Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Will Rapture Take the Cat? Or, Manatees in Heaven

Do animals have souls? Will they be swept up with us in the Rapture? Will they be in heaven with us?
My family endlessly debated these questions at the dinner table and in church. Even now, as an adult, these are the first questions I ask my religious friends. These questions are still on my mind – perhaps because my Siamese cat, Loki, is perched on my mouse pad.

When he is not eyeing my oatmeal, Loki’s turquoise eyes shift back and forth with my computer mouse, awaiting another opportunity for a sneak attack; and his brother, Tao, the trickster Tuxedo cat, is on my printer, which is still warm.
Raised by a family who loved animals, both domestic and wild, one of my first moments of doubt came when my Sunday school teacher declared that Southern Baptists believe animals are not allowed an afterlife. I wondered: How could God give us such trusting, companionable animals and then simply throw them away into nothingness? Who wanted to be lonely with just human souls in heaven? How boring and sad! I was in first grade and I already knew I was a heretic.
There is a chapter in the new book, “Helmet of Salvation, Sword of Spirit” that continues this story of my first crisis of faith. Also, in “Beluga Baby: An Afterlife of Animals” from Nature and Other Mothers, I deal with this question of animal souls when witnessing a beluga whale, Mauyak, mourning her newborn calf. And I ask the question that preoccupies me now: How might simply looking at other animals as equal souls, change our future, our chances for survival?
This question is on my mind this morning particularly because my dear friend, the radiant poet Jane Hirshfield, just wrote about the January cold snap in Florida. “It was so cold, “ she wrote, “Iguanas were falling from trees and over 100 manatees died . . . so sad to imagine those strange big creatures baffled and cold. I’d read that many huddled by power plant outflows for warmth.”
She added, “George must be heartbroken. Unless he assumes they’ve all gone straight to heaven?”
Jane is talking about a neighbor I profile in my new book. A good man who staunchly believes in the Rapture – in his lifetime. Sitting on the beach together, George and I watch over seal pups while their mothers are out fishing. And we continue the debate about afterlife, other animals, and which souls ascend to divine compassion.
This morning, aside from the daily muse of my cats, my heart goes to the manatees in Florida. The first time I ever beheld one of those amiable sea cows was in a backyard canal in Miami. Lounging in a lawn chair, I heard a “whoooosh” of warm air and was startled by a rumpled gray snout, bewhiskered and seemingly myopic. But benevolent. A floating Buddha in the backyard. That abiding and gentle creature stayed with me so deeply that I created a character called Mrs. Manatee in Duck and Cover. Mrs. Manatee also sought warmth in the effluence around power plants.  And a heart surgeon, Hawkins, tries to save her from hypothermia:
They were everywhere in the bubbling waters; and every manatee I saw had white scars and gouges crisscrossing its back. Even the babies. That’s how you recognize a manatee, by the scars. I wrapped my arms around this swollen old girl, pressing my ear to her heart.
Slow, much too slow. I reached around her great girth as far as my arms would stretch and floated with her – belly to belly, her snout resting on my shoulder, her breathing faint as a whisper . . . We floated like that in those warm, toxic waters – it seemed forever – with her head thrown back, her small eyes closed. I held the whole world of her in my arms.

I believe that Mrs. Manatee and that herd of one hundred manatees who died this month in Florida are drifting now on divine waves. Let this be in elegy to them – the slow-moving souls overcome by the fast freeze. May they float in warmth and peace alongside us. Forever.

New York Times manatee die-off in cold waters 1.26.2010
Save the Manatee Club


  1. I don't know if animals go to heaven or not, mostly becuase I don't know if there is a heaven. However, I am perfectly happy to think that even after they're gone, they still swim the seas, roam the forests, and even sit on computer printers.

  2. For many of us, trying to reconcile our religious confusion is daunting. I like Brenda Peterson enormously because she is obviously intelligent and she does get beyond much of the religious dogma in her life. She is an excellent example for others who are struggling with their own religious background. Hopefully, Brenda's book will get a lot of people questioning and thinking.

    I wish I was as a good a writer as Brenda Peterson. My best shot, so far, at telling my own religious reconciliation is posted at Maybe I should take the Brenda's example and try to write a book the best way I can.