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.

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.

For guidance in how to lead this complex 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. I have always lived with dogs and cats; they are my spiritual mentors. I’ve learned a lot about forgiveness from reading or hearing about or watching non-human creatures. I’ll focus here on two highly intelligent species-dogs and chimpanzees.

Examples of dogs’ forgiveness in the face of being left, abandoned and even abused, are legend. Look in any daily newspaper, any animal book or any shelter, and you’ll find them. Most dogs remain friendly and eager to please. Most want to spend their lives with human companions and are willing to give love to another if they are abandoned. Many would be quite willing to forgive their abusers, given some time and some kindness.

Here’s one recent story of canine forgiveness, “The Secret Life of (Abandoned) Dogs,” in the September/October issue of Best Friends magazine, published by the largest non-kill shelter in the country. In his article, 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 first to 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. Although she still jumps on the table, she no longer pees when asked to jump down. Roxie is learning and is clearly ecstatic to have a home.

Yet, Battista writes of his new friend, “There is that sadness deep inside her that I will never be able to cure...All the dogs in our home can tell some version of Roxie’s story. They all had first families and people to whom they were devoted in the way that only a dog can be... They were abandoned. “ 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.”

Despite the betrayal, Roxie continues to trust our human species. This is amazing, but not an isolated story.

My husband and I share our home with Wanda, a mixed breed black beauty. We are not unusual in this; dogs are immensely popular. According to a recent survey, 38% of American families have at least one canine companion. Almost fifty-six million dogs live with U.S families.

Think how often our dogs forgive our leaving them-for hours, for days, sometimes for weeks—with no stated reason. 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.

As Birgit Klein has written about dogs in her book The Eternal Spiral of Life, “There is no pettiness and fussiness in any respect-always starting afresh and seeing each other in the shining light of the moment.”

Klein believes that dogs show humans how to become more humble and less self-centered: “The human being in the contact with the dog will become more and more tolerant, indulgent, and most of all grateful and able to forget grudge and projections of the past.”

Another 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 closest 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. 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 eight to nine hours a day with the chimpanzees, loves to talk about what she has learned from and about her new friends. “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, Billy Jo had been “one of the angriest in the lab. He was aggressive. One of the reasons I believe Billy has managed to recover is because of the women around him at Fauna; it was men who had done the bad things to him. Traditionally, chimpanzees respond better to women.”

However, one particular incident which shows Billy’s powers of forgiveness relates to both Gloria Grow and to a special, gentle man, Pat, who also works with Fauna’s great apes . When Billy first arrived, he was attacked by five other chimps who almost entirely bit off one of his fingers. He began running toward the humans (situated on the other side of a wall). Recalls Grow, “Billy had faith in me; I had protected him. He was still angry at men, especially if he was locked in his room... He screamed; he bit.” As he came toward Grow for reassurance, he became cornered by the other chimpanzees. “We watched and were unable to help. We felt we had betrayed him.” Both Pat and Gloria remained near him, acting calm and loving.

Billy Jo’s finger had to be amputated. Grow’s partner, Richard Allan, a veterinarian, hadn’t done any such amputations, so they felt compelled to call in former LEMSIP staff. Billy Jo was miserable at seeing one of the doctors and two lab techs who he had known in his former life. Explains Grow, “He was screaming, frightened... They went up to Billy. ...He was so scared of the dart gun.” Billy continued to scream, putting his hands through the bars toward Gloria and Pat.

At a certain point, Gloria and Pat were actually in the room with the doctor and the lab techs. The techs told Pat that he would have to stick Billy with the dart gun as the chimpanzee had begun to trust Pat enough to allow him to do so. However, Pat felt this would be a betrayal, a reinforcement of what humans had done repeatedly to the chimpanzee. Gloria went over to Billy, and held one of his hands. Pat held the other. They talked soothingly to him. In the end, Pat did give him the needle. “We were telling him we loved him,” recalls Grow. “He could see empathy and compassion. We do not lie to them. Then he started to drop asleep...”

According to Grow, that day, Billy Jo made “such a leap of faith. ...He wasn’t angry with Pat. He had forgiven us. They learn to forgive because they have faith in someone, faith that they will not be betrayed. This is part of their healing process,” explains Grow. Despite his close to 30 years in service to humans, in service surely not chosen by him, Billy Jo still likes us. He is willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. He is willing to open his heart.

Billy Jo is but one example of chimpanzee forgiveness. As Sheila Siddle, co-director of Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, a non-profit refuge in Zambia which cares for more than 70 orphaned chimpanzees, writes, “Chimpanzees have suffered so much pain and trauma at the hands of humans...yet they still have the grace to forgive us.”

Why are non-human animals apparently more able to forgive than we are? Perhaps we can only speculate. However, an explanation of forgiveness by Caroline Myss, Ph.D. in her best-selling 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.

Schweitzer writes this of influences: “ Much that has become our own in gentleness, modesty, kindness, willingness to forgive, in veracity, loyalty, resignation under suffering, we owe to people [to his word “people” I would add non-human animals] in whom we have seen or experienced these virtues at work...”

In ridding themselves of past harms and misunderstandings, animals continue to exemplify these qualities. To grasp the powers of forgiving and healing, I just need look to Roxie and to Billy Jo. These and other non-human creatures remain some of my strongest influences and teachers.

Deborah Straw has written about animals for many years. Her new book, Why is Cancer Killing Our Pets? How You Can Protect and Treat Your Animal Companion, has just been published by Healing Arts Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions International.

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