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Do dogs go to heaven? Pondering 'The Divine Life of Animals'

July 31, 2010 | 10:00 am


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 --

PT: There are basically two responses I get. One is that this way of thinking is preposterous, and the other is "Of course they have souls." I wanted to write a book that shows that this question ("Do animals have souls?"), as silly as it may sound, is enormously important. If we think it's a dumb non-question or that it's a flaky, New Agey or dopey Christian question, there's something wrong with the way we look at life. Somebody who thinks it's a dumb topic is missing a component and not looking at life properly.

JC: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

PT: The world doesn't really need another book about whether or not a child will see Fluffy again. I believe the world needs a serious book on this topic. The real message is that an animal is more than what it appears to be.

I wanted to make it a serious book because it's a serious question. People have a real connection to their pets. What happened to that living thing you thought you knew? Was it just an illusion? It didn't stop being real because the physical body died. It's a feeling you have inside that there is something else still in existence even though you can't see it. A person who picks up this book wants to be told about that. My argument is that you can't think that it's unsophisticated to think about these issues. It's unsophisticated to think an animal is solely a machine and not a spiritual being.

JC: Is there currently a pet in your life?

PT: Yes, a black Schipperke dog named Mercury that I adopted. He kept me company while writing the book, but he died not long after. I buried him in the backyard behind my sister's house with his head facing east. It was painful. Exactly the thing I was writing about. The death of an animal is a small event yet gargantuan in its importance. It's in no way trivial. It gets right to the heart of what life is about.

-- Liesl Bradner

Photo: A cat and puppy up for adoption through the Humane Society, 2008. Credit: Samuel Peebles/Associated Press.