Book of the Month

~by Michele Gregoire

November 2014 Review: The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, by Vint Virga, D.V.M.

Dr. Vint Virga, a specialist in veterinary behavioral medicine, has written a book that is exceedingly humane in which he provides a personal philosophical treatise on the importance of the lives of all beings and what is necessary for a quality life for each species. Citing the examples of his own experience that opened him to greater awareness of the causes of suffering and joy he relates his own quest to the understanding of what makes a quality life and how we can help our fellow species to endure, in home environments and particularly in settings such as zoos. His study over several years has deepened understanding of depression in animals of various species and in coming to that awareness Virga has encountered the often tortured souls of many a captive zoo animal, as well as his own contented pets.

Organized into 10 chapters, with an opening author’s note and introduction, the book concludes with acknowledgments and notes. The notes section is the bibliography for each chapter’s references. So the book is researched and the author provides support for his expressed views. Chapter titles give a snapshot of the topics addressed, and each is written from a deeply felt animal experience of the author’s. The one word chapter titles begin with Connection and move in succession through the following: Sensitivity, Mindfulness, Responsiveness, Expressivity, Adaptability, Integrity, Forgiveness, Presence, and finally in a departure from the one word title, What Lies Beneath. Beginning with the Introduction and for each chapter a quote is presented that sets the tone for the ensuing section or chapter, and sums up the focus of the chapter titles. These transcendent jewels of wisdom are from a variety of authors and prime us to better understand the chapter content. For example, before the text of the Introduction a quote from Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh sets off the book: “Lots of people talk to animals…Not very many listen, though…That’s the problem.” To read the book meaningfully one must start with the Author’s Note, in which he explains that he intentionally refers to animals as ‘he’ or ‘she’ because all living creatures are unique and individual beings, rather than ‘it,’ which reinforces viewing them as objects rather than fellow beings. This establishes the essential premise of Virga’s work and converges with a Franciscan theology perspective.

The author, as a veterinary behaviorist, writes about animals with behavior problems and issues, cats and dogs as well as large wild animals living in zoos, and how he worked with them to solve their problems. He also describes the cases of a few animals that were not helped with their depression or obsessive-compulsive disorders because they had given up. He describes that the will to connect was no longer there in some of the large wild cats living in the zoo. However, many of the cases he discusses did find positive and successful conclusions, both domestic pets and wild creatures. All support the primary thesis of his book, that animals and humans share more commonalities than most of us realize.

The opening quotes summarize well the essential messages of each chapter. For example, in Chapter 2 (Sensitivity), William butler Yeats’ excerpt establishes the tone of the stories related. “One often hears of a horse that shivers with terror, or of a dog that howls at something a man’s eyes cannot see, and men who live primitive lives where instinct does the work of reason are fully conscious of many things that we cannot perceive at all. As life becomes more orderly, more deliberate, the supernatural world sinks farther away.” Later in that chapter the author asks how it is possible to step into the shoes of an animal, and promptly answers that we cannot. But, we can recognize that we perceive only a fraction of all that surrounds us. Dr. Virga says that “knowing there are sounds beyond our range or hearing, colors and details our eyes simply miss, and aromas we breathe to which we are oblivious, we can turn to animals for fresh, new perspectives by envisioning the world as if we stood in their footsteps.”

From chapter to chapter Virga’s book is filled with gems of philosophical understanding imparted through unique and diverse stories of his life with animals, though all with a common theme, and what he has learned from them. He reminds us that “animals clearly perceive with awareness, think with reflection, and act with intention. As we do, they routinely take in their circumstances, as well as those of others, weigh their options, and consider consequences before deciding how they will respond. Doing so requires attentiveness, forethought, and consideration – all traits shared by humans as well as animals.” The mystery of creation is reflected so aptly by the quotes selected for each chapter and a few are particularly telling, such as that opening Chapter 4 – Responsiveness. “According to recognized aerotechnical tests, the bumblebee cannot fly because of the shape and weight of his body in relation to the total wing area. But the bumblebee doesn’t know this, so he goes ahead and flies anyway.” And Chapter 8 – Forgiveness, which describes a case involving Bengal cats, begins with a powerful statement by Martin Luther King, Jr., “Forgiveness is not an occasional act: it is a permanent attitude.” Throughout the work we are invited to be responsible partners with the animals, exemplified in the poignant experiences of the author and well selected references, such as M. Scott Peck’s statement that “As soon as we think with integrity we will realize that we are all properly stewards and that we cannot with integrity deny our responsibility for stewardship of every part of the whole.” Virga reminds us that, “animals, by their very nature, live fully in the present moment. Clearly, they remember the past, and certainly they anticipate the future. But they – unlike us – do not dwell on them.” Finally, in the concluding chapter, the author states his belief that “each of  us is the holy man on our own journey, crying somewhere deep inside, yearning to feel more connected to others – animals and people – and the greater world in which we live. And surrounding every one of us are animals ready to serve as teachers by opening doors to new perspectives and ways of being beyond how we live. All we really need to do is pause a moment to notice them…”

The Soul of All Living Creatures is a very special book on the transcendent relationship between human and animal. It is heartwarming, sweet, sad, and enlightening. And though it is not a religious book it certainly addresses important topics that are holistically spiritual yet resonate with much of Catholic theology, and it is well worth reading. In concluding this review I share the following quote from the opening of the final chapter.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

How well Albert Einstein stated this profound truth about existence, and what a fitting beginning for the last chapter of Vint Virga’s sensitively written book. READ MORE…

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Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.

Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.

Visit Michele’s BOOK OF THE MONTH ARCHIVE

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