessing or two.  The Blessing of the Animals is one of the most hilarious sacred moments one will ever encounter.

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Henry demonstrates why he needs blessings…

The ideal Blessing of the Animals service would go something like this:  a handful of leashed, well-behaved, well-groomed dogs and a few cats in cat-carriers arrive with their owners.  The priest blesses each companion animal who, in turn, gives the priest a gentle little lick on the hand in thanks.  A beautiful rendition of “All Creatures of Our God and King” then follows.  Everyone then moves to the pavilion for lemonade, dog treats and catnip.

But of course, when animals are involved, nothing is predictable.

In addition to dogs and cats, I’ve seen our priest bless rabbits, fish, gerbils, hamsters and a pony.  He has also blessed a smattering of stuffed animals (our own Dog included, of course).  I’ve seen a child drag a wagon over that had a glass habitat holding a pet snake in it.  (Hey, St. Francis loved them all, even the serpents…)  Dogs howl, cats hiss, and no one knows all the words to the longest hymn every written.  The constant jangling of tags on collars along with heavy panting fills the air.  To say the experience is a hoot is an understatement.  It’s easily the best church service of the year.

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Jack (17 months) and Dog (5 months), along with the rest of the stuffed animal companions.

I can’t remember a time when we did not have a pet.  My dad’s love of animals began as a small boy; in addition to dogs, he had a pet alligator (ordered from a magazine) and a pony in his backyard.  He also tried (and failed) to tame a squirrel.  When it comes to companion animals, Popster is always up for a good challenge.

We bought goldfish, Blackie and Calico, when I was five years old.  He took me in my pajamas late one night to the local Richway and thirty minutes later, my new pets were swimming in their tank in our little apartment.  Blackie and Calico loved the filter in their tank and would line up to swim beneath it, letting its cleansing suck pull each of them up ever so slightly before they’d flit away.  Blackie and Calico were not geniuses nor were they athletes; there were several times when my mom and I would call my dad in a panic, and he’d hurry home from his pharmacy to gently tug a fish out of the filter tube.  He’d follow up by removing whatever section of fish-fin was left floating in the tank, sprinkling a capsule of tetracycline over the water, and heading back to work.  That’s the work of St. Francis here on earth, I tell you.

We also raised a chicken.  Indoors.  All of the children in my neighborhood were given Easter bitties by a dear, brave neighbor.  On the day after Easter, mine was the only one still left alive (no, they can’t fly and no, you shouldn’t bathe a baby chick) so I saw it as my mission to raise this little creature to his adulthood (we realized a few months later he was a he when he started crowing).  We hauled home a refrigerator box and put it in my room.  We named him Akeem the Dream Chicken (but he hated Houston), and I promise you that he’d come when you called.  He loved to peck at my dad’s glasses, and he also loved to tantalize our dog, Fluffy (who was blind).

Akeem’s claws would hook into the shag carpeting which caused him to do the funniest run down our hallway; it was worth having your glasses pecked to see him do his wild shuffle down the hall, hurdle the blind dog and pounce on my dad who was lying on the couch. Normal people just would not do this sort of thing today.  And in case you are wondering, you cannot housebreak a chicken.  We’d tap Akeem on the back several times with an empty paper towel roll and point his beak towards the latest pile of business he’d produced, and he’d look back up at us like we were crazy.  I mean, really. The nerve of him.

The best dog who ever lived was undoubtedly The Old Soul himself, Charlie.

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This dog had more character and personality than many grown people I know.  He liked to sleep on my parents’ dining room table so my mom moved all the chairs away to keep him off.  Instead, he would jump flat-footed up there, sliding from one end to the other and catching himself right before he fell.  He had a memory like you would not believe; once we hid his SpikeBall on top of a lamp (again, really) and from that point on–we’re talking for years–every time we played ball with him, he’d hop up to look on the lamp.  You could show him his wrapped Christmas present at the beginning of December, and he could go find it on Christmas morning; he knew not to tear in to it until we gave him the go-ahead.  He made friends; my dad once heard the garbage man talking to Charlie by name.  He was crafty; he’d go out in the mornings and make the trip three blocks over to my grandmother’s house where he knew she’d have breakfast (typically a bowl of milk with bacon in it) waiting for him.  He also fathered four adorable, pedigreed puppies, all of whom this animal-crazy family kept.

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Henry Walker Bedingfield and Alfred, Lord Charlieson contemplate the brick steps.

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Henry does passive while Alfie howls for help. 

When Russ and I married, we joined together a Brady Bunch of dogs.  I had Alf and Henry, and he had a monsterously large four-year old chocolate lab puppy named Buckley.  I guess this mini-Wild Kingdom of boy dogs was good practice for us as the future parents of three little boys.  From the moment we brought Jack home, the pups have been nothing but amazing.  They’ve been used as stepstools, scapegoats and vacuum cleaners and never once have they fussed.

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Jack shares a train whistle with Buckley-Dog.

Prior to the arrival of the little humans, our dogs led rock-star lives.  Buck was an all-star frisbee catcher and even placed third in the Frisbee Dog Championship at the Dogwood Festival here in Atlanta.  He was the only non-Australian shepherd there, proving once again you should not judge a book by its cover.  Henry spent his days power-sniffing in the backyard, and Alfie was jockeying to become a squirrel’s worst nightmare.  Alfie even could climb a tree (again, I’m not making this up; he also climbed the attic ladder whenever we went up there).

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Alfie takes a break from tormenting varmints to pretend he is a cat.

After our boys joined the clan, our pups still led very exciting lives.  Buckley is a frequent (and willing, I might add) participant in the game “Vet Doctor”.  More than once he’s been soaked down with water, wiped with baby wipes, doused with baby powder and rubbed with baby lotion.  At least his experience can almost be seen as spa-like.  I once caught Theo in the act of “keening Henny”; Theo was spraying him with Method’s Wood for Good and trying to polish him with a dishrag.  Henry, always slow to react, just lay there enjoying the massage.  He smelled like almonds for a week.  See why our dogs need (and deserve) to be blessed?

Jack has said for several years now that he wants to be a vet when he grows up, which is actually what my dad wanted to be when he was a little guy.  Like my dad, Jack already shows great compassion to all creatures.  We’ve conducted a bird funeral and have housed a ringneck snake hatchling (which Jack and Tucker actually thought was just a “really weird worm with a yellow stripe on his neck”…Oy!).  Our garage is stocked with bug habitats, bug magnifiers and bug feeders.  We spend time at the beach feeding turtles and leaving carrots out for the golf course rabbits. We’ve had myriad goldfish, most of whom were named Bubbles.  We have an entire zoo’s worth of stuffed animals (ever seen Tucker’s bunny collection?).  We are so grateful for all the critters in our lives and for the joy they all bring and have brought, and we hope you feel the same.

Good St. Francis, you loved all of God’s creatures.

To you they were your brothers and sisters.
Help us to follow your example
of treating every living thing with kindness.
St. Francis, Patron Saint of animals,
watch over my pet
and keep my companion safe and healthy.
Amen.

The righteous man regards the life of his beast.  Proverbs 12:10.

If you see an animal that is overburdened, you should lighten its load to help it.  Deuteronomy 22; Exodus 23.

Ask the birds, ask the beasts and they will teach you.  Job 12: 7-10.

Happy Feast of St. Francis!

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