Dogs are man's best friend, right? A recent example of this saying occurred in the season finale of the ABC hit drama "Lost," when Vincent, a Labrador retriever, sits down quietly next to the show's hero, Jack, as he is dying. Many fans, however, were bewildered when the loyal pooch didn't appear in the last scene as the entire cast gathers in a church before heading to an eternal hereafter. Perhaps Vincent wasn't there because dogs don't go to heaven? Does anything happen to them (aside from decomposition!) after they die? Perhaps they are reincarnated several times before finding their true purpose (that's what happens in W. Bruce Cameron's novel "A Dog's Purpose," which made a recent appearance on the L.A. Times extended bestsellers list)?
These are questions that Ptolemy Tompkins ponders in "The Divine Life of Animals: One Man’s Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On." Tompkins, son of writer Peter Tompkins ("The Secret Life of Plants"), blends real-life stories of bereaved owners' afterlife experiences wtih beloved pets and extensive research into history and primitive religions to consider some possible answers.
Jacket Copy: In the book, you discuss several incidents that got you thinking about the afterlife of animals, including the death of Angus, a pet dwarf bunny, and Penny, a malnourished dog you met in the Yucatan when you were 12. Was there a specific event that was the source of your inspiration?
Ptolemy Tompkins: I have always been interested in what survives of an animal. Very often the first encounter humans have with death is as a kid when we pick up a wild animal, a wounded baby bird that fell out of a nest or an animal injured on the road. We normally don't see it this close up and focus on its aliveness. We try to take care of it, and then it dies. You had a connection to it and now it's dead. Kids will inevitably wonder and ask: Where did it go?
It's a very small, mundane event that has universal enormity attached to it. A kid looking at this body in a small cardboard shoebox. The complete smallness and humility of the event and the gigantic value attached to it resonated with me. Really big things can come to us in life often in funny little disguises. I had these experiences again and again.
JC: In your research was there ever a moment of epiphany?
PT: When I had the idea of starting a book on this subject I recalled a letter I received when I was an editor at Guideposts and did a piece on pets in heaven. This antiques dealer from upstate New York was taking a walk and came across a dying rabbit and just couldn't walk on. So he sat down with it in the woods and kept it company until it died. I'm not sure why, but I saved that letter because it brought up the question about the proper relationship we should strike with animals. What is is? There's no way to live on Earth without taking the life of other animals. What is their physical existence about? There is something important in the way we look at animals. That's what this man did. He stopped, sat next to the rabbit and acknowledged what it was: a spiritual being.
JC: Was there one religious belief that best supports your theory of the souls of animals living on?
PT: To keep the book simple, I tried to keep things fairly close to the basic principles. It all goes back to primitive religion. There is a basic spiritual perspective that can be found everywhere in the world even before recorded history began: This basic tenet is that all embodied beings are spiritual by nature and all are related. Every living being, every tree, every animal is an embodied spiritual being. It's a perspective you find in every religion.
JC: What can you say to detractors who think it’s a bunch of nonsense?
-- Tompkins' answer and more after the jump --