Churches serving four legged friends

More and more congregations are ministering to animals as well as their humans.

In a culture obsessed with dogs, dog whisperers and domestic pets of all kinds, religious groups are paying attention, too.

Many megachurches, where members often meet in smaller affinity groups, are sponsoring groups for pet lovers. In 2007, the Humane Society hired a liaison to religious communities, and next month its Web site will start a directory of affiliated ministries. In seminaries and divinity schools, the study of animals and religion is growing.

“Animal ministries are in every state,” said Christine Gutleben, the Humane Society’s first director of faith outreach, “and they do everything, including pet food in traditional food drives, to donating to local shelters, designating church grounds as animal sanctuaries, hosting adoption events, printing animals for adoption in church bulletins.”

Ms. Gutleben said some churches now include pets in their antipoverty work: “They will host an event for the surrounding community, and provide medical and dental care for people, but also have a veterinarian who will provide free vaccines on church grounds.” At churches like Church of the King, outside New Orleans, which hosts monthly events for pets, hundreds of people will line up to get vaccines.

It would be hard say that helping pets is not a good thing, befitting a religious person. But the justification for helping animals is a source of contention among theologians. Roughly speaking, some Christian thinkers believe animals have intrinsic rights to be treated well, like people. Other thinkers hold to the more traditional teaching that humankind was given dominion over animals, so while people should exercise compassionate stewardship over animals, the animals have no “right” to such treatment. And then others wish to revise our understanding of Christian tradition altogether.

“Animals have always been central to Christianity, as well as all the world’s major religions,” said Laura Hobgood-Oster, who teaches at Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Tex., and is the author of “Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the History of the Christian Tradition.”

One example occurred last month at the Church of the Redeemer in Sayre, Pennsylvania. Northeast Pennsylvania was hit with devastating floods and this church in the Diocese of Bethlehem responded with a pet food drive.

The Church of the Redeemer with Boy Scout Troop 4019 started to collect supplies for the Bradford County ASPCA in Ulster on Wednesday. If you will pardon the pun, they are flooded with displaced pets and are in need of cat litter, kitten chow, canned and dried cat food, canned and dried dog food and cleaning supplies….

…In three and a half days and with a minimum of effort we collected: 501.21 lbs of dry cat food, 44.5 lbs of kitten food, 48 pouches and 259 cans of moist cat food (for the senior felines) and 407 pounds of cat litter. For our canine friends we received 650.5 lbs of the requested Pedigree dry food, 590.5 pounds of other brand dog food, 243 cans of Pedigree moist food, 40 lbs of dog treats, 15 gallons of bleach, bags of bedding and monetary donations of $434.02.

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