What Animals Teach
Me About Forgiveness
by Deborah Straw
Forgiveness has not always been my strong
suit. I come from a long line of grudge holders, and I'm
not proud of it. I am working on becoming more
forgiving, even when people do something totally against
my beliefs or values. I try to understand their
motivations, to become them for a brief time.
One of my mentors, Albert Schweitzer, has this to say
about forgiveness: "... I am obliged to exercise
unlimited forgiveness because, if I did not forgive, I
should be untrue to myself, in that I should thus act as
if I were not guilty in the same ways the other has been
guilty with regard to me. I must forgive the lies
directed against myself, because my own life has been so
many times blotted by lies; I must forgive the
lovelessness, the hatred, the slander, the fraud, the
arrogance which I encounter, since I myself have so
often lacked love, hated, slandered, defrauded, and been
arrogant. I must forgive without noise or fuss."
Many studies and authors report that the ability to
forgive improves health--physical, emotional and
spiritual. People who do not forgive stay blocked and
angry and even can become sick. Forgiveness appears to
be a required part of becoming whole and authentic.
For guidance in how to lead this increasingly complex
and crowded life--in how to treat others, in how to
enjoy myself, in how to relax, and in how to heal -- I
often look to animals. My dogs and cats have always been
my spiritual mentors. I've also learned a lot about
forgiveness from reading or hearing about or watching
non-human creatures. I'll focus here on two especially
intelligent and sensitive species--dogs and
Examples of dogs' forgiveness in the face of being
left, abandoned and even abused, are legend. Here's one
amazing yet not unusual story of canine forgiveness,
"The Secret Life of (Abandoned) Dogs," in an
issue of Best Friends magazine, published by the largest
non-kill shelter in the United States. Francis Battista
recounts the story of Roxie, a black German shepherd,
found sitting by the roadside north of L.A. Beside her
were two cardboard boxes, each containing four puppies.
Roxie had a fractured thigh bone.
The woman who found and rescued them soon placed the
pups in homes, but Roxie posed a more complicated
situation. "She was a submissive wetter and
suffered from gale force level separation anxiety, on
top of being a not-at-all -trained large dog." But
the woman got her a "much-coveted pass" to
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Battista arranged to take
her to Best Friends, but he had to first keep her for a
few days due to foul weather for travel. During that
short time, he became taken with her, and she with him.
Battista already had a wife and 15 other dogs, but what
was one more canine in the pack? Roxie adjusted to all
this company, but she still had a few serious behavioral
problems. She tore the place up when left alone, she sat
on the dining room table, and she sometimes peed on it.
However, the family has worked with her. Roxie is
learning and is clearly ecstatic to have a home.
Although Roxie is grateful for her new home, Battista
continues, "Even though... they left her to live or
die by the side of a highway... Roxie still waits for
them in the quiet of the evening." He says
knowingly of dogs as a species that "Roxie could
never in a million years begin to understand such
betrayal, because it isn't in her. It isn't in any of
Think how often our dogs forgive our leaving them--for hours, for days, sometimes for weeks--with no stated
reason. Even if we leave them in cold, outdoor shelters
with inadequate food or water. We don't know what they
think about where we are and when we'll return, but we
do know they are always genuinely thrilled to see us.
Every time we return. No questions asked.
Another perhaps even more amazing example of
remarkable forgiveness is the story of a former
biomedical laboratory chimpanzee, Billy Jo, who lives in
a retirement sanctuary, Fauna Foundation near Montreal,
Quebec. Chimpanzees, who may live to 60 or 65 years, are
our closet relatives; they share 98.4% of our DNA. They
are like us in so many important ways.
Billy Jo was purchased in 1983 by LEMSIP, the
Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in
Primates at New York University in Tuxedo, New York.
LEMSIP has since closed; Fauna purchased 15 chimpanzees
from this facility in 1997. Two have since died, and two
new primates have joined the community.
Before he lived at LEMSIP, Billy Jo had spent 15
years as an entertainer. During that time, he had his
teeth knocked out. Their teeth are chimpanzees’ main
form of defense, and they become more submissive without
them. Chimpanzees often don't want to do the tricks
demanded of them, so their owners knock their teeth out,
sometimes with a crowbar. In his 14 years in the lab at
LEMSIP, Billy Jo, formerly known only as
Ch-447, was sedated more than 289 times, 65 times by
four or five men surrounding his cage, throwing
tranquilizer darts into his body. The drug they used was
Ketamine, a hallucinogen currently popular on the
Today, Billy Jo, born in 1968, still cannot bear to
have strangers grouped in front of him. When he first
arrived at Fauna, he used to bang on his cage, scream,
rock and stare into space when left alone. Even today,
he sometimes chokes, gags and convulses as a result of
But he is much, much better. He receives kind, loving
attention, good food and stimulating activities at
Fauna. The staff, led by Gloria Grow and Richard Allan,
is absolutely committed to providing a safe, comfortable
home until the chimpanzees die. Billy Jo is now the most
sociable of the apes with humans, and he spends less
time alone in his room. He even sometimes tries to
reassure other chimpanzees who are fighting.
Gloria Grow, who spends up to nine hours a day with
the chimpanzees, realizes how much she has learned from
her extended animal family. "One of the loudest and
clearest messages we have received is that many of these
chimpanzees have learned to love certain humans,"
she tells me.
According to Grow, " They learn to forgive
because they have faith in someone, faith that they will
not be betrayed. This is part of their healing
Why are non-human animals apparently more able to
forgive than we are? One explanation of forgiveness by
Caroline Myss, Ph.D. in her book, Anatomy of the Spirit,
sheds some light on this dynamic.
Myss defines forgiveness as "a complex act of
consciousness, one that liberates the psyche and soul
from the need for personal vengeance and the perception
of oneself as a victim...forgiveness means releasing the
control that the perception of victimhood has over our
psyches. The liberation that forgiveness generates comes
in the transition to a higher state of consciousness--not just in theory, but energetically and
biologically." (Animals, in many ways, exist in a
higher state of consciousness than we do.) Myss
continues, "In fact, the consequence of a genuine
act of forgiveness borders on the miraculous." This
miraculousness is what I witness in animals in their
very being, in their every gesture. They appear to know
things we have forgotten or discarded.
To grasp the powers of forgiving and healing, I just
need look to examples like Roxie and Billy Jo. These and
other non-human creatures remain some of my strongest
influences and teachers.
© Copyright 2003 Deborah Straw.
All Rights Reserved.
Deborah Straw of Burlington, Vermont, has been a
published writer for 25 years. Her first book, Natural
Wonders of the Florida Keys, an ecotourism book, was
published by Country Roads Press/NTC Contemporary
Publishing Group in August 1999. Why is Cancer Killing
Our Pets? How You Can Protect and Treat Your Animal
Companion was published by Healing Arts Press (an
imprint of Inner Traditions International) in November
2000. became the first Straw is also a widely published
essayist and fiction writer, with work in several
anthologies. Besides being a writer, she teaches writing
and literature classes at Community College of Vermont,