Author Karlene Stange’s spiritual journey began during her work as an ambulatory veterinarian, driving her pickup truck through southwestern Colorado, attending to animals in need of medical care. She has experienced the challenges, sorrows, and joys of working with creatures great and small, and she feels a powerful kinship with these beautiful beings beyond flesh and fur and feathers. Her book, The Spiritual Nature of Animals: A Country Vet Explores the Wisdom, Compassion, and Souls of Animals, chronicles her spiritual path working with animals, through the lenses of various teachings of religious and cultural traditions, as well as her own encounters with the magnificent Rocky Mountain terrain and the quirky characters — both animal and human — who inhabit it.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from The Spiritual Nature of Animals, in which Dr. Stange shares how her spiritual journey working with animals began.
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I set out to understand the spiritual nature of animals, and in so doing, I discovered my own. Creatures great and small dragged me down a rabbit hole and through sacred tunnels into a world of dragons, shamans, gurus, lamas, monks, nuns, demons, priests, rabbis, preachers, scientists, clairvoyants, channels, mystics, animal communicators, and spiritual teachers. Those adepts schooled me and gave me refuge from the drama and trauma overburdening me. They introduced me to the anima — what Jungian psychology refers to as the animating principle present in all living beings.
Anima is the Latin root of the word animal. It means soul, breath, and life. Veterinarians share a personal relationship with the anima; we watch it drain from a body only to meet it again as a newborn foal or pup. Yet veterinary education rarely mentions it. We learn detailed information about bones, blood, and the other physical components, but little is said of the nonphysical aspect — the animas of animals. I now believe it is the most important part.
Firemen do not enter burning buildings or ascend to the tops of tall trees to grab a hunk of meat known as a “cat.” They rescue a beloved family member, a companion. The incorporeal light in an animal’s eyes reaches into our hearts. It touches us more deeply than any physical thing. We humans have the capacity to connect with the spiritual nature of animals; it makes us happy.
I wanted to be an animal doctor before I knew the word veterinarian. As a young girl in Wisconsin, I remember attending a stallion showing. The handler enumerated the attributes of the handsome gray Arabian stud as I stared at a gray-haired man in the audience. He appeared humble and placid and wore a vest monogrammed with the veterinary emblem. I learned that he was the local large-animal veterinarian. Although I did not know him, something about his wise yet nonjudgmental demeanor attracted me, and I longed to be like him. I had yet to learn how the fires of veterinary practice would burn and melt me before forging me into the person I aspired to become.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the suicide rate for veterinarians is four times higher than the national average. This may be due in part to the gory wounds and difficult procedures, the death and euthanasia, and the stress of long hours treating emergencies, but it may also be because of something I call “compassion overwhelm.” We care too much. We tend to be compulsive overachievers who sacrifice our lives for the job, as did the cattle practitioner I read about once in the AVMA obituaries who drowned trying to save a calf stuck in a muddy pond. Or perhaps suicide appeals to us because of our familiarity with death.
No matter the reasons, my experience convinces me that an understanding of the spiritual nature of animals benefits the mental and emotional health of veterinarians and animal-loving people who anguish over the suffering of pets and wildlife. Furthermore, veterinary clients may harbor strong religious beliefs that influence their decisions, and we must show them respect and speak to them with wisdom. I hope the insights shared here provide comfort to those who live with, tend to, and love animals. Perhaps, once they learn of their beneficial qualities, some may even come to see and appreciate the simple beauty of maggots and other parts of nature we often abhor.
My goal, then, is to explore the world’s religious, spiritual, philosophical, and scientific teachings about the nonphysical makeup of animals for the highest good of animal care, the human-animal bond, and the well-being of all concerned.
Each chapter explores a different religious belief system and offers three main approaches to the material. First, each chapter begins with a description of that belief system. In order for the reader to fully comprehend the tenets of Hinduism, Judaism, shamanism, and so on, the vocabulary must first be defined. Therefore, each chapter includes some history and definitions followed by an investigation into the religion’s beliefs regarding animals. Then, throughout, I provide stories from my veterinary practice, offering further illustration of the concepts for contemplation. The third element explores the unfolding of my own spiritual growth — a concept I learned in the process — and how it changed me.
The struggle inside me first started in the 1990s and early 2000s when I practiced large- and small-animal ambulatory medicine out of a pickup truck in a rural mountain community in southwestern Colorado. Horses, llamas, alpacas, dogs, and cats were my primary patients, along with other wild and domestic flying, swimming, and crawling creatures. I drove day and night to attend to animals in beautiful places around Durango, Colorado, where the Animas River carves the landscape.
The majority of my time spent researching spiritual teachings took place on the job in a pickup truck where the only way to learn was from audiotapes. Time off included further seeking by reading, praying, attending church services, meditating, chanting, going on a vision quest, attending retreats with a Tibetan lama and Buddhist nuns, questioning psychics and shamans, pursuing an animal communication apprenticeship, and conducting interviews with experts in numerous fields of spirituality.
During this period, I drove an average of a hundred miles or more a day. Fortunately, the scenery made that part of the job a pleasure, although the dirt routes on winding, mountainous terrain were often treacherous. The views of snow-covered peaks and enchanted valleys, tall ponderosa forests, and aspen groves soothed my stressed mind. Guardian angels held the wheel as I watched a bald eagle circling above or stared at an osprey sitting on a snag next to the Animas River. The occasional coyote made me giggle as he scooted across a field, looking over his shoulder as though trouble were on his tail. A bobcat, a bachelor band of elk, or a family of deer crossing the road at times caused me to hit the brakes. Drives to ranches were adventures into fantasylands of hidden canyons and mysterious ravines where cell phone service was lost. A tourist once told me, “You live in a postcard.” To which I replied, “And I drive each day in the mud, dust, and snow that keep everyone else from living here.”
My home is in La Plata County, a community full of colorful characters: ranchers whose families have lived here for generations, Native Americans, mountain hermits, Hispanics, and nonlocal people who moved to the country from cities. The stories I share about these people are true; at least, this is the truth as I remember it. Only the names of people, animals, and some places have been changed to protect privacy. One group of folks who live here, not found in cities, are cattlemen who breed livestock in small family-run operations. Their relationship with the animals they raise for income is often misunderstood. Humans and beasts depend on one another; one does not survive without the other. The rural life itself is foreign to many. The jobs of the mobile large-animal doctor intertwines with the country ranch life, and both involve hard physical work caring for beasts that can be dangerous. The veterinary workforce has evolved to focus more on pets in cities, and a shortage of rural veterinarians creates challenges for folks living in the country.
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As a child, Karlene Stange, DVM, author of The Spiritual Nature of Animals, wanted to be an “animal doctor” before she knew the word “veterinarian.” Today she incorporates acupuncture, traditional Chinese herbal medicine, and nutritional therapy into her Rocky Mountain practice. She often speaks at conferences and lives in Durango, Colorado. You can find out more about her work at www.animasanimals.com.
Excerpted from the book The Spiritual Nature of Animals. Copyright © 2017 by Karlene Stange.